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 an imbalanced power structure.  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 leaders 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. Dozens of trust/engagement surveys reinforce the fact that principals and profits are aligned. Forbes reported that employees functioning in high trust organizations were 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

No longer theory, this also isn’t rocket science.  Research shows how governance, culture and leadership influence behavior and impact performance. Performance 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  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 essentially act 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 inclusion of mindfulness programs into some corporate cultures, I’m concerned that the intention to introduce these programs not be used to combat, but not change, the burden of overwork.

Mindfulness is a tool to build emotional intelligence not a corollary of the learning.  In a use and discard culture, mindfulness training can be misunderstood to as just another tool that can be downloaded and applied as a quick fix.

Still Asking the Wrong Questions

More than 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  care and time to introduce EI learning to any person, group or organization, but realistically, any serious commitment to change behavior, whether it be in the workplace or outside of it, is not a short-term process.

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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