How Emotional Intelligence Can Power Better Decision-Making

Emotional Intelligence for Sports Coaches & Athletes

Several years ago, an article on decision-making and hockey went viral because it turned a core piece of hockey strategy on its head.

Emotional Intelligence Can Help Athletes in Sports

In hockey, when you’re losing by a goal or more, you traditionally pull your goalie out from the goal at the 2-minute mark. It’s a trade-off. You bolster your offense, but you leave the goal unattended (giving the other team a better chance to score and widen their lead).

The paper went viral because it showed that the 2-minute mark was a convention founded more on emotion than logic. Statistically, they showed that a team down by one goal should pull their goalie with about 6 minutes left and a team down by 2 goals should pull their goalie with about 12 minutes left. The reason coaches didn’t do so was because the odds of losing badly also increased. In other words, coaches decided not to take the statistically correct risk because they fear how owners, fans, and players might respond if they lost by a greater margin.

  1. How Emotions Affect Decisions
  2. How Emotional Intelligence (EQ) Can Help
  3. A Step-by-Step Guide to the Emotional Side of Decision-Making
  4. From Insights to Action: An EQ Checklist for Your Next Decision

1. How Emotions Affect Decisions

Emotions drive decisions all the time. Studies that show if you enjoy your college experience, you’re much more likely to donate, the stock markets change with the weather around the world, and pitchers hit more batters on hot days.

The point here isn’t to say that emotions always hurt decision-making. That’s just not true. Anxiety about a risk can help you avoid something needless or even harmful—whether it’s gambling, driving too fast, or blurting out whatever’s on your mind in a meeting.

The point is that you can’t leave emotions out of the equation when making a decision. That’s not possible. The best thing you can do is learn to tune into your emotions; not tune them out.

2. How Emotional Intelligence (EQ) Can Help

Your ability to recognize, understand, and manage your emotions is the foundation of emotional intelligence. When it comes to making decisions, EQ skills can help you see how your emotions affect your decisions and manage them accordingly.

With practice, EQ skills help you increase the number of times that emotions work in your favor as you make decisions and decrease the number of times they get in your way.

At TalentSmartEQ, our research has shown just how crucial EQ skills are to decision-making. We collected a sample of 716 leaders in virtually every kind of organization, from hospitals to banks and churches to casinos. Measuring these leaders with the 360o Refined leadership assessment, we discovered that nearly 70% of those leaders rated highly in EQ by their peers, direct reports, and board members also ranked among the most skilled decision makers. In contrast, guess how many of those with a poor grasp of their own emotions ranked among the top echelon of decision makers? Zero. In fact, 69% of leaders evaluated to have low EQ also ranked in the bottom 15% of decision makers.

3. A Step-by-Step Guide to the Emotional Side of Decision-Making

Regardless of where you might fall on a 360 Refined assessment of your own, the good news is that EQ can be improved with practice. What follows is a step-by-step guide for how to leverage emotional intelligence to make better decisions.

Step 1: Delay, delay, delay.

There are times when acting immediately is the most effective thing you can do. Usually this is a fight or flight situation—to duck when an object flies toward your head or to swerve out of the way of a suddenly braking car. Time is of the essence in these situations, so you act on instinct.

But for most decisions, slowing down gives you time to strike a balance between your emotions and rational thought. You experience things emotionally then rationally (in that order), so delaying is quite literally how you think rationally.

In Korea, a policy around divorce found that delaying decisions can save marriages. When couples were forced to have a six-month “cooling off” period between filing for divorce and the actual proceedings, 5% of divorces never went through. As emotions simmered down, couples realized that they still wanted to stay together.

While of course you won’t always have six months, the idea is the same. Time allows you to process emotions and think things through rationally. Delay the best you can for your situation. That might mean a 6-second pause to take a deep breath, a 30-minute walk, or a good night’s sleep.

Step 2: Identify the emotional side of your decision.

Now that you’ve bought yourself some time, take a moment to ask yourself this question: “How is the decision I’m faced with affecting the way I feel?” As you sift through your feelings, try to get granular.

If you’re overwhelmed or you can’t figure out exactly what you’re feeling, go a bit broader. Ask yourself if you’re feeling positive or negative, good or bad. To what extent? Then get more specific from there. Try to start from the middle of the wheel below. Work your way out as far as you can.

decision making

Source: Wiki Commons:

Whatever you do, don’t try to be the person who suppresses your emotions thinking this will make you a rational, decision-making powerhouse. Research shows that this approach backfires and causes you to feel more intensely.

Step 3: Rethink feelings that are getting in your way.

The fancy term is “reappraisal,” and it works something like this:

  • If you’re leaving a difficult test feeling anxious about your results, thinking I messed that up, you might say to yourself, It’s just a test.
  • Looking at your spouse’s bloody wound, you might think, This is too much. To reappraise, you might adopt the mindset of a doctor. Your thinking becomes, I’ve seen this, or, I’ve got this.

The idea of reappraisal is simple yet impactful as you try to make a decision. Often, by imagining you’re the person best suited for the situation (like a doctor for a wound), you can capture the right mindset for the situation. The hockey coach, for example, might overcome his fear of the reactions of owners, fans, and players by adopting the mindset of a mathematician. This sounds almost too good to be true, but the concept is backed by research showing that reappraisal is one of the most powerful ways to manage your emotions. The difficult thing is to use this approach in real time.

Step 4: Revisit your values.

The founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, makes more unusual decisions than most: He discontinued the customization of Patagonia fleeces at a number of Fortune 500 companies because of their environmental impact; Instead of encouraging people to buy more Patagonia clothing, he offered to repair people’s clothing for free and even to help them resell their old Patagonia clothing if it no longer fit; Beginning in the 70s, he gave both maternity and paternity leave, and he built an in-office daycare that emphasized education; When the waves are good, he expects that his employees to leave and go surf.

These kinds of decisions were never tough for Chouinard to make. That’s because he sees those decisions as an extension of his core company value: “At Patagonia, we make our important decisions based on wanting to be here 100 years from now.”

A big piece of emotional intelligence is knowing your values. When confronted with a seemingly tough decision, revisiting your values can make the decision suddenly and almost surprisingly straightforward. Values are like an internal rudder steering us through a life of decisions.

Revisiting your values in this way will also help you to avoid making decisions purely for the approval of others (to please a parent, significant other, friends, boss).

Step 5: Seek out trusted perspectives.  

Perspectives pull you out of your tunnel vision. A hockey coach who is so caught up in what others think might be surprised by the enthusiastic response when he runs the idea by his team captain.

A second perspective will almost always influence the way you see your decision and the emotions surrounding it. Feelings of doubt about a new opportunity can be swept away entirely in one quick conversation with a friend who points out all the previous successes you’ve had that you’re now overlooking.

Step 6: Don’t delay forever.

It’s a classic Rom-Com trope for the main character to sit around nervously deciding how to ask out the person they love. By the time they work up the courage, that person is of course in a new relationship.

This is a trope for a reason. It happens all the time in real life. That’s because emotions can drive delay, and not the good kind. Emotions like fear and anxiety can cause you to avoid action for fear of possibilities (no matter how unlikely they may be). If you’re not careful, your delay can become your decision. Opportunities pass.

Step 7 (Optional): Make a decision about your decision.

Not all decisions are final. A hockey coach can pull his goalie early once, then never try it again. When you take this into account, Step 6 becomes a lot easier. When your decision is not a final one, take time to reevaluate. Do you want to continue in this direction? You will likely need to reconsider Steps 1-6 as you make a decision about your decision.

4. From Insights to Action: An EQ Checklist for Your Next Decision

Next time you’re faced with a decision, work through the checklist below. Incorporate the checklist often enough and it will become your natural, emotionally intelligent approach.

Did you delay? Depending on the situation, take seconds, minutes, a night’s sleep, etc.

  • Did you identify your emotions? If you’re overwhelmed or unsure what you’re feeling, start broad (positive or negative? Good or bad?) and work your way toward the specific.
  • Did you rethink your approach to emotions that are in your way? This might require a bit of mental gymnastics.
  • Did you consider your values?
  • Did you seek outside perspective?
  • Did you make your decision before time became your enemy? Avoid delaying the inevitable.
  • Once your decision was made, did you revisit to decide whether you want to continue in that direction or go back on it?

For more easy-to-implement strategies to improve your EQ, purchase our book Emotional Intelligence 2.0.

To learn more about emotional intelligence training and TalentSmartEQ’s programs and solutions, please visit: or contact TalentSmartEQ at 888-818-SMART.

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