Following Your Head over Your Heart at the Workplace?
This is one of the most common pieces of advice many of us would have received (and given) growing up and in our adult lives, as part of the workforce. Unfortunately, as simple as this bit of advice sounds, it can be that much difficult to exercise, especially in Indian workplaces! If being practical means taking objective and effective decisions, not unduly influenced by emotions and which support the business in the short and long term, employees in India may be faced with challenges in the way they process information. This is worth a discussion here.
Without stereotyping our culture, it would be safe to assume in collective (as opposed to individualistic) cultures such as ours where interpersonal harmony is valued in situations of potential interpersonal conflict over thrashing out a solution through accepting differences in opinion, that ‘being practical’ may be easier said than done. Adding to this cultural context are the modern workplaces in India where Gen X employees, with more traditional and often patriarchal expectations, interact in decision-making situations with Millennials who may be more tuned in to their own opinions and beliefs, leading to potential situations of interpersonal conflicts that one would simply prefer avoiding!
Industrial psychologists who study employee behavior in terms of personality types offer insights into how individuals react in decision-making situations. For instance, type-based theories of personality state that the way an employee responds to a decision-making situation is largely defined by their preference on the Thinking-Feeling dichotomy. While ‘Thinking Judgments’ would be based on objective criteria, ‘Feeling Judgments’ are based on instinct, personal and emotional values. Your decision-making, thus, would be a reflection of your personality preferences, as per such theories of personality.
While the HR fraternity may believe employees are being able to ‘keep their feelings at bay’ when taking professional decisions, employers may have a different point of view and feel this is a key area that needs more attention, such as in L & D initiatives.
How Indians Think: Some Research Insights
Exploratory studies conducted in the areas of decision making, critical thinking, problem solving and prioritizing suggest immediate emotions (those that are experienced during the decision-making situation) or expected emotions (those that are anticipated by the decision-maker in response to an undesirable outcome of their decision) may hinder one’s ability to take the right decision. Pearson TalentLens conducted its own research on how emotions impact higher-order thinking skills such as critical thinking.
For this purpose, TalentLens used Pearson’s RED Model of Critical Thinking as a framework to understand critical thinking and ways to measure it in employees. The RED Model proposes an easy-to-interpret three-step process of critical thinking, consisting of Recognizing assumptions, Evaluating arguments, and Drawing conclusions. Each of these three elements of critical thinking constitutes challenges for the thinker and are fraught with cognitive biases or ‘fallacies of thinking’, besides the role played by emotions at the evaluating argument stage of critical thinking.
Cognitive and/or affective factors have been found to disrupt the process of critical thinking, leading to less than desirable decision-making and problem-solving outcomes. In order to measure these elements, Pearson TalentLens analyzed test data from the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal (W-GCTA), a 40-item online assessment that measures critical thinking skills based on the above three elements of the RED Model, which correspond to three sub tests of the assessment, respectively. The results of this analysis indicated a trend that may be very useful for recruitment and L & D professionals to know, when understanding decision-making in the Indian context. The sub-scale of ‘Evaluate Arguments’ (i.e. “E” of the RED Model) in the W-GCTA has the maximum number of controversial questions. Here, controversial content refers to political, economic, and social issues that are designed to deliberately and frequently provoke emotional responses to test items in this sub test. When the ‘Evaluate Arguments’ sub-test scores of Indian employees were compared across geographies with those of employees from other countries, scores of Indian employees were found to be lower compared to their counterparts elsewhere.
It therefore implies that Indians tend to become emotional while evaluating problem situations and may experience relatively greater challenges in separating their feelings from their decisions. It’s worth noting that the other countries in the research represent individualistic cultures where personal well-being may be valued more over collective well-being, which in turn may lead to more objective evaluation of arguments, unfettered by concerns about the impact of decisions on the group. Multinational workplaces add to the challenge for the Indian worker as interactions with colleagues, managers and clients from other cultures test the limit of higher-order thinking skills such as critical thinking in decision-making situations, all due to cross-cultural differences as indicated by the above trend.
So what’s the solution?
More self-awareness of one’s emotional reactions to decision-making situations and a strong desire to keep the decision-making process sanitized of emotions, to the best possible extent. Also, separating the person presenting thoughts in a discussion from the thoughts themselves — Indian workers may need to be aware of their tendencies to fuse the person and her thoughts to an extent where positive or negative emotions are evoked based on who is speaking in the room.
In general, if we find ourselves getting fired-up (either positively or negatively) about certain issues, this should be a red flag that critical thinking, and therefore decision-making, may be getting compromised. Finally, Indian workers may need to be aware of a common cognitive bias known as Confirmation Bias, which is ‘A form of selective thinking that focuses on evidence that supports what believers already believe while ignoring evidence that refutes their beliefs.’ This bias implies we may always be on the hunt for information that supports what we have framed as a ‘tentative answer’ in the back of our minds, overlooking more critical information that may indicate counter paths. When decisions are taken under the influence of emotions, the decision-maker tends to look for a confirmation of her views, leading to this bias. Organizations today are investing a lot in identifying and on-boarding Critical Thinkers who are ready to take decisions and solve problems objectively. They are also positioning a number of development strategies to help their existing workforce to think better.
A final note: We all need to be more aware of our emotions at the workplace in situations where they will interfere with good decision-making. Our cultural bearings notwithstanding, we ought to be aware if an emotional rush or even an undercurrent of emotion is impeding our ability to think critically. A business problem effectively solved, a decision made well and a strategy crafted successfully – all of these will benefit from thinking critically that comes from following one’s head over one’s heart!