The Reptilian Manager

– By Tom Miller

Research has made clear that humans are not engineered to make decisions based on facts alone. We view the world with our reptilian brain, which really just wants to be assured that there are no life threatening dangers in view and that the world is a safe enough place to root vegetables and catch flies. As ice cream is just a blob of frozen milk to a child without the tandem team of smell and taste, a local government manager confronted with a budget decision faces an impossible dilemma without the joint effort of the cerebral cortex and the limbic, or reptilian, brain. One researcher has reported on Elliot, an unfortunate fellow who had a tumor excised from his prefrontal cortex and when he was invited to set a date for a meeting – though his IQ and cognitive functions were undiminished by the surgery – he was awash with indecision. Elliot had lost all emotion and as a consequence had no marker by which to draw a conclusion.

Whether we know neuroscience or simply recognize how we usually make decisions, most of us are aware that few decisions come strictly from the clean room of our computer brain. Knowing that brain science demonstrates how our cells, neurotransmitters and nerves conspire to eliminate the old prospect that decisions are simply rational calculations absolves us of the need to apologize for being other than completely data driven managers. 

For example, when the numbers are in from a survey of resident perspectives about community services and amenities, let’s not pretend that the crunched numbers can be fed into a formula that reveals where the jurisdiction should head next.  Rather than pretend that manager decisions are made strictly by the numbers and that emotion should play no part in the power of data, perhaps the first question a manager should ask of his survey data is not “does it make sense?” but “does it feel right?” And then, “What in the results am I drawn to, what resonates, what pulls me in and what repels?” Humans uniquely are able to think about their feelings, so good decisions are made when feelings are understood. Once the survey “feel” is established, then it’s time to ask why particular results evoke those feelings and only then to do the math on possible actions moving forward.

Let’s say your survey results show that the public thinks your police need help; you have budget numbers that permit hiring more officers, a crime rate that is on the rise and a police chief who is urging financial support. The data all point to one rational conclusion. But perhaps something doesn’t feel right about those results. They make your hands sweat and your heart accelerate. When you think about it, you realize that your feeling may be motivated by a council member or advocacy group that opposes broadening police presence in town or a recent episode of police misconduct that makes this a bad time to expand the force. Powerful as data are for professional managers, those managers must acknowledge – without needing forgiveness – that the decisions they make will be informed by emotions, too. The chief just might have to wait.

This article previously appeared in Perspectives by NRC, published by ICMA.

Related Articles