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How do emotions affect the productive development of business strategy?

It is often thought that strategy development is – and should be – a formal activity, carried out calmly and quietly by senior executives who leave their emotions at the door to concentrate on “the facts”. Yet our close-up study of top management team meetings reveals not only that creating strategy is a highly emotional process, but that expressing emotion is key to successful strategy development!

Research Summary

Using video cameras to capture the process of strategy development by a top management team over several months reveals a wide range of emotional dynamics that occur during strategy meetings. These dynamics – some full of positive emotions, others involving both positive and negative emotions – produce different kinds of strategic conversation that in turn influence how critical organizational issues are proposed, discussed and evaluated, and whether team members make or postpone decisions about those issues.

When members of a top management team discuss issues with energy, excitement and even some humour, they feel more connected to one another and are able to engage in constructive, collaborative strategy processes in which proposals are thoroughly discussed and decisions made that are widely accepted. In contrast, when those around the table show a lack of empathy for one another, or use intense emotional displays to attack each other’s ideas, individuals disengage from each other and the team loses energy. These kinds of “emotional tugs of war” and the distance they create between team members make it difficult to find common ground, leading to the postponement of decisions or decisions made without full team commitment.

Our study shows that creating business strategy is an emotional process – and that the emotional dynamics of a strategic conversation shape the course it will take and its outcomes. Importantly, when executives express their disagreements with humour or emotions that do not alienate others, strategy teams can explore issues more broadly and deeply, making decisions that integrate different parties’ inputs and that are widely accepted.

Research publication

Read current research. Liu, F. & Maitlis, S. 2014. Emotional dynamics and strategizing processes: A study of strategic conversations in top team meetings. Journal of Management Studies, 51, 202-234.