Why is Emotional Intelligence Worth Developing?

The old 1950s paradigm that a leader must ignore or suppress her/his emotional urges has been thoroughly discredited over the last 20 years of research. Instead, research shows, time and again, that leaders that are aware of their moods, emotions, and drives, can leverage that competency to drive positive organizational change. While logic and intellect have made our lives easier in many ways—giving us indoor plumbing and high speed internet—they do not motivate people. By placing too high a value on brainpower rather than heart-power, we inadvertently demotivate the teams we lead. Why?

A Leader’s Emotional Field

Because our emotional field acts like an unseen force that either motivates or discourages the teams of people we lead. Our emotions have a profound impact on shaping the perceptions around us. To convey this point, look at the following photo and see if you can answer the question: Which monster is bigger?:


Both monsters are, in fact, of equal size.


Also, look at the following shape. See if you can trace the spiral:


The shape appears to be a spiral, but is, in fact, a series of concentric circles. The visual distortions in both pictures are produced by the backgrounds. In the picture of the monsters, the lines make the monster in the back appear larger. And the background tiles in the image above give the illusion that what we are seeing is a spiral. Our attentions tend to be drawn to the most obvious object, like the monsters, and in so doing, we often overlook the background and its capacity to shape our perception of what we experience.

As leaders, our emotions are like those background lines or tiles. Maybe we want our team to focus on meeting their numbers; closing a deal; or putting out a fire. The background of emotion we inject into the achievement of tasks and goals acts as a sort of frame that contextualizes our team’s experience. If, for example, we are scared that our team will not make its numbers, and unaware of the intensity of our fear, we will inadvertently demotivate. Unless we are aware of the emotional fields we create, we, as leaders, will not be aware of our impact upon those we influence. As a result, we will be powerless to wield these unseen forces and silent messages that shape, not only our teams’ experiences, but, ultimately, the destiny of the organizations we lead.

Emotions are infectious in a way that concepts are not. Unlike like logic or analysis, emotion drives action. Without emotion, we are not inspire. Exhilaration, loyalty, fury, and affection give our work lives vibrancy and purpose. Attraction, desire, and enthusiasm draw us toward people and situations, while fear, shame, guilt, and disgust repel us from others. In all cases, emotions act as an all-pervading guide. Emotion has a way of drawing us into almost immediate alignment in a way that thoughts cannot. That's why watching movies in the theater can be more powerful than when we watch them at home. We are surrounded by others’ emotional responses. It is also why stampedes form in stadiums when crowds of people are filled with fright or anger. And we all know what it is like to work in environments where emotions like worry, doubt, and cynicism pervade. Emotional fields like these have an incredible capacity to take the wind out of our sails.

Emotionally intelligent leaders recognize that in order to harness the trust, creativity, and positive will of individuals, groups, and organizations, that is to motivate others toward greatness, he or she must know how to tap into and influence the emotions of those around him or her. Researchers at management the consulting firm, Hay/McBer, have shown that emotional competencies are twice as important in contributing to leadership excellence as are pure intellect and technical expertise . Additionally, the United States Office of Personnel Management oversaw an analysis of the competencies deemed to set superior performers apart from barely adequate ones for virtually every federal job. For lower-level positions, there was a higher premium on technical abilities than on interpersonal ones. As people advanced in their position, interpersonal skills became more important in distinguishing superior from average performance. In other words, it’s more important for leaders to be likeable than it is for them to be smart.

The goods news is that research demonstrates that E.Q. (Emotional Quotient) is learnable. Emotional intelligence is not just something some people are born with and others not, like I.Q. The essential set of skills, the core, in fact, is developed through mindfulness training, which is a simple, age-old, time-tested technique that builds self-awareness and empathy.

The Space Between Stimulus & Response

The psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, was someone who endured the most appalling of atrocities and, at the same time, didn’t end up a victim because of them. He famously wrote:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In those choices lie our growth and our happiness.

When it comes to wise leadership, Frankl’s words point to the fact that our success is not contingent on what happens to us, but on how we respond to what happens. So if we are going to have the impact we want, we need to find an access to that elusive space between what happens to us and how we respond. This capacity eludes us when a primitive structure in our brain has taken over. This structure, called, the amygdala, was historically useful because it helped us cope with the threat of a wooly mammoth chasing us down.

Amygdala Hijack When the amygdala goes into hijack mode, it stirs strong emotions, like fear, revulsion, or overwhelm. While it is attempting to steer us safely away from danger and toward safety, it also seizes power from another important brain structure, the middle prefrontal cortex. This higher brain structure enables our capacity to create a nuanced response, thus, allowing us to orchestrate thoughts and behaviors based on our goals.

Interestingly, neuroscience studies confirm the ability of mindfulness practice to change the structure of the amygdala and middle prefrontal cortex. A Massachusetts General study showed that mindfulness practice stimulates proteins that strengthen and thicken the middle prefrontal cortex.(1) In a follow-up study, it was shown that the density of the amygdala decreased after 8-weeks of mindfulness meditation training.(2) With a thicker middle prefrontal cortex and a smaller amygdala, we can not only pause, but we can think of the larger social good and enact a behavior that is better for everyone.

Below is a useful three-step formula created by Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk known for interfaith dialogue and his work on the interaction between spirituality and science. He came up with this three-part “Recipe for Grateful Living: Stop! Look! Go!”(3) While this model is a gratefulness practice, it works equally as a practice for building the mindfulness muscle throughout the working day. If practiced consistently, it allows us to create a space between what happens to us and how we respond so that our amygdala hijack doesn’t determine our outcome, but, instead, our middle prefrontal cortex does.

Stop Look Go!-page-001

Stop! Let’s start with an example to make this model come alive: It comes to our attention that someone we manage has mishandled a longstanding and loyal customer relationship, and we are angry, really angry. Our amygdala’s been hijacked. If we are going to have half-a-chance of responding wisely, we’re going to have to create some mental time and space before we confront him or her. As a quick rule-of-thumb, we’ll stop long enough to allow our emotional reactivity to diminish enough so that we can see options that are non-defensive or aggressive. We want to give the middle prefrontal cortex enough time to come online.

Look! And once it has, we can formulate a response that bridges the gap between the impact we want to have in the situation versus the reaction we want to spew. In the case of the employee who does not recognize the mistake, we might consider seeing the situation from his or her perspective. Or maybe we decide to let them know that we do not agree with them or that they’ve disappointed us.

Go! Many of us get stuck in the Stop! and Look! phases, waiting for a “good feeling” to occur. But really, it requires that we just take the step that’s in front of us. And it’s not that all action is complete.

Stop! Look! Go! → Stop! Look! Go! → Stop! Look! Go!

Whatever action we’ve taken, we return to Stop! and Look!. Did we get the result we intended? If we shared our disappointment with our employee, but he or she continues to disregard us, it might even be useful to take hard action. Stop! Look! Go! then becomes a circular pattern of mindful engagement.

By learning how to stand outside of the continuous motion of life, we begin to step into an observer’s perspective. We can see the patterns arise, but we need not react to them. In other words, Stop! Look! Go! gives us a greater degree of objectivity. Of course, we will never be truly objective. Nevertheless, our capacity for wise leadership increases exponentially because we have given ourselves the space needed to stay present, even-minded and non-reactive.

Footnotes (1)Britta K. Hölzel, James Carmody, Mark Vangel, Christina Congleton, Sita M. Yerramsetti, Tim Gard, Sara W. Lazar. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain grey matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 2011; 191 (1): 36 DOI: 10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006 (2)Sara Lazar, Catherine Kerr, Rachel Wasserman, Jeremy Gray, Douglas Greve, Michael Treadway, Metta McGarvey, Brian Quinn, Jeffery Dusek, Herbert Benson, Scott Raunch, Christopher Moore, Bruce Fischld. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport. 2005. (3)Steindl-Rast, Br. David. “Stop! Look! Go!: The Recipe for Grateful Living. Gratefulness.org. Web. 14 Nov. 2014. http://www.gratefulness.org/readings/dsr_recipeforjoy.htm

Living in the Here & Now

Training And Development Like most mind/body therapies, mindfulness isn't exactly new. Its roots are old, but for decades, mainstream culture viewed it as alternative or plain weird. Then came a perfect storm. About a decade ago studies began proving that mindfulness could be a key to fighting disease and, in fact, change the very structure of the brain. The concept of mindfulness is both super simple to understand but not particularly easy to master. Mindfulness is a a present moment, non-reactive awareness. Most of the time, we all habitually rehearse past experiences (if only I'd _____) or anxiously planning/avoiding a particular future (what if____ happens? or how do I avoid ___ from happening?). Because we all are so habituated to agonize about what's already happened or what might happen, present moment awareness can be completely elusive.

But unlike some forms of meditation, mindfulness is not about stopping thought. Instead, mindfulness is the practice of learning to observe all of our mind's shenanigans, letting all of those wild thoughts come and go. Instead of getting preoccupied with understanding or making sense of the thoughts, we develop the knack for observing them, kind of like watching clouds passing across the sky. They move in and then they move out. Through this process of simply noticing, we strengthen an observing quality in the mind. We develop the knack for noticing the contents of our minds without being overly identified with them. They're just thoughts, after all, and they come in, stay for awhile, and then eventually pass away.

If that sounds a little mind-numbing, it is not. Long-term mindfulness practitioners aren't checked out. The practice does not stop us from caring or wanting to have impact. Rather, it heightens our awareness of the possibilities to do so, possibilities that are not necessarily accessible to us when we're dwelling on the past or future. When we're lost in this sort of "un-mindfulness", research shows that we're activating our sympathetic nervous systems, driving our bodies into fight-or-flight responses. Living this way for a sustained amount of time has all sorts of deleterious effects on the body and outlook on life.

Mindfulness not only counters this by stimulating the "feed, breed, rest, and digest" parasympathetic response, which means we have fewer stress hormones, like cortisol, coursing through our veins at any given time. Hence the links between mindfulness and reductions in blood pressure, heart rate, and inflammation. Not only can it alter our stress levels, but it also has been proven to change the very structure of our brains, a process called neuroplasticity. Mindfulness has been shown to thicken areas of the brain that control emotions and stress responses within just eight weeks of daily practice. That's why mindfulness can mean the difference between absolutely "losing it" and staying centered when a boss arbitrarily gives a raise to a peer and not to us.

Start Your Practice

Begin You can try it anytime, any place, in almost any situation. And once you get the hang of it, you'll automatically be more mindful, without much effort. It's a good idea to start with a timer. That way, you're committed to staying put for a particular period of time.

Posture It does not matter, though, whether you sit in a chair or on the floor. What does matter, however, is that your body is relatively comfortable, and you can remain in the same posture for a sustained period of time. The posture is like a tripod of a camera. The steadier it is, the more you’ll see.

Breath If posture is like the tripod of a camera, the awareness is like the lens: if it is clouded or agitated, you may see forms but no detail. That’s why you focus on the breath. The breath is an object the awareness can steady on for a sustained period of time. The subtler the mind, the more detail you’ll see. Just observing the breath calms the thought patterns of the mind, brings you back into the present moment, awakens clear seeing, and brings the awareness toward the interior.

Sensations Once the attention is razor-sharp, you point it in the direction of the interior. This is where you train to be both sensitive and, at the same time, non-reactive. Move your attention throughout the body in what’s known as a body-scan, shifting the awareness from head-to-toe and toe-to-head, noticing sensations that crop up depending on where the attention is drawn to. Start the awareness at the top of the head, move down to the face, the neck, throat, shoulders, arms, hands, chest, upper back, belly, mid and lower back, pelvis, genitals, legs, and feet. And then return from the toes back up the same way you came down. Repeat this until your timer goes off.

Just Notice/ Don’t React Feeling sensation in the body like this can sometimes be overwhelming, boring, uncomfortable, and, at times, downright painful. Nobody likes to feel pain or discomfort, but mindfulness instruction is very clear: Don’t react. Just notice. In other words, if you feel discomfort, try not to move away from it. One way we try to move away from discomfort is by trying to understand or make sense of it. So if thoughts arise, notice them and label them, “Thinking.” And then come back to the sensations in the body.

Curiosity It can be immensely helpful to observe with a quality of curiosity. Curiosity tends to lower the risk associated with meeting our edge. It also opens us up to being surprised to find unexpected truths. Finally, it's child-like and exciting.

Distraction If you notice that you are distracted for good chunks of the time, don’t be too hard on yourself. There is no such thing as a good or bad meditation. A wandering mind does not mean failure. The fact that the mind wanders throughout is just data. In all likelihood, if you stay with the process, you'll also notice moments when the mind is very still and clear. We are not attempting to achieve a state of no-thinking. Instead, we are observing the various states of mind.

One method of tracking our progress on the path is to consider the amount of time we were able to stay present. This can be very difficult and to do so can be extremely frustrating. The place to start, instead, is to consider the amount of times we were able to come back to the present moment. As we keep applauding our return, we slowly encourage our awareness to keep returning.

A Passionate Life

There are three yogis in a cave. They’ve been there, practicing meditation for the last 10 years. Around the tenth year, something moves by the mouth of the cave. One yogi murmurs, “I think that was a rabbit." A year later, another yogi whispers, “No, I think that was a squirrel.”

Six months later, the third one blurts, “If the two of you don’t stop fighting, I’m going to have to leave this cave."

There’s a misperception that to be mindful means to be a detached navel-gazer in a cave, that being present and aware is devoid of creativity and passion. Mindfulness, in fact, highlights our passions.

By bringing us fully into the experience of the here-and-now, we are more aware, allowing us to appreciate each moment with far greater subtlety: a bursting feeling in the heart when we realize we are in love; the uplifting quality of a new and creative idea; the power when we sense our connection to a cause that aligns with our deepest values.

Because our senses are more enhanced, we can grasp more clearly what is actually calling us among the myriad, transitory complications of our modern lives. We can also see who we are with less judgment and more acceptance. Sometimes even more importantly, we see the inauthentic roles we have been playing out, those roles that do not reflect who we are essentially.

When we stop wanting to be someone else, we can finally recognize our unique gifts, talents and passions and what we want to do with our “one wild and precious life.” We can let go of playing by everyone else’s rules—our parents, our bosses, our partner’s, society— and start to ask the question, “What matters to me?”

Make Your Life Your Message

When asked for his message for the world, Gandhi responded with the now famous line, “My life is my message.” Is your life a reflection of your message? To live such a life, is to live passionately, as Gandhi did.

Webster dictionary defines passion as, “a strong liking or desire for or devotion to some activity, object, or concept.” At its core, passion is an interior force, a sort of current that drives and energizes us to understand and merge with the object of our passion. It can be an activity, a quality of mind, a path and, of course, it can be another person or animal. When we are not living in accordance or in harmony with our passions, our lives feel discordant, lifeless, flat and hollow.

In contrast, when we live with passion, we are compelled and fueled with enthusiastic emotion. Whatever the object of our passion, it connects us to a greater sense of purpose, the feeling that we are part of some greater whole. It also leads us to a greater understanding of what makes us unique; whatever the object of our passion, it is our very own.

It is not something to be found somewhere other than where we are. It is already inside of us, yet for most of us, passion is ill-defined. Instead, it is a lived experience that emerges in subtle inklings. It can show up at the birth of a child, a sunset, the completion of an arduous journey or the beginning of a new one. Our passions often can be discovered in the activities where we completely lose ourselves, be it a sport, a hobby or a particular kind of problem solving.

We are not always aware of our passions because we are so busy with our to-do lists. It also does not help that many of us were told that our passions were not practical, that if we followed them, we likely would not succeed or we would not make enough money to get by. We learned to turn a blind eye to the glimmer of a calling. Regardless of the cause, for most of us, our passions are hidden.

Obsession and Clinging

Our passions can also blind us. When our passions control us, they can lead toward obsessions. When overdone, passion can completely undo our lives. Just think of the seven deadly sins: pride, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, lechery and sloth. In Buddhism, each sin is considered a form of grasping or clinging. When we obsessively clinging to the pleasant feelings that passion can fuel, we forget that like all things, even passion is impermanent: it comes; stays for awhile; and eventually passes away.

We are all vulnerable to obsessive passion. We all get lost in it sometimes. Wealth, power and fame can be alluring for each of us at times. Mindfulness practices are not moralistic. Because we meditate does not mean that we should not abstain from enjoying the things we have or pursue success.

Instead, our practices have the potential to show us our embodied response of when passion has overtaken us and when we have become attached. We can be sure that we are working with clinging when we find ourselves on the hunt for increasingly greater thresholds of success and, at the same time, are despondent at its loss or evading quality.

Mindfulness practice helps us maintain an even quality of mind. It helps us to see that whatever success we have attained in following our passion, it does not define us, nor is our happiness dependent on it. The practice itself helps us remain discerning. We use the practice to distinguish wisdom from delusion, to make choices that are life enhancing not only to ourselves but others, as well.

So enjoy what lights you up. Explore all the varieties of California Pinots. Protest race inequality. Make music that delights you. Sweat your prayers. Make love with abandon. And bring your mindfulness practice to each experience: breathing with it, sensing it and ride the wave all the way until the end. And when it is over, let it go.