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Linking Emotional Intelligence to Neuroscience

“I don’t go in for any of that fluffy stuff at work. Feelings should be kept at home and kept out of work,” declared Steven, the head of Information Technology in Projects at a large well-known software organisation.

This was the first thing to come out of Steven’s mouth as Neil sat down to conduct a pre-arranged 360 degree Emotional Intelligence coaching session with him, arranged by Steven’s Manager.  Steven had made both his intentions clear and his feelings known about Emotional Intelligence.

The irony was not lost on Neil, at least he had something to work with.  Steven, a self-professed ‘facts, figures and stats’ kind of guy, was only interested in concrete concepts and ideas proven that have a dependency of outcome.  Unfortunately for Steven, and anyone else involved with human beings, the outcome you’d like isn’t always what you get when you deal with people on a day-to-day basis.

In its purest form, Emotional Intelligence as a concept has been around for thousands of years.  Plato articulated concepts such as these in his writings. More recently, Howard Gardner mentioned it in 1983 when he first conceptualised ‘multiple intelligences’.  The concept was further popularised in the early 1990s by John Mayer and Peter Salovey, who later went on to form the MSCEIT Emotional intelligence test. Daniel Goleman’s 1995 seminal book Emotional Intelligence: Why it matters more than IQ really put EI on the map and into our consciousness, so to speak.

Steven was about to sit down to have his one on one debrief of the Genos Emotional Intelligence 360 degree report.  Understandably, his nerves were on high alert as his brain grappled with the concept of the large threat looming in the debrief of this report.  Steven had been receiving several complaints per month from his staff and peers.  Complaints ranged from bullying to aggression, to overly unrealistic demands and rudeness, among others things.  Little wonder that Steven was feeling more than threatened by the concept of this coaching session.

Neil understood that Steven’s stance masked a deeper inner concern: What would his staff , his peers, and his manager say about him, and what would the impact be? Were they engaged or were they disengaged?  Suddenly, it mattered.

There is a wealth of literature linking high employee engagement and positive emotions among employees defining high performance workplaces. Steven was about to find out a little more about his team.

This is a common conundrum facing any coach, HR Manager, Manager, Team Leader, or Supervisor who has ever had to sit down and ‘coach’ someone through the impact of a 360 degree (mostly anonymous) feedback survey.  Naturally, the brain heads toward an automatic threat response in this kind of situation.  Having some understanding of neuroscience, as well as emotional intelligence, helped Neil.

Neil chose the Genos model of EI, a popular Australian based EI tool because it comes with a raft of research and a wealth of helpful tools.  The Genos model focuses on seven key ‘skill areas’ of emotional intelligence, as it looks upon emotional intelligence as a ‘learnable’ skill, rather than a fixed narrative.  This is useful in several ways, particularly for those that eschew populist ‘consultant speak’ or ‘psycho-babble’.  It’s based on science and some pretty solid research. Being able to back it further with some simple, irrefutable brain-based facts can be even more helpful for the coach or the manager. For example, our brains core motivation underlying all behaviour and brain processing is to minimize threat and maximize reward. This motivation helps us to decide what is significant at any point in time and the brain is more highly tuned to detecting threat than reward.  Given the natural tendency toward actively minimizing threat, Steven’s position was understandable, from both a neuroscience and an emotional intelligence perspective.

Emotional Self Awareness and the Neuroscience of Mood

Emotional Self Awareness is the skill of perceiving and understanding one’s own emotions.  Knowing that stimuli that comes into our brain first is processed unconsciously and can activate one of six key emotions. This then comes into our conscious attention, and we begin to experience feelings that follow on from the emotions and thoughts. All of this happens in the space of about .5 of a second. Genos define this skill, when conducted effectively, as ‘being present’ rather than ‘being disconnected’.  Neil took the approach that by improving Steven’s emotional health at work the engagement of those he worked with would also improve.  He asked Steven to consider what kind of benefits would this bring to his own practice.

Steven was also asked about some typical interactions with those team members he found more difficult to engage with.  His response was that he worked harder to get ‘rid’ of those by being more ruthlessly efficient with their questions and their time, so he didn’t have to be around them as much as others.  He admitted that typical behaviour included ‘multi-tasking’, continuing to answer emails and type responses whilst having one-on-one conversations with his team members at his desk.  Not only did Steven not see the impossibility of being truly ‘present’ in these situations, he couldn’t see how his behaviour was making everything worse, as those he didn’t feel he ‘engaged’ with unconsciously knew that and felt a heightened sense of threat when dealing with Steven.

This heightened threat response (or fear, as it might better be articulated) has many implications.  Fear activates the amygdala, an area in the brain that releases the transmitter glutamate, which in turn activates other regions in the brain stem and hypothalamus.  In effect, this kicks off the stress-response cascade. The release of cortisol into the bloodstream has a widespread impact on the system.

Cortisol helps the body fight the threat of immediate stress by releasing and redistributing energy to critical parts of the body, like the heart, and away from non-critical parts of the body, like the digestive system. According to Andy Habermacher, one of Europe’s leading speakers on neuroleadership, it will also immediately take away resources from the body’s immune system.  Over time, the combined result of too much cortisol in the system is increased stress, fatigue, lower productivity and effectiveness, and the subsequent effects of all this strain.

Helping Steven to understand this basic biology of engagement would help him to lead his people better, reduce their threat response, make them think more clearly and effectively had a powerful effect on him. This emotional intelligence stuff really does work.

This is but one brief example of how understanding both neuroscience and emotional intelligence can be complimentary tools for effectively managing engagement and those that believe that EI is all based in black magic and hoo ha!




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