A term that has been around since the 1930’s and popularised by Goleman in the 1990’s it seems we are stuck with the idea of emotional intelligence as an indicator of how we operate. It has become the number 1 tool for executive recruiters and a bandied about term that often I find is mimic rather than reality, theoretical rather than practical.
Breaking it down, the intelligence part of EI, really is about knowing appropriateness and understanding social norms within a culture, rather than bringing an intelligence to bear on our emotions. Really, both words are operating from different parts of the brain after all.
Our Neomammalian brain, or neocortex is, according to Triune brain theory, the most recent evolutionary step in mammals and is responsible for language, abstraction, planning, logic and learning. Given intelligence is mostly attributed to the ability learn logical things like language, then is could be argued that the neocortex brain is where intelligence lies.
The Limbic brain, which sits underneath the neocortex is attributed to where our emotions dwell. The limbic brain is the seat of the value judgments that we make, often unconsciously, that exert such a strong influence on our behaviour, and influences our decisions. In fact even with what we believe are logical decisions, the very point of choice is arguably always based on emotion. Common decisions may use some logic, but the main driving force is emotion, which either overrides logic or uses a pseudo-logic to support emotional choices – like: I chose the red car because they go faster.
So if we look at these two parts of the brain together, it would seem that they are initially at loggerheads. Emotions are something that happens to us much more than something we decide to make happen (or so we think) and there is nothing logical about them. It’s true that the parts of our brain do not operate in isolation, so our logic can be bought in to regulate. However our brains have evolved in such a way that they have far more connections running from our emotional systems to our cortex than the other way around, so from my take on it, Emotional Intelligence is about developing and engaging the connections from our cortex to our emotional systems. This way we are able to become aware of our emotions and begin to develop appropriate responses.
In my opinion the culture we have been developing in some work environments is more of emotional restraint rather than intelligence. It would seem to me, ironically, that Emotional Intelligence is thought of very highly as long as emotions are actually kept under control! This was definitely my experience in work places. It was not OK to be emotional. When I felt angry because I was being bullied, I had to take it on the chin and wear it. If I was feeling joyful and wanting to celebrate some fantastic outcome of hard work I had to do so with demure and devoid of passion. It was not about developing real relationships with others; it was about conforming and not rocking the boat.
I am not saying that I don’t believe there is a place for EI, I do – and in work places it is needed in spades. I just want to make sure that there is a distinction between real EI and EI that is being manipulated to support a dysfunctional culture in an organisation. We are all still babes in the woods when it comes to dealing with strong emotion, our own as well as others.
So, what do I actually think EI is, and where does it belong?
According to Daniel Goleman, the five components of EI at work are:
See http://hbr.org/2004/01/what-makes-a-leader for more information.
The keys to me here are points 1 & 4. Self awareness brings an understanding of how I operate in the world, what drives me and what my triggers are. It brings with it the inherent understanding that it begins with how I am with myself, inside to outside. Inner first, outer follows. Empathy allows me the ability to recognise those triggers and drivers in others. This sets me up for real relationship, for real understanding.
My hope is that we can focus on developing more of these attributes and works towards being OK with allowing real emotion to be seen – mine and yours.