Emotional Intelligence ~ 20 Years On ~ Part 2

Continuing the conversation started in Part 1 of this article – several key questions keep surfacing.  One is the often unspoken tension between EI (Emotional Intelligence) and what is typically thought of as “therapy.” For anyone who has been involved in a therapeutic process, it’s immediately clear that learning and applying EI principles is very different from being “in therapy.”
Resistance to EI practice in work settings often comes from those who erroneously assume that any discussion of “feelings” is akin to the therapeutic relationship. As any practitioner of EI will attest, there are limits and boundaries for “safe discussions” about feelings in the workplace. Sometimes it’s a slippery slope. It takes a skilled practitioner preparation and close care to stay within guidelines for what is respectful, comfortable and acceptable within workplace settings.
Having a sense of safety is a deeply personal and universal need that often makes talking about feelings within the workplace, especially with colleagues and supervisors, challenging. I’ve discovered that without enough trust within a workplace or group, EI “training” can raise unresolved, even buried feelings and disagreements. While it is possible to create a safe context for even difficult feelings to be aired, many organizations are wary to do so.  Every EI learning experience should be preceded by a thorough discussion of goals, expectations and future steps to allow the development process to evolve.
Organizational aversion to emotions reflects the larger cultural aversion to feelings.  Addressing collective cultural fears, Miriam Greenspan, author of Healing through the Dark Emotions, says, We’ve mastered the internal regulation processes of emotion-phobia. Ours is a dissociative culture-a culture that separates body from mind, body from spirit, and feeling from thinking. This kind of dissociation is a special requirement of masculinity in patriarchy.”
 Ms. Greenspan’s comments surfaces another interesting layer of the resistance to bringing EI learning into many organizations – men are often the decision-makers at more senior levels.  While the patriarchal mindset often has more to do with power than gender, most EI practitioners would likely agree that receptivity is greater among women.  Greenspan points out, Both men and women are impaired in different ways, by our culture’s disability in relation to emotion and emotional communication. Emotional vitality and authenticity, a mature sense of emotional wholeness and freedom-these human capacities are hard to come by in a culture that doesn’t honor the body and the heart.”

Successful Application of EI Practices Must be Built on Trust

What are the barriers to open expression of emotional learning in most institutional systems?  In Part 1 I shared my assumption that any organization committed to EI learning and widespread application must be willing to act as an “open system.” Too often people are asked to open up and share their thoughts and feelings in systems they believe are inauthentic and closed.
Some EI practitioners have asked whether deep EI practices can flourish in systems that are rigidly hierarchical.  It’s an important question that often gets to the heart of assumptions and behavior in authoritarian-based relationships and structures.  The engine that runs these systems is often based on fear – and most EI advocates would agree that fear is antithetical to EI learning and practice. Because so many managers still mistake compliance for engagement, EI can sometimes be seen as a solution for lack of cooperation or enthusiasm among employees.
Organizational and leadership trust levels have been on the decline for years, registering an even greater decline after the 2008 Great Disruption/Financial Meltdown.  Dozens of trust/engagement surveys reinforce the fact that principals and profits are aligned.  A Forbes articles reported that:

  • Employees functioning in high trust organizations are 22 times more likely to take a beneficial risk – which, in turn, enables 8 times the levels of innovation as compared to the competition
  • When it comes to loyalty, 92% of employees of businesses based on values and trust plan to be working for their company in a year, compared to 46% of those in strict top-down organizations. 98% would recommend their values and trust-based company to a friend vs. just 33% at strict top-down organizations.

No longer theory, this also isn’t rocket science. As the Forbes article stated, the research shows how governance, culture and leadership influence behavior and impact performance.
Performance (a word I try to avoid) is behavior. It is the end product of the thoughts and feelings that aggregate into a culture. EI learning goes to the heart of behavioral change.  Any substantive EI program and process will engage all three levels – thought, emotion and behavior to support employees to build a culture that reinforces these principles – daily.

EI – Minds without Bodies?

One of the most important lessons I have learned since I began studying EI has been to get out of head and into my body.  Body awareness is typically low in most corporate audiences – and it’s essential to any real EI learning.
In Descartes’ Error, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio writes eloquently about the embodied mind.  In the book he presents the “somatic markers hypothesis,” which posits that it isn’t only the mind that thinks. Damasio stresses the crucial role of feeling in every personal decision, “the intuitive signals that guide us in these moments literally come in the form of limbic-derived surges from the viscera.” Damasio refers to these as “somatic markers.”
Without awareness of this “whole brain/body” data we operate, in essence, cut off from stored and spontaneous information that is vital not only to our decision-making, but to our well-being.   When stressed, the entire body is engaged.  While some EI learning models offer cognitive strategies (such as to decrease emotional triggers) few offer a comprehensive understanding of how we can learn to use our bodies, in concert with our minds, to disengage and alleviate stress triggers.
Unfortunately most workplace cultures still require us to ignore the needs of our bodies. Long hours, not enough breaks, lack of access to the outdoors, endless sitting and increasing work loads and demands conspire to reinforce the mind-body split. Most EI learning does not sufficiently deal with these conflicts. I’ve facilitated many EI programs and team meetings in dreary, windowless rooms with heavily distracted workers who wonder why they are so chronically stressed.
The body-as-a-vehicle-to-get-things-done model cannot advance a comprehensive EI learning experience. While I am encouraged by the mainstreaming of mindfulness into some corporate cultures, I’m concerned that the intention to introduce these programs not be solely based on the bottom line. In a recent article in Wired, author Noah Schactman, exclaims, “Meditation and mindfulness are the new rage in Silicon Valley. And it’s not just about inner peace – it’s about getting ahead.”
While a regular practice of meditation and mindfulness practices can reach deeply into our bodies and minds, it offers no guarantee that emotional awareness and agility will follow. Schactman’s article points out that “the technology community of Northern California wants return on investment in meditation.”  According to Kenneth Folk, a meditation teacher in San Francisco, “All the woo-woo mystical stuff, that’s really retrograde. The is all about training the brain and stirring up the chemical soup.” As far I can tell, neither Mr. Schactman or Mr. Folk know what’s in the “chemical soup” but the promise of ROI expediency seems irresistible.
Mindfulness is a tool to build emotional intelligence not a corollary of the learning.  In a use and discard culture, mindfulness training is just another tool that can be downloaded and applied to get whatever is needed to make the deal. It’s a cold and cynical view of an ancient practice that must enter sacred territory to succeed – the body and the mind.
In my work, the essence of EI  is  emotional freedom. I know that many managers are attracted to competencies like Emotional “Regulation” (ah, at last we can train them to control themselves) but the heart of EI must be internal truth-telling.  Too often, leaders expect that EI learning will get employees to “comply” and engage even in cultures that do not support emotional honesty.

Still Asking the Wrong Questions

Twenty years on, some of the questions people ask about emotional intelligence still surprise me.  Is it really useful for business?   Should all levels of the organization have it?  Recently, Harvard Business Review  author Tomas Chammoro-Premuzic asked, “Can You Really Improve Your Emotional Intelligence?  Fortunately, the author is not challenging  the well – established data that shows that EQ can be significantly improved, unlike IQ, but concludes that because of the influences of childhood experiences and genetics, “realistically, long – term improvements will require a great deal of dedication and guidance.” 

Chammorro-Premuzic believes that although “everyone can change, few people are willing to try.”  While the article offers some helpful guidelines to boost EI learning, this underlying premise is not exactly a ringing endorsement for EI in the workplace.  It does however, reinforce that introducing EI to any team or organization takes care, committment and time. 

As we move forward into the future of EI in the workplace, we need to begin asking different questions. These questions should be premised on something deeper than the bottom line. What do people need to come alive through their work? What kind of culture is needed to create an atmosphere of emotional safety and courage? What are the beliefs that hold us back from changing – personally and collectively?

Emotions are deep and complex. The cold, hard calculus of business demands short-term solutions and quick-fixes. Practitioners can’t install  EI nor can they provide the “deliverables” without  a change in the mindset of business culture.   Yes, you can improve your emotional intelligence. No, you cannot do it in a day or even a week. Yes, it’s really useful, even essential for every business, in every industry. When we stop asking the wrong questions, we’ll know we’re making progress.  

Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.
Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
Join our mailing list and receive our monthly newsletter and occasional mailings!

Related Articles ~ Why Do So Many People in the Workplace Believe Self-Development is Therapy? There is Nothing “Soft” about Soft SkillsWhy Business Can’t Afford to Ignore Psychology for Another Hundred Years