EQ in 2015

There’s a growing world of information and knowledge around how to improve leadership. It’s almost overwhelming. And at the same time, it’s hard to know what’s got legs, what’s just a fad and what’s snake oil.

I’ve been interested in the topic of emotional intelligence for a long time now. In the early days it felt like a fresh new perspective on what drives people. Dan Pink, around the same time, was talking about autonomy, mastery and purpose. Independent psychology consultancies were developing their own tools. Salovey Mayer and Baron were some of the names leading the way. A consortium arose wanting to provide rigour and force behind studying the topic.

Daniel Goleman has a lot to answer for. It’s widely acknowledged now that he didn’t start this type of thinking, but he certainly did give it a big push. Well done that man.

I remember back in 2007 (not that long ago now) first hearing of the work of Paul Ekman and microexpressions. I was captivated and hungry to know more. Malcolm Gladwell wrote Blink around then and was writing about Facial Action Coding Systems.

And today there seems to be a big focus for reflection. Some call it mindfulness, some call it reflective practise, some call it tree-hugging nonsense. There is a place for this. Reflection is supportive of raising self-awareness. It is supportive of understanding your own emotions and thoughts better. It is supportive of examining and analysing personal approaches to life and to work.

The final piece, which seems to be more supportive than it is revelatory, is how we understand neuroscience and its part in developing understanding of the human condition. Technology is allowing us to really start to explore the brain well and understand how behaviours function and how chemical reactions change the way we behave. There is fascinating information coming forward but we’re at proper early doors with this understanding.

There’s a lot out there just on the topic of EI to get lost in. A lot of people claiming to have the right answer and advocating a certain way of being. In an age of information being available readily, it’s harder to be seen as a leader in the field.

On Friday 20th March, I’m going to be attending the EQ Summit in London. It’s being hosted by Roche Martin with Sheffield Hallam University and Sheffield Business School. They’ve got the likes of Harvard Business Review curating the event for them and Dan Pink delivering a keynote and panel session. I’ve been invited to blog at the event and I’m totally there.

I’m not expecting big answers from the day. That’s too much of an ask, and it’s unlikely to happen. I am expecting to hear some clear thoughts on how the field of EI has developed into a thing to be taken seriously. I don’t really care about how it’s helped the executives of a big corporate beast to deliver more financial performance. I really want to hear some further things on how EI is helping us understand the human condition.

*For clarity, emotional intelligence is often given the abbreviation EQ as well as EI. This was an effort to liken it to IQ – intelligence quotient.


What do EI and Neuroscience tell us about Motivation?

There tend to be two main theorists at play when it comes to motivation at work – Maslow and Herzberg.

For a long while, I was a fan of both. And to an extent I still am.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is used in a lot of different contexts and helps us to understand that individuals are responsible for their own trajectory. I don’t disagree with that, and it can be a useful piece to have a discussion about life choices.

Herzberg’s Hygiene model helps us to understand that in an organisational setting, you have to take care of people’s basic needs before you should start doing more interesting things like improving employee benefits and the kind.

All well and good, until you start to realise that Maslow is quite hard to apply in an organisational setting (I can’t make you move up the hierarchy), and Herzberg is quite a transactional model (if I apply X, I should get Y).

I think they both help to lay down the basics of what we know about motivation.

There are two other theories I think are well worth considering now that we have more information.

Our understanding of emotions and how they drive behaviour is fundamentally changing. In the early days of EI, we were understood that it was important for successful business people to develop their emotional intelligence – the ability to have awareness of and understand your emotions and modify your behaviour as a result of them. Since then, various advancements have been made around formally identifying ways to develop EI capability via 360 models or coaching or peer to peer feedback.

Recent work now points to physiological changes the body goes through when we experience emotions. Not just how the body prepares itself, but how our body chemistry changes as a result of different emotions.

What this really starts to help us understand is that emotions are the very essential driving force behind everything we do. Each emotion we feel – and there is no bad or good emotion – helps us to achieve a goal, or protect ourselves from further harm. Being angry is a protective and aggressive mechanism because we have been stopped from achieving a goal. Feeling disgust helps the body to know to be aware of such things in the future. Surprise prepares the body for something unexpected and builds our resilience.

In an organisational setting, this means a true advancement in how to support our people and help them be their best. Our emotions will drive us to act in positive or negative ways, depending on how we receive information. If I like the way you are presenting to me, I’ll be in accord with you. If I don’t, I’ll have resistance. This is all about relationships, and understanding how people work.

It’s quite a complicated affair, and most managers and leaders haven’t got the time for it. Which goes counter against anything we know about organisational and individual performance. We want our managers and leaders to be the best they can to be successful, yet we’re not prepared to help them understand the basics of the human condition. We’ll offer one to one coaching and introductory programmes on topics and think that’s enough. Managers and leaders will think they’ve learned enough and try to do their best. Some will learn more, and most will just fumble along. What ends up happening is less about motivation and more about trial and error.

As we’re starting to understand more about how our emotions drive behaviour, we’re also understanding more about how the human brain works and what this means for organisational settings. Before I carry on, you totally need to read this – Why the Left-Brain Right-Brain Myth Will Probably Never Die. This is truly a fascinating development area and I’d argue still in its infancy. But what we know so far is quite compelling.

The human brain is a lazy thing. It likes habit and it likes to create neural pathways of least resistance. New behaviours means it has to learn what those behaviours are, and it means it has to spend time and energy doing that. Once it’s got a new behaviour sussed though, it becomes part of the way we do things. There’s no optimal time period that this happens because there are other factors like how embedded it is and what personal relevance a behaviour has for it to demand change.

In the workplace, then, this means we have to be more mindful about how we support new behaviours. If people are used to acting in a certain way, and we want them to change, that means having to encourage them to effectively create new neural pathways. That’s a lot more commitment than we may have been bargaining for. There are a lot of very good change theories out there which can help in this respect, it’s just worth considering that what we’re asking the brain to do is find a new level of lazy. And as we well know, some behaviours are embedded over years, and that’s the reason some people find it hard to change. Not because they don’t want to, but because the behaviours are so embedded the brain has to work extra hard to make the new change happen.

Related to this is the concept of neuroplasticity. This tells us that if the brain is in a state of regular stimulation and never allowed to become lazy, we are more likely to adapt quicker and apply various mental schema to problems we’re facing resulting in action sooner rather than later. What’s interesting here is that this is something we almost actively work against in the workplace. We hire people to do jobs which meet a set definition, and don’t want them doing anything more than that. We put people through training programmes which help develop new skills and behaviours and then do nothing to support the learned behaviours after the fact. Our organisational performance targets are essentially about business as usual which inherently says you don’t need to do more. We’re dumbing our brains down at work – that’s what this means.

It’s no surprise that people are finding new ways to connect and make meaning at work when this is what they’re faced with.

We’ve known for a long time about how various chemicals are released when the brain is feeling happy or positive. Serotonin, dopamine and endorphins are all helpful in moderation and under genuine circumstances to help us feel good about ourselves and towards others. We can support the brain to do this in purposeful ways at work. Thinking back to Herzberg, we know that recognition is important as a factor in motivating us. What we now also know is that we get little hits of feeling good when that happens. It’s easy to get cynical about this and suggest that it’s impossible to do this all day long, and that’s not the suggestion here. If we help people have more positive experiences at work than negative ones, then we’re helping them to create natural organisational alignment. That’s no easy task, but doing so means we support how we respond to the environment we’re in.

There’s more that I could write and say about EI and neuroscience, and am hoping that I’ve offered some initial insights into how we can do more to develop our understanding of motivation at work.

Emotions aren’t dark, people are

A while ago the printing press was invented. It was all set to wow the world with its newness. Those with the knowledge made lots of money from it, and soon it became a thing of the masses. What no-one knew at the time was if it was going to be used for good or for evil. Sure people knew about books, and that you could write newspapers, but what else would they write about? This tool, of communication, it became this brilliant way of spreading a message. And at some point along the way, someone decided they’d use this method of communication to spread messages which were bad, which were manipulative, and which were wrong in many respects. This printing press, it had a dark side.

There was this other invention in the 19th century which was again set to revolutionise the way people communicated with one another. The telephone had given people a way to suddenly talk to people anywhere in the world. At first, people were sceptical about it – who would you possibly call? And eventually, this communication tool, was too used for nefarious and dark purposes. Le Sigh.

The 19th century also saw another invention take shape in the form of the automobile. Yes, what we commonly know as cars. At first it was the resolve of the few. These few drove these contraptions and made others jealous they owned such things. Some even had servants driving them for them and taking them to soirees and banquets. Would it surprise you to learn that even this amazing transportation tool became a tool of evil? It too had a dark side that no-one expected? It could kill. It could maim. It could disfigure. A truly horrible invention.

I’m sorry, am I patronising you?

In a recent article, Adam Grant would have us believe the theory known as emotional intelligence has a dark side. He describes research that points to people learning how to be emotionally intelligent in order to manipulate others. Or said another way – people who want to exert power over others, learn how to do something enough so that they can get their way. People have been learning how to manipulate others since time began. And best of all, they’ve used whatever tool has been available to them.

Emotional intelligence isn’t a bad or good tool. It’s just a theory. It helps us to understand human dynamics in a way that most people can benefit from. Can people use it for their own dark purposes? Of course they can. That’s because people have their own desires and ambitions they are trying to achieve.

You can liken this to committing emotional fraud. I think you’re trying to help me out, and that you’re making positive actions towards me, whereas in actual fact you’re trying to harm me in some way and make me worse off.

If you choose to use it for a dark purpose, that’s because you’re what my kids would call a bad person. The research that’s being done to understand how people are using EI as a manipulative tool is non-important research. It tells us nothing about human behaviour we don’t already know. People actively choose whether they do good or bad deeds. Learning how to use EI for negative purposes is no different than learning how to use the internet to send spam email or worse.

There is plenty of good research in the field of EI which helps us to better understand what happens to us when emotions are felt or expressed. We are now understanding the physiological changes the body goes through when different emotions are felt. We’ve got a clear idea of how emotions help prepare the body and mind for certain actions. We understand how to help someone develop their EI in order that they can have better and more positive relationships. That’s where the interesting research is happening, and that’s where we should be looking to continue the debate.

Leave your emotions at home

I, like many other L&OD pros, see great relevance in the topic of emotional intelligence and its relationship with work. Many times over will you hear things being said about the percentage points increase of sales folk who have good EI or the x point improvement on the staff survey because of a focus on EI. It’s useful information and helps give credence to this topic.

But why does it need that credence at all? Who doubts that there is wisdom and efficacy in understanding our emotional selves? This is the battle we face in HR. To convince the number crunchers that topics like EI are core to understanding human behaviour and therefore core to business success.

Here are some examples of situations where the individual has shown that not only do they understand EI, but it’s helped them achieve a goal.

At a previous organisation a colleague passed away. He was popular and well liked, and sadly his death was sudden due to advanced cancer. Not long after at a company all hands, the CEO was honouring him and he started to cry in front of everyone. We all clapped in solidarity. There was no tenuous link to ‘do better work to honour his memory’. There was appreciation of a CEO who cared about the people he worked with. What did he achieve? Showing strength of character to his workforce that we could rally around. Love wins over fear every time.

An old work colleague used to worry about doing a good job. He was good at what he did, was willing to learn and develop new skills. He took his time, sought help when he needed it and accepted feedback no matter how critical it was. What did he achieve? He now has his own company and offers consultancy on the very thing he trained in.

The last team I worked in was a new group who came together to help the organisation develop its learning and organisational development capabilities. I really enjoyed working with this group because we all took the time to appreciate and listen to what we each had to say. What did we achieve? In six months of being there we were receiving regular praise from all parts of the business because of the good work we were doing.

I can’t categorically link any of the above to EI. I can understand, though, that good EI – both natural and developed – helps make things better. It’s hard to define that ‘better’ in hard terms.

We can put people through programmes and through development to be better. But for me that’s not the crux of it. For me, the crux of it is about the environment you’re in and how you cultivate these behaviours for everyone to understand and be comfortable with.

People often say ‘leave your emotions at home’. They only say that because they’ve never been allowed to or shown how to share their emotions at work in a safe way which is non-threatening and supportive of them as a person.

Positively Emotionally Mindful

Last week at Learning Live, I was quite keen on hearing the talk on Being Brilliant, by Andy Whittaker. His business partner, Andy Cope, has studied positive psychology at PhD level, and so I was quite curious what the talk would help share. Most of my readers are aware I have a keen interest in this topic, and there are a good many practitioners developing this skill, so I enjoy hearing how people describe this field, and what insights they share.

I enjoyed Andy Whittaker’s style. On his Twitter bio, he describes himself as a “frustrated comic”. This came through in his talk, and gave it a lot of levity, and I thought he balanced it quite well in it not becoming a comedy act. He shared some useful insight into how positive psychology is about helping people live happy lives. Remember, traditional psychology is about helping people move from a position of feeling sad to ‘normal’, and positive psychology is about helping people move from ‘normal’ to ‘vibrant’.

Andy shared that in Andy Cope’s research he found that only 2% of people are capable of being happy and vibrant. The rest of us are caught up in life’s regular slog, and we have natural ebbs and flows that mean we experience good or bad days. Whittaker also talked about those people around us who are ‘mood hoovers’. I’ve heard this expression before, and it describes the kind of person that responds to most questions with a healthy dose of cynicism and negativity which leaves you feeling drained and your own mood being lowered. With this, I also found it helpful when he talked about people who are at times ‘too happy’ and don’t know how to keep a bottle on their enthusiasm they’re experiencing.

As I’ve been thinking about it some more, there’s some more aspects which I think are important, and lend itself to thinking about this are of self-development and self-awareness quite keenly.

I recall being on the Emotional Skills and Competence course last year, and how we spoke about the importance of having positive relationships in our lives. By recognising emotions in others, in particular micro-expressions, we can allow ourselves to moderate our own feelings and emotions, and respond in a way which helps us to get the best out of others. As we get to know others more intimately, we may also start to recognise which particular events trigger a certain emotion in the other person, and either we change our behaviour to ensure we don’t do those things (if it elicits a negative response) or we purposefully act in a way to bring out an emotion (if it elicits a positive response).

Remember, all emotions are useful, and they all help us to live a healthy life. Emotions themselves aren’t positive or negative, it’s our reaction to and experience of our own emotions which we interpret as being either positive or negative. For example, I might elicit the emotion of surprise in my wife by buying her an unexpected gift and her response is to give me a kiss. In another example, I might elicit the emotion of surprise by telling her something unexpected which annoys her and she becomes angry with me. (Both fictional I hasten to add!) The emotion of surprise is the same, but the trigger that lead to a subsequent action was different.

In Whittaker’s talk, when he talked about how people can sometimes be unaware of their impact on others, this for me is where we can learn to be skillful by understanding what it means to be emotionally intelligent. We use the information available to us to help us to determine what the other person is likely to be feeling, and then respond in a way which gets the best out of them. Some may argue we do this naturally. I would argue, only some people do this naturally. For many others, it is about learning how to recognise a set of emotions, interpret them, and decide on a course of action.

The final piece for me, which adds to the level of self-awareness we have, is in how we practise the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is about being present in the moment, and being aware of all the things your being can intake. Your surroundings, your thoughts, other people, the sounds, the quiet, your breathing, your movements, and so much more. When we can be mindful, truly mindful, we open ourselves to the possibility of opportunities which become immediately present. At the coffee shop, in a queue waiting to be served, where does our attention go, and where does our attitude focus? Do we urge the barrista to be more efficient? Do we see the people talking round a table? Are the food options the ones you want? Is the background music your style? Are you feeling hot or cold? In being mindful about such things, we are more likely to make a better informed decision for what is best for you, and you are more likely to feel positive about the outcome.

Mindfulness for me, then, helps us to understand that we are responsible for our actions. These actions are based on active decisions we have made, and therefore we can either be positive about them or regret them. If we regret them, then this dwells on the mind, and keeps us in a place which is not helpful, and may be harmful to the psyche if prolonged. If we are positive about them, we will be more likely to be positive about other interactions we make as our day continues.

In thinking about these three topics/subjects/ways of thinking, it’s helping me to remain conscious of the many things we learn in the L&D profession, and how we can either be purposeful in our understanding of them, or we blindly take the accepted wisdom.

The link between emotions and behaviours

It’s not often I can point to a learning event and on reflection think to myself, but damn that changed my life. There have been two such occasions thus far. The first was attending a facilitation skills training course with Roffey Park. That course taught me a lot about group dynamics, about how I interact with them, and how much I enjoy group based solutions. The second was my MBTI Step I training. I left that training thinking I could rule the world (I still think this) armed with just this tool. It offered me an easy way to recognise behaviours in myself, in others and different ways I can use the tool to provide different ways of working.

This year, I attended a course called Emotional Skills and Competencies with DPG Plc. It was a three day training course, and I wrote about my immediate reflections after each day (Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3). Now some time has passed, and I’ve been able to reflect back on the course, I’m convinced that this training, or future forms of it, will form the cornerstone of what we know as emotional intelligence training. The training focused on helping to understand the work by Dr Paul Ekman. Readers of this blog will know I hold this guy in very high regard. His work and research has helped to identify seven universally recognisable emotions – happiness, sadness, fear, anger, disgust, anger and contempt.

We learned how to recognise the ‘microexpressions’ that accompany each emotion on a person’s face. This was really interesting, and we got plenty of practice, as well as practising making the facial expressions ourselves. In line with this, we also spent time reflecting on what happens within us when we feel these specific emotions. This was a great form of self awareness. We learned that there is an emotional timeline we all go through. From the moment something triggers an emotion in us, and the moment we become aware of it, 1/25th of a second passes. Once we become aware, is the point at which we can start to think about how we deal with this emotion.

The other piece I’ve been reflecting heavily on is the research into body language. The hardest thing, and at the same time the most attractive thing, about body language is finding some universal truths that exist. Outside of the microexpressions we display on our faces, there are no other universal body language signs. There a lot, and I mean a lot of ‘experts’ in the field who would like us to believe that they have the answers to underlying motivations and desires based on a person’s body language. Unfortunately most are just not basing their work on research. They’re basing it on lay observations which most of us could make if we took the time to study it better. And, importantly, most are basing it solely on the context of the culture they are in.

I came across this excellent journal article by Dr Ekman (Emotional and Conversational Nonverbal Signals) which perfectly describes how we can understand body language. He explains there are three forms of body language we can look for: emblems, illustrators and manipulators.

Emblems are those body language signals which have specific cultural significance. For example, a thumbs up signal may be assumed to mean ordinarily ‘yes’, or ‘I’m good’, or ‘well done’. However, when deep sea diving it means that you need to go up to the surface. Even before you take the deep sea diving difference into account, you can see how the one signal can mean different things in everyday context.

Illustrators are those which help to support the verbal message. In most cases this is where we use our hands to be expressive in some way. For example, “I first stopped at the shop, then went to the car, then realised I forgot something.” While doing this someone may count off on their fingers in order to illustrate the number of times something occurred, or they may use their hands to indicate moving from one point to the other in a recurring fashion.

Manipulators are those where the person is using one part of the body to touch another part in a habitual way. For example, while talking about something I may cover my mouth with my hand without realising. Or I may have a habit of stroking my ear when talking about a particular topic. We can’t infer what this movements may mean, just that they are a habitual thing the person does.

When you look at those three ‘channels’ of communication, it really helps to make clear that context makes all the difference when you notice the way someone is acting. The key thing that helps to provide the context, is gaining a clear understanding of the person’s ‘base line’. That is, what does normal behaviour look like for them? When you notice a significant change in what they are doing is where you know something has caused them to shift. And where you notice behaviours like this, is where careful conversation can take place to help uncover what’s going on there.

For me, I’ve been taking all of the above into account and can look at what’s happening both within me and then with others. There is a lot to be done to help share this out, and it’s quite early days for this training to be as mainstream as going through psychometric training, but I have no doubt it will get there. As I alluded to above, this is one of those courses where I have been able to take the learning and apply it directly to the work I do. I am more confident in how I understand working with others, and the take home point for me is that it provides the foundation for all I understand about emotional intelligence and conversations.