Your Emotions Can Cost You the Game, Send You to Ukraine

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Emotions are a funny thing. After all, they are, in many ways, what make us human. Love, hate, anger, joy, fear, happiness. Without them, we are nothing but machines. They are what drives us to the heights of achievement and the depths of depravity.

In business, as in life, emotions are a great motivator, but a terrible executor. Essentially, emotions are great at driving you to strive for achievement, but while you are getting there, your emotions can cause great damage.

On Wednesday evening, I went to the USA-Ukraine medal round 2013 Maccabiah ice hockey game in Metulla, Israel. It was a pretty good game, fast moving, good play, a bit rough around the edges. The first period ended with no score. By the end of the second, USA was ahead 2-0. Difficult for the Ukrainians, but hardly something from which a good team cannot recover.

But then something interesting happened. The Ukrainians lost their temper. They became frustrated at their position and started to lash out. Their checks became more violent, they started to cross the edge of "chippy but legitimate" play and into "penalty zone." And so they began to accumulate them. The US had some good 5-on-4 and even 5-on-3 plays (twice, if I recall). And the guys in the penalty box were good players. By midway through the third and final period, the close game began to slip away, as the US accumulated more goals.

Then, twice, the Ukrainians became so enraged that they attacked the other team's players when the play wasn't even on. That led to several more penalties, including a major, 10-minute penalty. It is hard enough to hold off an onslaught of the other team's best players when you are down by 1 player (5-on-4) for 2 minutes; it is brutal for half of the period.

For the crowning glory, the Ukrainian player (assistant captain, I believe) became so upset with the call - from my vantage point, it looked like he was saying, "what do you mean a major penalty for my player? He punched the guy after the play was over, so he shouldn't get anything! This is how we do it back home!" - that he assaulted the official. Number one rule: never ever attack the guy making the rules.

The Ukrainians lost 6-0, but it was clear from the moment they played with, rather than became motivated by, their emotions, that it was a lost cause.

It is very easy for we humans to plan, respond or react with our emotions in business. On the negative side, we react to recalcitrant customers, prospects who don't bother returning our calls, or employees who stubbornly insist on doing things their own way. On the positive side, we quickly jump on a deal that looks too good to be true, fall in love with that perfect deal that makes our numbers for the quarter but is outside of our ideal customer criteria or requires "just one special treatment," enter a high when closing a round of funding. All of these events cause us to want to respond in a certain way.

It is crucial that all people, especially executive leadership, think through each response, each decision, each reaction, rather than letting our emotions take control. There are two very simple methods that dramatically reduce the risks:

  • Take a deep breath. The more excited/upset you are, the longer the breath should be. It should last long enough to wear down the initial positive or negative rush. Go watch a sports game; write some code; read a classical novel; have 2 beers; do anything that distracts the mind so the emotions calm.
  • Ask your sounding board. At every level of business, you should have a sounding board, someone with little to no vested emotional interest. They are your best anchor.

We should never turn into robots; we are humans, and we should be motivated by and enjoy the benefits of our emotions, but we need to ensure that our decisions are in our best short-term and long-term interests. Otherwise, we are the lost 6-0 Ukrainian team.