Decision Making is Like Chopping Wood

The Woodcutter’s Story

Simon was a diligent son, but not that bright.  Eventually his mother became exasperated with him lying around the house and urged him to get a job.  Now Simon was good at one thing:  chopping down trees.  So, off he went, his axe over his shoulder, in search of work.

Soon he came upon a clearing in which logging was being carried out.  (Readers of a nervous disposition should be reassured that this logging was a fully sustainable and environmentally ethical operation.) He marched up to the supervisor and asked if there was any work available.  “Well it depends how good you are.  Chop down that tree and I’ll see.” Simon enthusiastically set about the task and completed it to the supervisor’s satisfaction. “You’re hired.  Start right away”, he said.

And Simon started work, applying himself with a commendable zeal.  It was Monday afternoon, and the day soon passed.  As did the following few days. On Friday afternoon, Simon happened to see the supervisor.  “I’m glad I’ve found you” the supervisor said.  “Please collect your cards and leave, your services are no longer wanted.”

Simon was flabbergasted!  “How come?  I am your most productive worker.  And now you’re rewarding me by sacking me!” “Well, it’s true you were the most productive worker on Tuesday.  But by Thursday you had sunk to the least productive.  And you’re doing even less well today.” “But I start early and finish last.  I work through lunch.  I spend all my time chopping down your trees.”

“I agree”, replied the supervisor, “but how much time do you spend sharpening your axe?”


What is equivalent to sharpening the axe in your business? Management team and high potential employees choosing to pursue professional development through honing emotional intelligence (EQ) competencies. EQ is the unique intersection of heart and head—the outcome of which is effective use of feelings to enhance thought.

When EQ becomes a priority in an organization, good things happen. Consider:

  • In one study, experienced partners with high EQ in a multinational firm delivered $1.2 million more profitfrom their accounts — 139% — over their cohorts.
  • A study of manufacturing supervisors given EI training saw a reduction of 50% in lost-time accidents, 20% in formal grievances, and plant productivity goals exceededby $250,000.
  • In a cross-cultural study of senior executives, EI competencies outweighed both IQ and experience in top performers.

Superior performance is driven by strong decision making. Strong decision making is a physiological factor of: 1.) competency, preceded by 2.) behavior, preceded by 3.) cognition, preceded by emotional intelligence. EQ is a body of personal characteristics and social abilities that are closely tied to success in both our professional and personal lives. Dan Goleman, quoted in the Harvard Business Review, said, “Emotional intelligence isn’t a luxury tool you can dispense with in tough times. It’s a basic tool that, deployed with finesse, is the key to professional success.”

The tool is comprised of five core competencies: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation (these three comprising the intrapersonal self), empathy and social skills (the latter two representing interpersonal acumen.) Think about bright, skillful people in your organization who are passed over for leadership and/or despised by subordinates. Chances are, these individuals are deficient in at least one of the EQ competencies.

EQ can be learned. What we try to do with clients is identify a small group to work with initially–usually direct reports to the president or high potential leaders. These are assessed individually for their relative emotional intelligence “scores.” The scores lead to individualized professional development plans (“axe sharpening”.) Mentoring occurs during which hypothetical scenarios are discussed in periodic sessions. The hypothetical gives way to the mentees bringing real life situations to discuss. With the mentor’s help, the mentees learn how to process decisions better. Over time, the team gels as its members learn how to “say hard things in soft ways,” and use feelings as an asset rather than a liability. When the team becomes high functioning in this manner, superior performance is likely its traveling partner!


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