Personal Development

Drama at Work? Understanding Irrational Decision Making Will Help

Irrationality is built into your brain.

Man making a decision he didn't mean to
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

My husband thinks it’s irrational that I do the dishes before I make a meal. In his opinion washing dishes should wait until after I’ve finished cooking and can wash them all in one go.

But I disagree. I think that he is being irrational.

Here’s the thing about irrational decision making… it is highly subjective.

Have you ever made a decision that made sense to you but that you can’t explain to other people? For me, the order in which I do the dishes is just the logical thing to do (please tell me someone agrees with me?).

But I can’t tell you why…

Here’s another example. Have you finished a bag of Doritos even though you’re full and you’re trying to make healthy choices? That’s irrational… but completely normal.

I hate to think that I’m not logical 100% of the time. I get deeply offended when my husband asks “why did you do that” and I realize that I have no explanation for it. I like to believe that I’m always rational. I bet you do too.

The structure of our brain can explain our irrational decisions

Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash

Our brains are wired to make us irrational. We have several different parts of the brain that have evolved over the years of evolution. In the middle section of our brain, we have an area called the limbic brain. It was developed millions of years ago and contains our emotional and behavioural center. These include our memory and the fight-or-flight response.

Wrapped around the outside of the limbic brain is the neocortex. It’s the newest area of the brain (evolutionarily speaking) and contains our frontal lobes. The frontal lobes are responsible for the reasoning and logical processes that help us make decisions. This area develops until you are approximately 25 years old.

The limbic brain and the neocortex work together to help us explain the world around us. Although you probably think that your logical frontal lobe is making all the decisions on its own, it is interacting with the limbic brain for every decision. They are interdependent.

Here is how your brain makes decisions:

  1. You have a decision to make 
  2. Your limbic brain responds creating a subtle emotional response 
  3. The emotion is communicated to the logical frontal lobe
  4. Your frontal lobe justifies the decision that your emotional brain has just made using its handy-dandy logic.

Where you think that you’ve got all this logic and reasoning behind a decision, actually what’s happened is your emotions have kicked in and made a decision for you. In response, your logical brain rationalizes by saying “OK well these are the reasons that you obviously made that choice.” Logic does not come first.

And the interesting thing is that you can only justify your decision using information that you have available to you. So if you have very limited information to help rationalize your logic, your decision will feel much more irrational.

For example, I know that it is irrational for me to eat dessert before I eat dinner if I want to live a healthy lifestyle. Obviously, I won’t eat my vegetables if I stuffed my face with a KitKat Chunky (no shame) before sitting down for dinner. And I know logically that vegetables are important for me to stay healthy. The data that I have collected about my health serves as the logical information that my frontal lobes uses for reasoning.

The timing that I do the dishes though has no rational data to prove my point… it just feels better and my emotions help me to make that decision.

Interesting, hey?

Irrational decisions are often rooted in loss avoidance

Another motivator to your brain is that you will make irrational decisions (that feel oh so rational) to avoid losing something. Humans will do a lot to hold on to what we have and will do less for potential gain.

In a research study participants were given a hypothetical scenario and asked what they would do. In this scenario, they are very sick and have the opportunity for an experimental new surgery to cure them. In one case the participants were told they had a 90% chance of surviving the surgery. On the other, they were told they had a 10% chance of dying from the surgery. After being provided with the information they were asked if they would like to have the surgery. Numerically speaking, these two scenarios show the same amount of risk. But the study participants were more likely to elect for the surgery when they were told they had a 90% chance of surviving. When the surgery risk was phrased as a loss people ran from it. Logic didn’t matter, but the emotional experience of loss made a difference. After thinking about the question, I realized I would make the same illogical decision.

Everyone has a different amount of loss avoidance. My risk avoidance is higher than my husband’s so he’s more likely to make “irrational decisions”. My emotional/risk avoidant limbic brain will tell me not to take the risk, but his quieter limbic brain and will allow him to go for it.

Stress hijacks your rationality

One of the things that factor into irrational decision making in the workplace is stress. Since your limbic brain is the emotional center, it responds to stress by helping you to fight or flight. This response limits communication with the frontal lobe (which is less important in an emergency). Since the connection to your logical brain is limited you are more likely to be irrational in a stressful conversation. And that usually makes you feel more stressed.

Workplaces are riddled with stressors such as workplace politics, high stakes, and lack of trust in the culture.

The hardest part about irrationality in the workplace is that you can’t control it.

It’s unpredictable and you are left to manage the irrationality of the people around you. As if managing your own irrational decision making isn’t enough already.

Developing awareness of your own irrationality helps you to notice it in others as well. Here are some signs that you may be thinking irrationally:

  • feeling anxious — sweaty palms, flushed skin, a little flutter in the heart rate, muscle tension.
  • unable to track the direction of your thoughts. Bouncing around from one thought to another without a particular direction or intention.
  • People are looking at you like you’re crazy… (Sometimes this just means that your peers/boss is crazy. And that’s okay too)

How do you tell people that they are being irrational?

There are several strategies to help you to maintain your composure (even though it’s tough) when you’re handling people who are being irrational.

Step 1: Stay patient.

Understand that people who are making irrational decisions have limited access to their frontal lobes. They’re not thinking logically…. they’re driven by emotions. It’s important to keep that in mind when you’re communicating with them. If they are in a highly emotional state already you don’t want to attack that emotional state and make it all worse. Being patient, non-judgemental and listening is critical.

Step 2: Allow people to communicate their decision-making process to you.

Try to understand the big picture of the factors that are causing an emotional response. Just because you think they are being irrational does not mean they are being irrational. Give them space to explain.

Step 3: Decide if this is a hill that you actually need to die on.

Does this irrational decision impact you? Does it impact the goals of your workplace? In a lot of cases, it doesn’t. If our goal is a clean kitchen, it doesn’t make a difference if I do the dishes first or last. It’s not really a hill that our marriage need’s to die on (although we both start climbing up that hill before we realize that it’s best to climb back down again).

Step 4: Ask lots of questions.

This is not to prove to them that their decision making is irrational, but to understand their reasoning more deeply. A well-timed question may help someone realize that they have missed important factors which may change their decisions.

Communicating with irrational people should not be a win-lose scenario.

Your goal shouldn’t be to “win” the conversation and prove to your peer/boss that they’re making irrational decisions. The goal should be to get on the same side of the table as them and understand how the decisions they’re making were made. Then you can ensure the decisions are having a positive effect on the goals of your team. It’s not a competition. You are not there to win. You’re there to understand and to make sure that you are reaching for the same goals.

Irrationality is built into your brain

It’s a very normal human experience and it’s something that we all deal with every single day. We make irrational decisions even when we think they are rational because to some level all decisions are rooted in emotions. The most important thing to remember is that an irrational decision to one person may be completely rational to another.

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