The Value of Emotional Reasoning

Posted May 25th, 2011 by Mark Scullard and filed in Posts

I frequently get asked, “What’s the relationship between DiSC® and emotional intelligence?” I typically respond that DiSC is about helping to develop emotional intelligence, not measuring it. Even then, however, it’s usually a little unclear exactly what emotional intelligence means. Most of us have a vague notion of what EQ is, but it truly does encompass a huge diversity of skills. It can mean anything from self-awareness to general social skills. Of course, there are formal definitions of the trait, but the popular understanding of the concept appears to be largely murky.
photo credit: laszlo-photo

Perhaps this lack of definition explains some of the survey results we have seen recently. On two different occasions we asked workers what type of training they would choose to attend if it was made available to them. Topics like “building emotional intelligence” are frequently rated toward the bottom, regardless of the employee’s position in the organization. (As a side note, leadership development was always at the top.) Even though the term has some buzz potential, the idea of emotional intelligence may still be too mysterious or abstract for people to really get their heads around.

Even more difficult than defining EQ, however, is proving its value. We all know that intelligence is important. Industrial organizational psychologists will tell you that IQ scores are consistently the best predictor of job performance. But what about skills like empathy, social poise, or self-control? Traditionally, these areas are notoriously difficult to measure. This is why I was excited to see a short article in the Harvard Business Review last September titled When Emotional Reasoning Trumps IQ. In it, the authors describe a study in which managers in the Wharton School executive MBA program were asked to react to strategic and tactical management problems. During this activity, the researchers were able to monitor which areas of the managers’ brains “lit up” using fMRI.

As the authors point out, the area of the brain commonly associated with strategic thought is the prefrontal cortex. This is where we weigh options, predict future outcomes, and reconcile conflicting thoughts. The researchers found, however, that the best strategic performers had more activity in areas associated with “gut” responses, emotional intelligence, and empathy. Further, the best tactical performers showed increased processing in the part of the brain associated with anticipating the feelings and thoughts of others – that is, how will others respond to this plan? The authors suggest that the best strategic and tactical thinkers may actually be repressing rational thought so that areas of the brain linked with emotion and intuition had more freedom to operate.

This research suggests that the best performers aren’t solely using the parts of their brain associated with logical decision making and conscious executive functioning. In fact, these managers are spending more energy processing the people part of the equation. And while the popular idea of emotional intelligence may still be a little murky, it is becoming more and more apparent just how important interpersonal and emotional skills actually are. In fact, the leadership development that workers seem to prize so highly may, at its heart, be emotional intelligence training in disguise.

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