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Leadership | Oct 11

What is emotional intelligence?

Leadership | Oct 11

Emotional intelligence, or EQ, is a particularly useful element in a leader’s toolbox. Utilising it effectively can significantly boost team productivity.

Reading Time 9 minutes

The essence of emotional intelligence is your capacity to recognise the emotional state that you or another person is in, and then manage the emotions appropriately.

Why is EQ so important for managers?

  • They perform better and have better conflict resolution skills.
  • With their enhanced interpersonal and communication skills, they build stronger long-term relationships, both within their own teams and with external clients/customers.
  • They manage stress better and have healthier staff.
  • Emotional intelligence is also important for resilience and making logical, ethical decisions.

‘Emotional intelligence is the habitual practice of using emotional information from ourselves or other people, integrating this with our thinking, using these to inform our decision making to help us get what we want from the immediate situation, and from life in general.’

Tim Sparrow and Amanda Knight
Centre for Applied Emotional Intelligence

Daniel Goleman and emotional intelligence

If there’s one management thinker you need to know about in this area, it’s Harvard graduate and author Daniel Goleman. He is frequently referenced as the father of the concept of emotional intelligence in the workplace, building on the work of Drs Salovey and Mayer who first explored the idea of ‘EI’ in 1990.

Goleman’s core proposition is that we can use our intelligence to manage our emotions and use our emotions to guide our thinking. He thought that those with more EQ were more likely to be successful in senior management.

Goleman says that the cornerstones of EQ are self-awareness, self-regulation, and social awareness. The ultimate goal of employing emotional intelligence is effective relationship management, whether that’s the relationship with yourself or other people.

Goleman’s model suggests there are two routes to managing our relationships effectively, and it always starts from a place of self-awareness:

  1. self-awareness: we are aware of our emotions, know how we’re feeling, and can clearly express ourselves.
  2. self-management: we can use our self-awareness to take appropriate action and manage our emotional state (often called self-regulation).
  3. social awareness: we use our empathy to understand how other people are feeling and respond to their emotional state.
  4. relationship management: we can take our emotions and the emotions of others and positively manage and influence social interactions.

Self-awareness: how emotions work

Emotions come and go all day, every day, in response to the things happening around us. They cannot be controlled, and sometimes that can feel annoying – why is your brain insisting on feeling sad when you’re trying to concentrate?!

However, the important thing to remember about emotions is that they always have a positive intent: they are a vital communication system from our body telling us what we need and motivating us to act. They help keep us safe, encourage us to seek out and foster connection with other humans, and ask for help.

For example, a key area of the brain responsible for emotions is the amygdala, part of the so-called ‘reptilian brain’ near the brain stem. It’s responsible for the fight-flight-freeze response in response to danger or stress. It operates so fast that you often don’t even realise it’s at work: when you see something out of the corner of your eye and instinctively jump sideways – that’s the amygdala. In our modern world, the amygdala is also triggered in response to everyday stress. Many people with anxiety disorders, such as PTSD, have an over-vigilant amygdala, but therapeutic interventions can help retrain it.

Meanwhile, the cerebral cortex – a key feature of primate brains – is responsible for higher order thinking and information processing, including managing emotions, and logical decision-making (in contrast to the rigid, automatic, emotional decision-making happening in the amygdala).

When the amygdala is triggered, it takes over, making it a lot harder to access your cerebral cortex, to make reasoned decisions, and manage your behaviour. Part of the skill of emotional intelligence is getting these two parts of the brain to work together.

Studies have also shown that emotions can be contagious. Even if we don’t mean to pass it on, humans unconsciously mimic others’ expressions and body language, which can cause a mood to spread through a group. So, if you’re in a bad mood, you could spread it around your team too.

Identifying feelings

The essence of emotional intelligence is being able to identify what you are feeling, what you need and be able to take an appropriate action in response. Managers must make these sorts of calculations every day. Many of us have grown up in environments where expressing emotions was discouraged, meaning it can be hard to tap into our true needs and feelings. However, becoming out of touch with our emotions robs us of the opportunity to act with emotional intelligence and can contribute to mental health problems such as depression.

Struggle to identify your emotions?

Step one of cultivating emotional intelligence is having an awareness of the emotions you’re feeling. Therapists will often direct clients to a so-called feelings wheel to help them develop more emotional literacy. In the centre are several overarching, core emotions (happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, etc). Each layer of the fan splits these into more nuanced aspects of this core feeling. For example, if you’re feeling angry, you could be feeling humiliated, frustrated, or numb – all very different types of anger.

When a feeling arises, practise trying to name it as specifically as you can, using the wheel to help you, and note the physical sensations in your body (such as tense muscles, a weight in your chest, etc) that accompany it.

Self-management (also called self-regulation)

We cannot choose our emotions, but we always have a choice about how to react to them – part of emotional intelligence is about taking control of that choice and acting on our emotions in a healthy way. Applying self-regulation can be as simple as thinking before you act.

We’ve learned that emotions occur automatically in response to our environments. If you can deduce what your brain is trying to tell you about your environment, you can override what might be your automatic, unhelpful response and instead act in a way that meets your needs, which you might not even be aware of. You can then train yourself to respond to situations in a more helpful way.

For example, a manager might notice feeling frustrated at a colleague who is gossiping loudly while you’re trying to concentrate. Your anger is telling you that something is not right and this needs to stop. Your instinctive reaction might be to aggressively tell them off. However, the negative consequences of this for your future relationship are obvious. Instead, you can practise assertiveness, calmly, empathetically, and politely explain that you need some quiet if you’re going to meet your deadline.

Cultivating your self-awareness helps you recognise what you are feeling and what it feels like. By understanding the functions of our emotions, you can uncover what your body is telling you that you need. You can then ensure that you are acting on the emotion in a helpful way, which may not be your instinctive reaction.

What am I feeling?What does it feel like?What could it be trying to tell me?Potential instinctive reactionWhat could I do instead?
AngryTense muscles Wanting to yellSomeone crossed my boundaries or is taking advantage of me. Someone abused their power at another person’s expense. Something violates my values. This needs to stop. I need justice; self-respect; boundaries; protection.Shout Get violent or aggressive Act passive-aggressivelyBe assertive; set and maintain clear boundaries Forgive (after multiple repair attempts) Remove obstacles to my goal
SadHeavy feeling in the chest Wanting to crySomething valuable is lost. I need comfort; compassion; healing.Isolate yourself Ignore the feeling Shut down and go numbMourn loss Seek out and receive comfort Accept reality/limitations (after ample time)
FearfulTense muscles Wanting to hideI am in danger; there is a threat. I am facing a great challenge. I need safety; security; clarity; assurance; hopeAvoid the situation, for example by procrastinating Isolate yourselfConnect with others Identify safe spaces Engage, not avoid Accept our limitations and ask for help
HappyRelaxedThis is good! I am valuable. I am connected; this person is worth staying close to. I need this validation; connection; consistency; creativity; exploration Do more of the same Foster relationships; extend love and share with others Celebrate the good Create something; try new things.

How do you turn emotional states around?

Unsurprisingly, there’s a strong correlation between feeling good and performing well – it’s hard to perform well when you’re feeling anxious or frustrated. But what if there was a way to turn your mood around?

Besides seeking to meet your body’s needs, there are a few other useful techniques you can try:

  • Mindfulness: try a breathing exercise to relax yourself – when you breathe out, your heart rate slows slightly, which helps you relax. If a thought comes up, don’t engage with it, simply notice it, and go back to your breathing. Remember this is something that takes a bit of practice, but research has shown that it’s effective.
  • Amygdala hijack? Reactivate the thinking areas of your brain by engaging it in something as simple as counting the number of red objects around you or counting backwards from ten in another language.
  • Sad? It’s cheesy, but science says the act of smiling tricks the brain into releasing feel-good chemicals. Plus, remember moods are contagious – socialising or checking in with an upbeat friend or colleague could help lift your mood.

Social awareness, or empathy

‘Social awareness’ is the ability to accurately notice and read the emotions of others – in other words, empathy, being able to intuit how someone else is thinking and feeling. This is actually another job performed by the amygdala.

Empathy helps build trust and a more positive working environment, which in turn engenders more creativity and efficiency. Empathy is also an effective tool when managing the psychological barriers around change.

How can you improve it? Once you are proficient at reading your own emotions, it will be a lot easier to recognise them in others too. Beyond that, the best way to develop your empathy is to practise. Listen actively to your team in your everyday interactions and be genuinely interested in understanding their points of view.

How to boost your team’s EQ

You may want to develop the emotional intelligence of your team too. Here are some quick tips:

  • cultivate a psychologically safe environment where everyone can talk about feelings in safety.
  • encourage conversations about how emotions impact us.
  • lead by example and role model important behaviours for your team to emulate.
  • coach others in empathy and reiterate to your team that empathy can be developed.
  • encourage your team to listen without judgment and challenge them to think about common ground rather than differences.
  • spend time with each other to help learn about everyone’s different points of view.

This article was originally published on the CMI website here.

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