Daniel Goleman interview - Emotional intelligence and the CIO

Last month, Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, with more than 5,000,000 copies in print, stepped away from his desk, and put aside his work on his latest book to spend a little time talking with me about emotional intelligence and leadership, and what those two character traits mean for IT directors in the UK.

Pat Brans: Let's start with a basic question. What exactly is emotional intelligence?
Daniel Goleman: Emotional intelligence refers to a different way of being smart. It's not your IQ. It's how you manage yourself and your relationships.

There are four parts to emotional intelligence - at least in my model, and that of a couple of other people. The first is self-awareness, knowing what you feel, and why you feel it, and getting in touch with your values. The second is managing yourself, motivating yourself, keeping going towards your goals, bouncing back from setbacks, and being cool under stress. The third is social awareness, and particularly empathy, knowing what other people are thinking, sensing their feelings, and showing concern when they need your help. And then, the fourth is relationship skills, your ability to influence, to negotiate, to communicate, and so on.

PB: So how exactly does one acquire emotional intelligence?
DG: Well, unlike cognitive abilities and knowledge you learn in school, emotional intelligence is learned in life. Our first tutors are our parents, our caretakers, our teachers, and friends; and now, more and more schools are actually offering more systematic lessons under the guise of what's called social and emotional learning.

This has taken off in many parts of the world actually. And also, many, many businesses are offering courses to help with emotional development. Examples are team-building exercises, and training in communication or negotiation. Some companies have brought in coaches, particularly for the top level, the C-level folks, to help them hone their emotional intelligence, because the higher you go in an organisation, the more these skills matter for your effectiveness.

PB: Are there elements emotional intelligence that are innate?
DG: I think there are some kinds of genetic givens, but the latest understanding on that topic is that emotional intelligence is subject to what's called epigenetics - even if we have a gene, it doesn't mean we'll use it. It can turn on and off, depending on the emotional, chemical or nutritional environment. And second, the brain is plastic throughout our lives. So, if you're underdeveloped in some areas, such as managing yourself, with systematic learning, you can get better at it.

PB: I assume a lot comes from one's parents, and of the two parents, it's the mother who probably passes most of the emotional intelligence to the child. Would you agree with that?
DG: I would say that's true in the earliest years. But emotional development goes on throughout childhood. In fact, I think the part of the brain that manages emotional and social abilities is the last part of it to become anatomically mature. It doesn't mature until to the mid-20s.

That means that everyone you spend time with influences you, for better or for worse. And then you may ask, well can you get better after the mid-20s? The answer is, yes, but it takes effort.

PB: Do you think there are people for whom it's impossible to acquire emotional intelligence – for example, sociopaths?
DG: I think there are some people who have the greater challenge in that way. Most obvious categories are the people in the Asperger's spectrum, who may be fantastic systems analysts, and wonderful workers by themselves, but who don't seem to pick up the signals for social life and often aren't in touch with their own feelings.

We don't understand the specifics, but we do know that people in that category need to develop workarounds, which is to learn cognitively what to do in situations that other people would learn using their emotional or social centres. It doesn't mean you can't learn, it's just a different kind of learning. I think it also takes longer and is more challenging.

PB: Of the four areas that you mentioned - self-awareness, self-management, empathy and relationship skills - would you say they go hand in hand, or can you be really strong in one and not the others?
DG: Even within each of those four categories, there are specific competencies, in which you can be highly developed or undeveloped. Or you can be stronger in, say, self-management and empathy, and when you get promoted to a leadership position, where you need the empathy and relationship skills, you might start to run into problems.

And there are some people who are wonderful as individual contributors but just can't make it as a leader. Often, a lack of empathy and relationship skills is the reason why.

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