Emotional intelligence: a conversation with our feelings

In the competitive world we live in, emotions tend to be affiliated with weaknesses. We often hear that emotions should be controlled and that they do not belong in the rational, modern world. However, a number of studies have shown the importance of emotions and the growing importance of emotional intelligence, as well as how they can make leaders and professionals more impactful in their daily challenges.

First of all, what are emotions?

According to psychologist Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., emotions are strong impulses that urge us to immediate action. They have been developed, throughout the course of time, for our survival, and are neurologically designed to “propel us into action without overthinking”. The anatomy of our brain has been built from the bottom up. The brainstem is responsible for all our basic necessary primitive functions such as breathing, eating, sleeping inter alia; the limbic system, built on the brain stem, is responsible for our basic emotions. It also gives us the ability to learn things and remember them, which allows us to adapt to new environments. Finally, our neocortex, formed on top of the limbic system, moulds our rational mind. It gives us the ability to choose how we respond to our emotions, how we reflect on our actions, and our interactions with each other.

During the 1970s, psychologist Paul Eckman identified six basic emotions that he suggested were universally experienced by all human beings. The emotions were: happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, surprise and anger. Eckman later included pride, shame, embarrassment and excitement to his list of basic emotions.

Antonio Damasio argues that our “thinking” mind and our “feeling” mind are essentially the same at different stages. Everything starts with emotions; once it becomes a mature thought, it becomes reasoning and action. Emotions are meant to act as reminders. Let us take a situation where we have a flight to catch and we are already late. This will create the emotion of fear, which gives a signal to the pituitary gland, situated at the base of the brain. It controls the adrenal glands, which are responsible for producing hormones. The effect of adrenaline is to prepare the body for “fight or flight” response for vigorous and sudden movements. Key actions of adrenaline include increasing the heart rate, increasing blood pressure, expanding the air passages of the lungs, enlarging the pupils in the eyes, redistributing blood to the muscles, and altering the body’s metabolism so as to maximise blood glucose levels. In response to these chemical reactions, we move faster and therefore will, in all probability, not miss our flight. This is an example of how our intellect and decision-making power can be structured due to our emotions. Damasio stated that, in the modern world we  live in, survival without the use of emotions is impossible. Living without emotions would cause us to cross streets without looking to the right or the left, as the fear of being hit by a car would not exist. We would not wear clothes and would walk naked in the streets, as fear and embarrassment would not exist. We would neither be able to feel happy nor sad. We would not be able to feel anything at all. Emotions are therefore an integral part of the well-being, of the intellect and of the functions of society.

How does emotional intelligence make leaders more impactful?

Emotional intelligence – or emotional quotient – is the capability of individuals to recognise their own and others’ emotions, to discern and use emotional information to guide and adjust their thinking and behaviour in various situations.

In the workspace, a leader and their team’s emotional intelligence is directly correlated with their performance. We all make decisions based on emotions and we need to manage them consciously if we want to achieve the right results. 

Self-awareness is the foundation for a larger arena of competence known as emotional intelligence, which has become ever more important to succeed in leadership roles. According to Joshua Margolis, professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, self-awareness is about developing your capacity to sense how you are coming across, to have undistorted visibility into your own strengths and weaknesses, and to be able to gauge the emotions you are personally experiencing. If you are going to work in a team or with your colleagues, you cannot afford to let your own emotions interfere with the rapport, as it can be seen as unprofessional and cause hindrances in the development of your projects. Margolis states that, rather than denying our emotions, we need to know which strengths to turn to, how to address our weaknesses, and how to calibrate the impact we have on others, so they may respond constructively to our leadership.

The “Emotional-Social Intelligence” (“ESI”) model includes the four major facets of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, social awareness, self-management and relationship management.  Self-awareness is at the heart of the model, defined as our ability to understand our emotions, our drives, our strengths, and our weaknesses. Self-awareness enables us to sustain our emotionally and socially intelligent behaviours over time despite setbacks. Relationship management is where this becomes most visible to others. According to Tony Mayo, senior lecturer of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, these competencies in this cluster impact others in motivation and performance. They depend on strength and social awareness, especially empathy and organisational awareness, and self-management, including motivation and emotional self-control. These competencies provide the direction, energy, restraint and skill to enhance our interactions with others.  

There are 12 specific competencies that are encompassed within the four major facets of emotional intelligence.

Self-awareness includes one competency, which is focused on our ability to recognize our own emotions, know our strengths and weaknesses, and understand how our emotions impact others. 

Social awareness includes two competencies- empathy, which is our ability to sense others’ feelings and perspectives, and organisational awareness, which focuses on our ability to understand the power dynamics within the organisation. 

Self-management encompasses four competencies: these are sometimes referred to as the fire and breaks. The first two – achievement orientation and positive outlook – are the fire. They drive our motivation and provide momentum. 

The last two – emotional self-control and adaptability – are the breaks. They hold back destructive or counterproductive responses to change or pressure. 

Finally, relationship management includes five core competencies that are most visible to others: coach and mentor, conflict management, influence, inspirational leadership, and teamwork. Relationship management is how we take the awareness of ourselves and others, and channel it into how we interact with others. 

It is important to remember that social awareness and self-management are the key levers in relationship management. To be effective in communication, we must have a measure of control on our own emotions and additionally be able to channel them in effective ways. 

Emotional intelligence is certainly a useful and key concept that relates to understanding our emotions and how we, as individuals, portray ourselves in society. Leaders and professionals are implementing this key concept into their daily challenges in order to be more productive and better understand the dynamics of their organisations and corporations

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