Monday, December 10, 2012

A rational approach doesn't work for leaders

I am an engineer. We engineers like to solve problems, and we are trained to go about this in a certain way. We are trained to identify the problem, analyze it, and provide an unbiased solution.

In The Secret Language of Leadership, Stephen Denning refers to this rational approach as the western intellectual tradition. He explains that folowing this approach can create problems for leaders who are trying to persuade others to change.

What is wrong with a rational approach?

Nothing is wrong with a purely rational approach if you are an engineer doing what engineers do best: solving problems.

On the other hand, this approach can be a real problem for you if you are trying to persuade someone to change their mind. Going back to the Triune Brain Theory, the rational approach is not inspiring because it only appeals to your human brain.


It is a great way to go about problem solving and scientific research, but there are a few key problems if you use this approach to lead change:
  • It is not memorable.
  • It is not emotional.
  • It does not drive a change in behavior.
You are asking someone to change their mind without first asking them to change what is in their heart. This approach can even lead to an entrenched response in opposition of change, due to a psychological phenomenon called confirmation bias.

What is the western intellectual tradition?

The western intellectual tradition is rooted in French philosopher RenĂ© Descartes' concepts of rationalism and dualism. Descartes argued that reason alone determined knowledge, and that this could be done independently of the senses. He thought the mind and the body were completely separate. To him, the mind was an immaterial “thinking thing,” the essence of which was cool conscious reasoning untainted by base physical influence.

In the book Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, Antonio Damasio says that Descartes could not have been more wrong. Through his research, Damasio demonstrates that emotions are essential to rational thinking.


If a rational approach isn't effective, then how do you drive an emotional response?