Wellness

The Neuroscience of Emotional Intelligence

From all this, it becomes obvious that, based on empirical evidence, the definitions of emotion must be questioned along with current ideas regarding their role in our behavior and our ability to recognize, change and manipulate them.
03/02/2016 03:22pm ET | Updated March 3, 2017

How aware are you of your emotions? Moreover, can you control them or adapt them when you are in the workplace? Perhaps you are the stoic, unflustered employee who deals rationally with every crisis even though you want to punch someone? Or are you the employee who senses a colleague is feeling sad, and you offer a smile and a joke to lift their mood? Alternatively, do you just know what to say to get your team back to full efficiency?

These would be considered the acts of an "emotionally intelligent" employee, and may lead to a future leadership role. But what about the demonstrative employee who wears their heart on their sleeve? Do they just lack discipline?

Is emotional intelligence a sound concept? Is it supported by neuroscientific evidence? If not, what implications does it hold for the expression of emotion in the workplace? Should we listen to the neuroscientists or the psychologists?

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

In 1995 the book, Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ by Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and science reporter, was published, and the core concept fixed itself firmly in the minds of CEOs and Human Resource Officers all over the world.

The idea, in essence, stated that emotional intelligence, or EQ as it became known (an abbreviation of Emotional Quotient), was a more accurate predictor of success in life than a person's Intelligence Quotient (IQ). This theory may not have been accepted by everyone, but a high EQ increasingly became a prerequisite in hiring or promoting organizational leaders, AND it was believed that it was a skill that could be developed or taught.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize and control your emotions and behavior while remaining aware of the effect that these have on others around you. At the same time, you understand the emotional state of those others and can use this information to adapt your behavior to achieve the most positive response from them. If you hear someone describing a colleague as feeling or acting "like a leader" they are probably referring to someone with a high EQ.

Goleman was not the originator of the idea of emotional intelligence. In some form, the idea has been around since the 1920s when Edward Thorndike named the ability to get along with others as "social intelligence," and the terms emotional intelligence and emotional quotient have been attributed to various people from as early as 1985.

At the heart of the concept of emotional intelligence is the belief that emotions originate in primitive parts of the brain. Because of this, even though emotions can cause instinct-based changes in behavior, the newer parts of the human brain (in evolutionary terms) and the higher functions such as reasoning and decision making that came with them, can override those changes.

This also leads to the idea that because it involves higher functions such as recognition, reason, and decision-making, emotional intelligence is a skill that can be learned and developed.

Emotion versus Feeling versus Reasoning

Psychology-based definitions of emotion, as exemplified in the glossary of psychological terms on the website of the American Psychological Association, generally describe emotion as a complex response to an environmental stimulus. This response includes "physiological arousal, feelings, cognitive processes, and behavioral reactions, made in response to a situation perceived to be personally significant."

Arguably, such definitions rely on a simplified model where instinctive responses, memory, physiological changes, reasoning, and decision-making all occur in discrete areas of the brain and the response passes upward through a defined chain-of-command from lower to higher functions. Thus the commanding officer, the neocortex, can countermand and actions instituted at a lower level.

However, the work of neuroscientists such as Joseph LeDoux and Antonio Damasio, aided by ever-improving technology to observe, record, and analyze brain function, has provided evidence that effectively throws a spanner into such neatly-wrapped definitions.

Evidence such as:
• Structures running from the "primitive" brain to the "reasoning" brain are larger and sturdier than the structures creating pathways in the other direction. The opposite would be expected if the reasoning brain was the primary player in the process.
• LeDoux discovered that emotional responses such as fear do not travel through a single pathway in the brain. In fact, two entirely separate routes are activated.
• Emotions and the associated responses do not occur in discrete parts of the brain. Each element activates several areas of the brain.
• Damasio's work shows that emotions and feelings, not the same thing; they are entirely different processes, and often the emotional activation of the brain is over by the time conscious recognition of the emotion (the "feeling") begins.

Damasio goes as far as to state that to control emotion we need the feeling, the conscious awareness of the emotion, but that many emotional responses occur unconsciously. Effectively, how can we control something by reason when we do not even know it is happening?

Moreover, Damasio argues that rather than higher functions controlling emotions, emotions are essential to higher functions such as decision making. In a video recorded for Fora TV, When Emotions Make Better Decisions, to illustrate this, he discusses how patients who have lost the ability to remember emotional responses can still manipulate data and factual information, for example, when attempting to decide on a restaurant to go to. They will endlessly examine the data but cannot make a decision because there is no emotional component such as a previous good or bad experience to incorporate into the information.

Implications for Leadership Training
From all this, it becomes obvious that, based on empirical evidence, the definitions of emotion must be questioned along with current ideas regarding their role in our behavior and our ability to recognize, change and manipulate them.

There may even be consequences for our ideas regarding what is and is not appropriate in the workplace. Is the usually stoic, but kindly leader the most efficient or effective model? Are you stifling the creativity of your team members by discouraging florid expressions of anger or other negative emotions?

Should you throw away your copy of Daniel Goleman's book yet, or start encouraging your team members to denigrate and shout at each other? Well, no, and we do not want to diminish the immense contribution of our psychologist friends to the understanding of emotion, personality, and leadership. However, the methodology, the machinery, and the practice of neuroscientific examination is the source of the newest, the most detailed and the best-supported understanding of the inner workings of human beings yet obtained.

Because of this, as a modern leader or coach perhaps you need to make sure that your reading includes as many neuroscience magazines and newsletters as possible.

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