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Instincts Before Intelligence: Improving Emotional Intelligence Training for Exceptional Leadership

The five key elements of EI, as Daniel Goleman highlighted in his 1995 book, “Emotional Intelligence”, include:

  1. Self-awareness

  2. Self-regulation

  3. Motivation

  4. Empathy

  5. Social skills

All are essential for leadership effectiveness. However, most development efforts that focus on these principles commonly fall short because we overlook something that prevents the development of these skills.

It is true, that emotionally intelligent leaders excel in the five core areas. What we are learning is that most people can demonstrate EI skills in situations of relative calm, but many really struggle to demonstrate these skills in instances of stress, pressure, uncertainty, and/or complexity. The reason why this is so, is because negative life events in their past led to the development of neural patterns suited for survival, rather than effectiveness, in situations of stress, pressure, uncertainty, and/or complexity.

Developing high level EI, then becomes reliant on the resolution, or absence, of negative life events during key stages in brain development. Such experiences create critical neural patterns for survival.

I can relate. Most people would say I have a high EQ (emotional quotient) and operate in the top percentile of EI. I have been able to relate and communicate with people at their level or circumstance and connect with them in leadership or support. This skill was partly innate as well as honed over two decades of working in the phone-call based interpersonal environment of the investment markets. The skill of hearing what people aren’t saying when it comes to personal matters, like money, is reflected in of top performers. This is true, most of the time, subject to the situation.

Due to my own negative experience of abuse by an authority figure during formative years, my brain created a protective instinct that was designed to avoid the risk of recurrence of the trauma response induced by such a situation. One strategy used subconsciously, was the avoidance of conflict with any perceived authority. Thus when presented with disagreement by someone viewed as an expert or leader, I would hold back from any conflict even when I knew their position to be inaccurate. Even when they were acting unethically, I would shy away from confronting them. I can recall one such situation a long time ago, where I was having a heated disagreement with my senior partner and he was not only incorrect in his assessment of the situation, but was standing on unethical ground as well. My frustration was intense, and as the temperature of the discussion rose, it led me simply storm out of the office. Upon returning at a later time, my choice was to defer to his position against my best judgement and comfort. The decision cost me dearly and hastened my choice to exit from the firm shortly after and walked away from a six-figure debt owed to me.

When such situations arose, they would trigger subconscious neurological patterns that would drive decision making based up on the emotional response to the unconscious internal conflict. When this conscious response to unconscious struggle occurred, the ability to operate effectively, from and EI perspective, became hindered. Without control, or awareness, such hard wired patterns, or instincts, thwart typically emotionally intelligent responses.

Even though leaders can exhibit EI skills at times, we need to be conscious that they might have unconscious primal instincts that override their best intentions.

Much of EI training surrounds controlling or mastering our emotions and responses. Emotions are used by our conscious minds to trigger response to environmental stimuli. When we are unaware of the subconscious hard wiring that has occurred in our brains, which have formed instincts that are incongruent with successful positive social interactions, we cannot effectively rely solely on the EI skills we learned.

Thus, for EI training to be most effective, we must investigate the life experiences that may have been involved in creating our subconscious patterns that may limit our EI.

When repetitive subtle or obvious threatening situations arise during formative years, specific neural pathways are established to protect us in similar future scenarios. The very nature of these protective mechanisms is designed so we take action first, before we think or change our minds. This type of hard wiring is extraordinarily effective in threatening, or dangerous situations. Alas, most of us live in typical modern society where our survival is not tested daily… if ever. Thus, our instincts are often incongruent with everyday life.

How do we override those instincts that thwart our success? It isn’t that EI training is wrong, it is just that a large portion of the time, the subject isn’t prepared to maximize the training because their protective subconscious patterns take over when stressed and sabotage their good intentions.

What is needed to truly develop EI is a formal infrastructure applied to assess, identify, and unwire unhelpful, subconscious patterns, and replacing with new positive pathways. To begin, this requires an open and common language approach to reducing the stigma around mental wellness and the undeniable and inextricable links of childhood trauma to adult behavior.

Of course, this isn’t something that can be executed without the guidance of qualified experts; however the first steps are universally important in leadership as they are in all mental wellness conversations. Initially, we must agree and understand that this brain-based neural connection between negative childhood experiences and instinctive adult behavior exists. The next is normalizing the narrative so former challenges, become identified as stigma-free opportunities to grow. Lastly, we need to apply painless, simple, and proven therapeutic techniques to identifying and resolving these trauma-causing experiences in order to unwire the primitive survival instincts embedded in our psyche and re-wire for healthy positive and congruent patterns that position a leader for success.

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