Emotion and Business: a Good or Bad Mix?

"Business is business, you can't be sentimental."

"Business and pleasure don't mix."

"You can't be emotional about business."

People who are not in business have been giving this bad advice to those who are for centuries. The stereotype that these expressions create is that of a dispassionate aloof business owner who is completely logical and calculating.

Read any of many biographies of famous and successful American businessmen and you will find that most of them at the very least were passionate about their work. Henry Flagler is an example of the simple truth: most worthwhile enterprises cannot be accomplished without passion, determination, and devotion. These are not unemotional qualities.

Lee Iacocca, the CEO who saved Chrysler Motors, is considered by many if not most to be a modern American hero. Read his autobiography and you will find that fear, depression, and anxiety are a very real part of business decisions at the highest level.

So, then, what is the proper mix of business and emotion? It seems that the mix should be about the same as with life in general.

  1. Let fear be a "reality check," but do not let it be a crippling emotion.
  2. Accept the fact that there will be disappointments.
  3. At the same time, allow yourself to celebrate the successes.
  4. Devotion and passion are two qualities that will give you an advantage over the competitors who are expending much energy trying to avoid these qualities.
  5. Avoid the destructive emotions:
  1. Avarice

  2. Obsessive fear

  3. Uncontrolled impulsiveness

  4. Paranoia

Consider, how can you be inspiring without enthusiasm?

Managers often try to maintain an aloof persona also devoid of any emotion. This too is wrong.
  1. Being even-tempered and in control is a virtue.
  2. A manager who never shows anger or annoyance is probably some one unwilling to be in control. It is unlikely that there is never a moment of justifiable anger with all customers, employees, suppliers, and government agencies that a manager comes into contact with on a day to day basis.
  3. Consider, how can a manager reward good behavior and discourage bad behavior without emotion?

Dealing with Fear
It is an exaggeration to say that all businesses are only a few days, a few dollars, or a few steps from failure. But it is fair to say that all owners are aware of that nagging specter in the background. Fear is a natural emotion in business. Here are two tools to deal with it:
  1. Sit down and let your negative imagination "run wild." Imagine the worst scenario--all the way up to the point of debtor's prison. After that exercise you will probably realize the next truth.
  2. When I worked for a national accounting firm, my regional director had an interesting saying that I have liked ever since:

    Things are never as good as you think, and they are never as bad as you think. -Jim Essary

Dealing with Embarrassment
I have noticed that the cause of the deepest fear is usually embarrassment. When a businessman cannot pay a bill, for example, or has to cancel an order, or simply needs help, he is usually reluctant to admit it. If you ever find yourself in that predicament, you will be surprised how often you can get help simply by asking. Even large "impersonal" banks and even the "heartless" Internal Revenue Service will usually "cut you some slack" if you talk to them.

There is a place for emotion in business when it is the driving force.