Linking Emotional Intelligence to Neuroscience

Posted on February 26, 2013. Filed under: Our Leaders Say | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Nick Mills, a Neuroscience of Leadership graduate and the Principal Consultant at Eureka Training, shares his thoughts on emotional intelligence and what learning about the brain can do to help you link the heart with the head.


Emotional Intelligence

“I don’t go in for any of that fluffy stuff at work. Feelings should be kept at home and kept out of work,” declared Steven, the head of Information Technology in Projects at a large well-known software organisation.

This was the first thing to come out of Steven’s mouth as Neil sat down to conduct a pre-arranged 360 degree Emotional Intelligence coaching session with him, arranged by Steven’s Manager.  Steven had made both his intentions clear and his feelings known about Emotional Intelligence.

481px-PhrenologyPixThe irony was not lost on Neil, at least he had something to work with.  Steven, a self-professed ‘facts, figures and stats’ kind of guy, was only interested in concrete concepts and ideas proven that have a dependency of outcome.  Unfortunately for Steven, and anyone else involved with human beings, the outcome you’d like isn’t always what you get when you deal with people on a day-to-day basis.

In its purest form, Emotional Intelligence as a concept has been around for thousands of years.  Plato articulated concepts such as these in his writings. More recently, Howard Gardner mentioned it in 1983 when he first conceptualised ‘multiple intelligences’.  The concept was further popularised in the early 1990s by John Mayer and Peter Salovey , who later went on to form the MSCEIT Emotional intelligence test. Daniel Goleman’s 1995 seminal book Emotional Intelligence: Why it matters more than IQ really put EI on the map and into our consciousness, so to speak.

Steven was about to sit down to have his one on one debrief of the Genos Emotional Intelligence 360 degree report.  Understandably, his nerves were on high alert as his brain grappled with the concept of the large threat looming in the debrief of this report.  Steven had been receiving several complaints per month from his staff and peers.  Complaints ranged from bullying to aggression, to overly unrealistic demands and rudeness, among others things.  Little wonder that Steven was feeling more than threatened by the concept of this coaching session.

Neil understood that Steven’s stance masked a deeper inner concern: What would his staff , his peers, and his manager say about him, and what would the impact be? Were they engaged or were they disengaged?  Suddenly, it mattered.

There is a wealth of literature linking high employee engagement and positive emotions among employees defining high performance workplaces. Steven was about to find out a little more about his team.

This is a common conundrum facing any coach, HR Manager, Manager, Team Leader, or Supervisor who has ever had to sit down and ‘coach’ someone through the impact of a 360 degree (mostly anonymous) feedback survey.  Naturally, the brain heads toward an automatic threat response in this kind of situation.  Having some understanding of neuroscience, as well as emotional intelligence, helped Neil.

BeingStatesModelLargerNeil chose the Genos model of EI, a popular Australian based EI tool because it comes with a raft of research and a wealth of helpful tools.  The Genos model focuses on seven key ‘skill areas’ of emotional intelligence, as it looks upon emotional intelligence as a ‘learnable’ skill, rather than a fixed narrative.  This is useful in several ways, particularly for those that eschew populist ‘consultant speak’ or ‘psycho-babble’.  It’s based on science and some pretty solid research. Being able to back it further with some simple, irrefutable brain-based facts can be even more helpful for the coach or the manager. For example, our brains core motivation underlying all behaviour and brain processing is to minimize threat and maximize reward. This motivation helps us to decide what is significant at any point in time and the brain is more highly tuned to detecting threat than reward.  Given the natural tendency toward actively minimizing threat, Steven’s position was understandable, from both a neuroscience and an emotional intelligence perspective.

Emotional Self Awareness and the Neuroscience of Mood

Emotional Self Awareness is the skill of perceiving and understanding one’s own emotions.  Knowing that stimuli that comes into our brain first is processed unconsciously and can activate one of six key emotions. This then comes into our conscious attention, and we begin to experience feelings that follow on from the emotions and thoughts. All of this happens in the space of about .5 of a second. Genos define this skill, when conducted effectively, as ‘being present’ rather than ‘being disconnected’.  Neil took the approach that by improving Steven’s emotional health at work the engagement of those he worked with would also improve.  He asked Steven to consider what kind of benefits would this bring to his own practice.

Steven was also asked about some typical interactions with those team members he found more difficult to engage with.  His response was that he worked harder to get ‘rid’ of those by being more ruthlessly efficient with their questions and their time, so he didn’t have to be around them as much as others.  He admitted that typical behaviour included ‘multi-tasking’, continuing to answer emails and type responses whilst having one-on-one conversations with his team members at his desk.  Not only did Steven not see the impossibility of being truly ‘present’ in these situations, he couldn’t see how his behaviour was making everything worse, as those he didn’t feel he ‘engaged’ with unconsciously knew that and felt a heightened sense of threat when dealing with Steven.

stress illustrationThis heightened threat response (or fear, as it might better be articulated) has many implications.  Fear activates the amygdala, an area in the brain that releases the transmitter glutamate, which in turn activates other regions in the brain stem and hypothalamus.  In effect, this kicks off the stress-response cascade. The release of cortisol into the bloodstream has a widespread impact on the system.

Cortisol helps the body fight the threat of immediate stress by releasing and redistributing energy to critical parts of the body, like the heart, and away from non-critical parts of the body, like the digestive system. According to Andy Habermacher, one of Europe’s leading speakers on neuroleadership, it will also immediately take away resources from the body’s immune system.  Over time, the combined result of too much cortisol in the system is increased stress, fatigue, lower productivity and effectiveness, and the subsequent effects of all this strain.

Helping Steven to understand this basic biology of engagement would help him to lead his people better, reduce their threat response, make them think more clearly and effectively had a powerful effect on him. This emotional intelligence stuff really does work.

This is but one brief example of how understanding both neuroscience and emotional intelligence can be complimentary tools for effectively managing engagement and those that believe that EI is all based in black magic and hoo ha!




Screen Shot 2013-02-25 at 12.22.33 PM

Nick Mills is a current Neuroscience of Leadership student and the Principal Consultant at Eureka Training.  Accredited in a wide range of contemporary leadership tools, Nick is an experienced leadership facilitator and coach with a passion for learning and facilitating change. He has worked with senior managers in professional services, corporate, not-for-profit and government agencies in Australia, as a leadership program facilitator, coach, trainer’s trainer and sales trainer.  He currently facilitates many neuroscience and Emotional Intelligence related topics.


Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 12 so far )

Fierce Leadership: Seeking Positive Transformation through Neuroscience

Posted on September 24, 2012. Filed under: Our Leaders Say | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

The team is delighted to welcome Nick Bennett as a guest blogger. As one of the leading internationally credentialed coaches and facilitators in regional Queensland, Nick has a lot to say about what neuroscience contributes to our understanding of positive leadership.  



When I am doing things for you, I am doing them because I have to! When I am doing them for me, I am doing them because I want to!


This statement reveals the underlying issues in a hierarchy—an organisational condition that, in terms of our current understanding of neuroscience, we will hopefully find relegated to the annals of history as something to provide lessons in how not to bring out the best in people.

For effective leadership in the future, the question is: As leaders, how can we build alignment, create the mind-opening opportunities that enable people to provide discretionary effort, and ensure that they engage with a sense of purpose and inclusion?

First, we can embrace principles that neuroscience confirms effective. We can use brain-friendly communication strategies to bring out the best in our teams. Additionally, we can strive to create an environment that fosters ‘mind-space’ and engages the brains of individuals, teams and organisations. For many managers, this means a fundamental shift in the way they perceive themselves in the role they play in building a successful and sustainable business.

By understanding how the brain responds to perceived threats and rewards, how it has a desire for novelty and distraction, and how it is involved in a continuous internal dialogue, we can transform not only our approach but also the results that others provide.

It’s a simple fact that we are judgment-making machines. At lightning speed, we filter every situation we encounter through our own personal map of the world, the geography of which is carved by every event that has occurred in our lives. The emotional impact of these events creates the geomorphology (layers, pressure and time) that establishes our pattern of responding behaviour.

This being the case, then, no two maps of the world are alike, regardless of how similar the geography or geomorphology, and yet our systems—education, management, government—are generally aligned in a linear approach that discourages individualism, enables competition, and celebrates the average!

This flies in the face of what neuroscience shows us: The powerhouse that is the human brain needs to be able to engage fully.  Brains require the stimulation provided by novelty and distraction.  They need the opportunity for time to think, the practice of doing non-work in socially interactive spaces, the chance for the unconscious mind to reach into the recesses of its considerable content store to collect data and produce the ‘ahas’ that link insight to innovation.

Our systems are transactional, and yet our needs as individuals or teams need to be engaged by more transformational styles, those highly interpersonal and brain-engaging approaches that assist us in finding our own solutions or that have us willingly contribute to the success of others.

Since we are judgment-making machines, anything that doesn’t fit our map of the world is perceived as a threat. Susan Scott in her book Fierce Leadership says, “I am always having a conversation with myself – sometimes it includes other people!” It’s worthy of reflection, given that we have a wiring that tends to focus on the negative in a situation rather than the positive, something researchers call a “positive-negative asymmetry”. In Australia, our language reflects this in everyday conversation.  For example, when someone’s asked, “How are you today?” he might answer, “Not bad.” As a leader, developing a strong positive internal dialogue can help you develop strong positive conversations among your team.

Consider how much time you spend discussing what’s worked well, looking for the bright spots. When you’re putting information out or communicating to your team, how much effort do you put into providing context? How often do you engage in genuine open discussion on possibilities without constraint? When you debrief do you ask, “What worked well?” and “What could be done differently or improved?”

At the core of all behaviour is an emotional connection—the map of the world. By understanding and applying transformational styles to our leadership, seeking to inspire, engage, influence and challenge, the better our relationships will be. The more we can include our team and the individuals in it to define their purpose, the more challenge we can provide to their roles, the more we support them to develop and engage them in defining that, the less likely we will be perceived as a threat.

I am not a neuroscientist, I am a facilitator and coach. For me, neuroscience has provided answers that I give to those who are sceptical about the process of both coaching and facilitation.  I’m able to show how organisational transformations occur and why these changed relationships and successes are not hard but easy.

It has been and continues to be a worthy education.



Nick Bennett is recognised as one of the leading internationally credentialed coaches and facilitators in regional Queensland. A Professionally Certified Coach (PCC) with the International Coaching Federation (the ICF), he has over 5000 coaching hours and over 25 years as a thought leader across a range of industry and business sectors in cultural change, leadership development, team alignment and individual development in organisations and businesses locally, nationally and internationally.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )

Liked it here?
Why not try sites on the blogroll...