Martyn Drake: Why emotional engagement is crucial

Logic makes you buy the salad; emotion makes you eat the ice cream

I remember using a Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet (yes, it was that long ago) when my wife and I were looking at buying our first house together.

In it, I created a weighted checklist of factors, such as price, access to bus routes, supermarkets, a decent primary school, bedrooms, bathrooms and everything else you can imagine.

It worked well until we walked through the door of a house £30,000 above our price range that just felt like home; at which point we agreed bus routes and price ceilings weren’t that important anyway.

We all like to think we make our decisions rationally, but we’re far more likely to be post-rationalising emotional ones.

I get to observe this a lot with my coaching clients, who will often table an issue on which they’ve been going around in circles.

They know the “rational thing to do”, but for some reason they’re not doing it – something is pulling them in other directions: often subconsciously; invariably emotionally.

Until those tensions are reconciled the issue won’t get resolved, because their emotion will resist taking the steps their logic says they should take, while post-rationalising their own avoidance: “This was more urgent; now is not a great time; it will never work.”

This is the human condition.

Even that bastion of rational thought, Aristotle, in his three rules of rhetoric, outweighed the rational components of an argument (logos) with the emotional ones (pathos and ethos) two to one.

It’s this reality that still sits at the heart of the management guru Peter Drucker’s oft-quoted adage: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” – because on that wider scale, we see the same dynamic when it comes to implementing change.

However strong the case, however compelling the calculus, every day, perfectly logical plans and proposals get twisted and resisted, both consciously and unconsciously, for good reasons and bad, but invariably because our feelings trump our reasoning whether we want them to or not.

Logic makes you buy the salad; emotion makes you eat the ice cream.

Sometimes, for an individual, the emotions turn out to be right, and the realisation, whether “family is more important than work”, or “this isn’t the career I want to pursue any more/this isn’t the person I want to become” – their resolution can be hugely cathartic.

Other times, the rationale succeeds because the person finds an emotional hook to make it worthwhile – they find a salad they really like, come to thrive on the drive for a new personal best, take great satisfaction in having done one thing every day that scared them – whatever the personal payoff may be.

But ultimately this insight into the way we are all wired is essential to grasp, for leadership, for strategy and for the success of our sector.

I’ve seen more strategies and initiatives, witnessed more engagement sessions than I care to mention, and far, far too many are little more than lectures about the logic.

Far too few are emotional experiences that engage at a deeper level.

Because it is not the clarity of your plans, the strength of your arguments or the robustness of your methodology that will create the change you want to see in the world, in your organisation, in yourself.

These are merely the functional essentials – like the TV or the toaster gathering dust in the warehouse of an electrical retailer: just because it works doesn’t mean it will ever get used.

That will only happen if people want it enough to willingly pay the price.

It is the emotional engagement: belief, commitment, conviction, to invest in and of ourselves, that makes things happen, that makes plans come to life, that realises our ambition.

Irrespective of its continually questioned provenance, there is wisdom in the words of the old saying: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

So, the next time you’re creating a coalition, setting out a strategy, or simply pitching a proposal, start with feelings: what do you want people to feel, what do they need to believe, what convictions do you need to create.

That’s your ideal home – all the rest is a disposable checklist.

Martyn Drake is founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting


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