Numbers vs. Emotions

I find it interesting how some mornings, news that might normally pass you by, sticks.

On Radio 4 (UK) this morning, a Government Minister was being interviewed about the uncertain status and progress of local restrictions, and the possibility of a “circuit breaker” lockdown.

It wouldn’t be my favourite subject to be interviewed on, particularly by the quality and relentlessness of radio 4 interviewers, but he got the short straw.

The context. We are into the second phase of a pandemic with no known end, as we go into winter, facing restrictions that many people feel unfair and the looming spectre of high unemployment in a rapidly changing market.

Here’s why the interview stuck. For five minutes, the interviewer probed around people’s feelings of unfairness, reports of potential destitution from another government department, and a whole range of issues that had little to do with logic and everything to do with fear. In response, the Minister spouted numbers. The amount that had been spent, percentages of income, comparisons of spend versus other European countries. I never realised that it might be possible to hear beads of sweat forming on a brow over the radio, but I now believe you can.

The disconnect was huge. It was as though the Minister has been given a long list of numbers, which if he read them out would last the time of the interview and he wouldn’t have to engage with the question. I don’t know whether he got to stick his fingers in his ears as he read them out. It was radio.

It was instructive, and made we realise just how much people in positions of responsbility use numbers as weapons (either of attack of defence) instead of listening, reflecting and responding. We see it at every level, from genuine regrets at redundancy announcements to claims of success of a new intiative.

Numbers are quoted, not impacts.

When it comes to how we think, feel and behave numbers and logic are way down the list. A while ago, Alan Watkins wrote a great book, “Coherence” in which he outlined his research on how our behaviours are generated. There is a neat little graphic:

Results are a function of our behaviours, which in turn are determined by our thinking, which is shaped by how we feel, which is determined by our emotions which is a function of how well we are. Numbers only really enter the game when it gets to thinking, and by then the game is over.

Dealing with the stuff below the waterline is messy and personal. It’s 1:1 communication, even in a crowd. The impact of being made redundant, or having our freedoms curtailed, isn’t made easier by numbers.

If you’re a leader right now, we want to know how you feel. We know you don’t know the answer, and its a hard call. We just want to know you understand the impact of what your decision is. And we don’t want numbers.

We can deal with the rest ourselves.

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