Emotional Intelligence

By: Donald McNaughton

‘Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom’ — Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor

The term emotional intelligence was coined in 1990 in a research paper by two psychology professors, John D. Meyer of UNH and Peter Salovey of Yale.

John D. Meyer defined emotional Intelligence (EI) as the ability to accurately perceive your own and others’ emotions, understand the signals that emotions send about relationships, and manage your own and others’ emotions.

I think all of us periodically come across a photo of ourselves. We think, what was I thinking, there is a hairstyle or outfit choice that at the time we thought was on point, that today we would consider being highly questionable.

I find myself having the same reaction when thinking back to past things I have thought, said, and done, what was I thinking. One of the upsides of aging and maturing is that you can reflect on how your thoughts and actions have evolved.

Early in my career, I tended to say what was on my mind without enough appreciation for how my comments would impact those around me. My remarks were typically not made with malice, so I would justify them as me ‘telling it like it is.’

I credit my colleague Dennis Groves (retired Chairman of Oliver Wight Americas) in helping me appreciate the importance of thinking before you speak and taking a more measured approach to communicating a message, likely increasing the effectiveness of that message. Dennis helped me come to this realization by exhibiting these behaviors himself; he led by example. I realize now that Dennis has high emotional intelligence, having the ability to work with and observe Dennis had an immeasurable impact on my behavior. I am deeply appreciative.

On the opposite spectrum from Dennis was my late colleague Rick Burris, who was a fun and fiery character with tons of experience and wisdom to share. Rick would say, ‘it is not just about being right; it is about being effective.’ Rick’s point was that you could get so focused on insisting that your concept, method, solution, or definition is technically correct that you can limit your ability to help the organization or person you are attempting to help. Pick your battles.

I use the wisdom that Dennis and Rick shared with me every day; I remind myself, think before you speak, take a measured approach when communicating and remember that it not only about being right, but it is also about being effective.

EI is a sought-after soft skill and multifaceted; let us explore further.

Organizations are facing a growing soft skills gap. A recent study found that 89% of executives reported difficulty recruiting candidates with the requisite soft skills, including emotional intelligence.

A fascinating side note is that the year that Mayer and Salovey coined the term emotional intelligence (1990) was the same year functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was invented. This invention made it possible for the first time to see what was happening in the brain while it was in action, enabling endless research possibilities into human behavior.

In 1998 almost a decade after the term emotional intelligence was coined, Rutgers psychologist Daniel Goleman establish the importance of emotional intelligence to business leadership in his Harvard Business Review article, ‘What Makes a Leader.’

In the article ‘What Makes a Leader’ Daniel Goleman states ‘The most effective leaders are alike in one crucial way: they all have a high degree of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence. It is not that IQ and technical skills are irrelevant. They do matter, but they are the entry-level requirements for executive positions. My research and other recent studies clearly show that emotional intelligence is the sine qua non [an essential condition; something necessary] of leadership. Without it, a person can have the best training in the world, an intelligent, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but they still won’t make a great leader.’

There are two levels of emotional intelligence: general traits and specific behaviors. Traits are a person’s inherent disposition or tendency to be empathetic and social and to notice and regulate their own emotions. Behaviors are these dispositions translated into action — Daniel Goleman calls these competencies.

There are many models of emotional intelligence; Goleman defines EI as having four domains: self-awareness (knowing yourself), self-management (how you behave), social awareness (knowing others), and relationship management (how others behave). Nested within the four domains are the twelve El competencies.

Self-awareness (knowing yourself) lies at the heart of EI. Emotional self-awareness is your ability to understand your emotions and their effect on your performance. Realizing how your feelings affect you and knowing how well you are doing at any point in time.

Self-management (how you behave) is the ability to exhibit emotional self-control, keeping your disruptive emotions and impulses in check, maintaining your effectiveness under stressful conditions, having a positive outlook, seeing the potential (glass half full), achieving what you set out to accomplish while adapting well to change.

Social awareness (knowing others) is the ability to empathize with others. You can sense what others are feeling and how they see things. You have an active interest in others, and you can pick up cues (you sense unspoken emotions). You also exhibit organizational awareness. You can read a group’s emotional current; you foster relationships, know who the influencers are, network, and know the dynamics that matter when it comes to decision-making.

Relationship management (how others behave) is the ability to influence others. You have a positive impact on others, and you can persuade them and gain their support (build buy-in with critical people). You inspire others and foster teamwork while being a coach and mentor to help people succeed. You also can manage conflict by working through challenges and developing solutions that everybody can endorse.

Studies have found a strong association between EI and the ability to drive change and be a visionary person. To excel, you need to develop a balance of strengths across the EI four domains and twelve competencies. When you do that, excellent results typically follow.

To improve your emotional intelligence, review your perception of your traits and behaviors against the four domains and twelve competencies; this can give you an initial sense of where your development opportunities are. However, doing 360-degree assessments, which incorporate systematic, anonymous observations of your behavior by people you frequently interact with, is an important input. This first step will give you a view of how your self-perception (how you see yourself) differs from your reputation (how others see you).

The output from the assessment will inform the competencies you need to improve. This knowledge, however, will not be enough to drive sustainable behavior change. EI is so tied up in your sense of self that being intrinsically motivated is a vital ingredient to changing your longstanding habits. The competencies you choose to improve should lie at the intersection of the feedback you received from the assessment and your aspirations. You need to clearly define your goals, such as taking on a leadership position, being a better team member, exerting a more significant positive influence, better managing yourself, etc. Understanding the impact that your current EI habits have on your ability to achieve your goals will provide the impetus to make and sustain the competency improvements you have identified.

With the EI competencies that you want to improve identified, the next step is to identify the specific actions that you will take. For example, I am working on being a better listener. In my excitement to respond to a person I am talking to, I tend to interrupt the person instead of letting them complete what they are saying and then respond. I use a simple technique that I learned from an interview I saw with Mark Cuban. Mark was describing the best advice he had ever received. He told the story of how one of his first bosses said to him, ‘Mark, I want you to do one thing for me, whenever you are in a meeting, I want you to write at the top of your notepad, listen, you are great Mark, but you need to listen to what people are saying.’ I have not conquered my bad habit of interrupting people, but I am actively working on it.

The key is to identify the specific actions you will take to improve the competencies that are most impactful in enabling you to achieve your goals. Then look for every opportunity to put these actions into practice.

You are training your brain to react differently in common situations; the principle of neuroplasticity has taught us that as a given brain circuit gets used more often, the connections within it become stronger.

At first, these actions take a conscious effort. Still, as the new pathways in your brain strengthen, the new behavior will become more accessible and more habitual, eventually kicking in automatically, without you having to make a special effort. When this happens, it means that the new behavior has become a habit and has become your brain’s default circuit.

Through his neuroimaging research studies, Professor Anthony Jack from Case Western Reserve University describes two of the major neural networks functioning in our brains: the analytic network (AN) and the empathic network (EN). The AN helps us solve problems and make decisions through abstract and analytical thinking. The EN allows us to scan the environment and be open to new ideas and other people.

Interestingly these two networks suppress each other; when one network is activated, the other is deactivated.

Both the AN and EN involve cognitive activity; both involve fast and slow thinking, both involve reason. However, the AN reasoning is more about information and analysis, and the EN reasoning is more about people and qualitative observations. We all toggle between these two networks in a fraction of a second. It turns out that how effectively we cycle back and forth between these networks depends in part on our self-awareness, deliberate practice, and conscious intent.

It is not that one network is good and the other is bad, or that you must choose one over the other; you need both. However, to maximize your effectiveness, you do need to learn to be more aware of which network is activated at any given time and improve your ability to toggle between the two, as necessary.

Like most things in life, to improve, you need to practice. You can practice your analytic network (AN) by scheduling a specific window of time during which you complete an analytical task. You can practice your empathic network (EN) by having a conversation where your sole purpose is to understand the other person, not solve their problem or give advice, understand them. You can practice toggling between your AN and EN by challenging yourself to consider the opposing network in a situation; for example, when making an analytical decision, think about the potential implication of the decision on people.

Emotional intelligence is a sought-after skill because it is an essential ingredient in achieving excellent results, whether that success is organizational or interpersonal.

‘75% of careers are derailed for reasons related to emotional competencies, including the inability to handle interpersonal problems; unsatisfactory team leadership during times of difficulty or conflict; or inability to adapt to change or elicit trust.’  — The Center for Creative Leadership