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 an organization have it?  A Harvard Business Review Magazine article by 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 experience 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 he offers some helpful guidelines to boost EI learning, this underlying premise is certainly no ringing endorsement for EI in the workplace. It takes however, reinforce that introducing EI to any team or organization takes care, commitment and time.  That’s certainly true, I’d argue for any serious commitment to change behavior, whether it be in the workplace or outside of it.

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.

Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants
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  1. As usual, Louise, you offer wonderful insight, rising above the usual advocacy/criticism to offer a meta-view of the challenges.
    Your analysis resonates with my experience around the quality movement in the 90’s, and I also see it in the employee engagement movement. People ask many of the same doubting questions and despite the evidence, many organizations do not see the benefits of change.
    In the old days when I would do presentations on driving fear out of the workplace, a common (pretty crazy) question was “What’s the ROI?” “How much fear do I have to drive out in order to get X financial return?” In such situations, I learned to ask the asker who he (always he) needed that information for, and it was universally, “My boss — I can’t justify such an initiative if I can’t show the profit.” That would be, of course, very short-term profit. When I ask the questioner whether he personally needed the question to be answered in such strict, dollar-measurable terms, the typical response was “No, I don’t need it. I understand exactly what you are talking about.”
    In essence, we have the same culture now as then, structurally very similar in terms of beliefs, except where the leaders’ own awareness of EI is already pretty developed. For the rest, the traditional culture, like a deep groove, invites people back again and again to the past and their own inauthenticity.
    What will help? I believe your notion of asking better question is on target, and I also believe in the longer term, it means starting from scratch to reassemble organizations and what we mean by them. If the organization is only viewed as a profit center, we’ll all be trapped in the same old system. If it’s reconceptualized as an enterprise community, well, there may be hope!
    Thanks for another exceptional piece!
    All the best

    • Hi Dan~
      Thanks so much for your generous comments. Sadly, I agree – we do have the same culture now as then. Emotional intelligence (defining it in the broadest terms from my perspective) requires deep, refined, critical thought – system wide. As I continue to do this work, I see EI more systemically – indivually and collectively. “starting from scratch and reassembling is an apt metaphor” for how I see the process. More people though, want to tweak at the edges as I mentioned in the piece. Just give me a taste of the truth~
      The ROI mindset is a real barrier to bringing the kind of work we do into any system – effectively – which is the long term. Unfortunately, I don’t see that much change here. On the other hand, I do perceive a greater understanding that things could be better (or have to get better) if we are going to keep people engaged. Disengagement seems to be getting through a bit. I also have found that the connection to neuroscience is helping provide people with a deeper appreciation for the complexity of human dynamics.
      I take heart though knowing there are wonderful thinkers and practitioners (like you) out there breaking new ground everyday. There’s a wonderful quote by Michael Beckwith that often comes to mind in these discussions, “the pain pushes until the vision pulls.”

  2. philipp68 says:

    Hi Louise,
    Brilliant article. Some month ago I finished my Yoga teacher training. I never thought I would actually teach. Then, the other day in the office, I volunteered to take over one of our corporate Yoga classes.
    What I’m trying to do is helping getting my colleagues “out of their head and into their body” (so they can go back into their head feeling more grounded). It’s challenging, but I learn a lot how to do this without scaring them away with too much esoteric or philosophical talking.
    Thanks for sharing,

    • Hi!
      So pleased you liked the artcile – doodle inspiration? It’s always amazing to me how much mainstream culture accepts the separation of mind and body. It’s counter intuitive – don’t you think? We exercise (some obsessively) watch our diets and attend to our physical appearance carefully. Yet, the connection between the body and mind often seems lost. The tyranny of the intellect. Yoga is a wonderful journey back in – it really changed my life and helped me to shift to a more balanced being. Unfortunately, people also allow themselves to get hooked on associations popular culture makes between meditation, religion and practices like yoga. While the sacred traditions should be respected, they should also not present a barrier to the benefits of the practice. A lot of this is just fear. I believe there is a lot of fear of really being with and in the body. For most people, the mind feels much safer (controllable).
      Keep doing your wonderful work and staying in touch.
      My best,

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