Subscribe to Entrepreneur for $5

How to Harness Your Emotions

You can't always control your reactions, but you can use them to help you make the right decisions.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

We all know that first impressions are extremely important when meeting people. Equally important are your first reactions in new situations. When was the last time you spent any time thinking about the quality of those reactions?

I'm talking here about your instantaneous, knee-jerk emotional reflexes--the kind you form in a second or less. These reactions are extremely powerful for two reasons: They come from the core of your being, and they leave a lasting impression.

For example, I built my business on several principles, one of which was extreme attention to tracking our results and improving our ability to bid on loan portfolios and collect on them. One day it came to my attention that some people were padding their results, potentially throwing off our predictive model. I went ballistic. I won't bore you with all the details, but suffice it to say that I invented new expletives on the spot, in front of many people.

Sure, I was right about explaining in no uncertain terms that cheating would not be tolerated, but in my zeal to deal with the bad apples, I overreacted and shocked even the good employees. Instead, I should have followed four key steps I have since developed for improving the quality of business decisions:

  1. Know your reflexes. If you're like me, you have many reflexes. Some of them might tell you that you've seen something before or that something will take a long time to figure out. Sometimes your reflex tells you that the person who wrote what you're reading is an idiot. Identifying these reactions will help you notice how frequently you experience them and ultimately how accurate they are.
  2. Gauge your reactions. Once you're aware of your reflexes, take note of the ones that light up the next time you get new information. In my business career of 40 years and counting, I've been in numerous situations where I was told something couldn't be done. To me, those are fighting words, and my immediate reflex is to want to prove that person wrong. I've learned to take a moment and first determine if it can't truly physically be done--in which case I'll move on--or if it's doable, but no one's pulled it off--yet. Even if I could pull it off, I guard against accepting a time-consuming dare just to prove myself again.
  3. Early on, be especially careful what you say. If you take a quick verbal stand on an issue, it means your mouth has taken a position before your brain had a chance to weigh the matter. Now, not only are you saddled with the issue at hand, but also with the desire to exhibit consistency. It's best to let the matter play out in your head even for just one minute longer before you let the world know what you think.
  4. Temper your pattern-recognition reflex. Jerome Groopman is a distinguished doctor and professor at Harvard Medical School. In his book, How Doctors Think, Dr. Groopman explains that many highly experienced doctors fall into the trap of premature diagnosis because they've seen similar symptoms before, they know the previous outcome and they're pressed for time. Experienced entrepreneurs are no different. When the matter is complex, slow down and think twice about shoe-horning today's challenge into the solution you used last year.

In the fast lane of business, the smart entrepreneur distinguishes between reflexes and thorough evaluation. You may find it hard to change your reflexes, but you'll get the best results when you mentally step back to observe and stress-test them. Then, when you make your decisions and commitments, you'll be better able to judge how solid your basis is for making them. When it comes to making sound business decisions, you don't need to take a course or study a textbook; all you need are two simple words--know thyself.

Entrepreneur Editors' Picks