Right Brain or Left Brain—Which Makes You a Better Manager?

Learn how to find balance between your brain hemispheres

Early in my engineering career, I never questioned whether I should use facts vs feelings for decision-making. Throughout the majority of my career, two “truths” were implied. Actually, these weren’t just implied — they were stated as fact: 

  1. Feelings are bad as in: “There’s no place for feelings at work.” 
  2. Facts are good as in: “Just the facts, please.”

Facts suited my logical, analytical, left brain thinking. I and my engineering colleagues lamented “political” decisions meaning decisions that weren’t entirely based on fact but rather factored in situational issues. The prevailing opinion among us technical folks was that anything other than logic was “bad.” We’d shake our heads in disbelief. “What were they thinking?” But as I moved into increasingly responsible management roles, there were fewer definitive “facts,” more facts were really opinions in sheep’s clothing, and more ambiguous situations. 

Today, having interviewed dozens of leaders in technical organizations and having held leadership positions myself, I realize that neither truism is true. Feelings aren’t bad and while facts are good, facts aren’t the only consideration. We need a new truth: Effective leadership balances fact and feeling, head and heart, right brain and left brain.

As decisions become more complex and include more human engagement, this new truth is essential. And good managers embody it. For example, when my peers and I briefed senior decision-makers, the discussion followed a pattern. First, they reviewed the factual basis of the issue but discussion didn’t end there. Next, the debate moved on to perceptions of those impacted by the decision. How would stakeholders feel about the decision? Would the decision cause consternationfrustration, or backlash? Would the decision instill supporttrust, and confidence? Notice that these words are emotive. Leaders understand that even factual arguments can be torpedoed in the presence of strong emotional response. Consistently, leaders balanced fact and feel to find the optimal decision. Steve Dilts of HNTB says: 

Effective leadership is about balance. What I have found in engineers is this strong left brain, analytical, organizational, fact-based pattern. It stands to reason that the right brain, the emotional side, the ability to connect, to emote, to be empathetic, to be open to new ideas, is a is a powerful way to balance. You need both. I think the industry needs more heart to match the head

Let’s say you buy into the new truth about balance. How do you create that balance? 

Consider your management role. You seek movement: a decision, an action, a commitment, an investment, or a supportive word. You want someone to move. What causes movement in another person? In Latin, “emovere” means “to move” and is the root of the word “emotion.” To create movement, we must harness the power of emotion which is a right brain experience. To do so, you must first jettison the outdated notion that feelings are bad. Feelings are, instead, one half of the formula to create movement. It’s not either fact or feel. It’s both fact and feel. You need to consciously think about both parts of the formula.

Left brain: What are the facts? What is the data? Where does rational, thoughtful, problem-solving lead? (There are deeper questions you should ask to guard against bias. Learn more here

Right brain: Who are the people involved in or impacted by the decision? What are their current feelings about the situation? What feelings are likely to be produced by this decision? If negative, what is the impact of that negative reaction on the situation? What decision would create a positive reaction? Why? 

Iterate: Now you have data from both parts of the formula. With all information at hand, iterate the decision. Are there reasonable accommodations that can be made, supported by facts, that enhance the reaction? Are there new ways to frame data to address the emotional concerns? Do you need different data that speak to human concerns? 

What decision best integrates information from both left and right sides of the brain to create the movement you seek? To enhance your management skills, embrace and vocalize the new truth: Effective leadership balances fact and feeling, head and heart, right brain and left brain.

Catching up: What do experts say are the attributes of a good manager?

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