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What Have We Learned from 20 Years of Emotional Intelligence ~ Pt.2

February 12, 2014


Continuing the conversation started in Part 1 – 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 in work settings often comes from those who believe that any discussion of “feelings” is akin to the therapeutic relationship.  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 surface another interesting layer of the resistance to bringing EI learning into many organizations – men are often the decision-makers at more senior levels.  Many EI practitioners would 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 integration 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. Fear of exposure, isolation and even retaliation are common (and often logical) deterrents.

Some EI practitioners still wonder if 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 EI advocates would agree that fear is antithetical to the open expression of feelings.  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 principles and profits are aligned.  Forbes 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.

EI – Minds without Bodies?

One of the most important lessons I have learned since I began studying EI has been to get out of my 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 ease 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 can benefit both body and mind, it offers no guarantee that emotional awareness  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.

Neither EI or mindfulness are  simply “mind” training.” They are  part of a body-mind integration process that is essential for any real, sustainable change to occur.

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.”  The author does reinforce what any experienced EI professional will advise –  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. The questions need to be based 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

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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

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 13, 2014 10:47 pm

    In my experience many man in leadership positions, incl. myself, often feel shame when hurting people in the process of reaching for almost impossible business goals. Yet instead of opening up to our own vulnerability, we hide behind a mask of professionalism. Great article! Thank you Louise.

    • February 15, 2014 11:07 am

      Hi Philipp

      The core question is how and why – what is the motivation for these behaviors. Learning, conditioning, early trauma, enabling cultures, personal shame that finds outlet in shaming others – but behind all of it is fear. So much information that is emerging from neuroscience shows that the threat response – the defense and reaction to fear – is responsible for behaviors that ultimately hurt the doer – and of course those around us. You know from my work that I believe that lack of emotional freedom – in the workplace – and beyond – creates repression and repression from a neurological perspective triggers limbic arousal.
      “Professionalism” is the cognitive strategy to deal with the dissonance that often comes with this behavior.
      You’ve highlighted behavior that is sadly, common is today’s workplace. We won’t get the innovation and creativity from workplaces that don’t recognize this. It’s systemic and personal – and must be addressed as such.
      Best ~

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