Emotional Intelligence Part 1: Emotional Intelligence in a Changing World

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By Patrick Psaila

Applying Emotional Intelligence competencies to boost performance in oneself and others

Emotional Intelligence is the ability to identify, use, understand and manage emotions effectively in oneself and others. It is a relatively young construct that was first researched by John Mayer and Peter Salovey in the early nineties. Nowadays, it is one of the most researched areas in psychology, especially in the fields of education and work. In this two-part article I shall be looking at the impact of emotional intelligence on performance. The first part will explore the personal dimension while the second part will deal with the interpersonal dimension including leadership.

Understanding our Brain’s Negativity Bias

Imagine you are walking along a coast road with a beautiful sea view. Suddenly, a car is speeding in your direction. What will attract your immediate attention? The view or the car? Obviously, the car and there is a reason for this. It is an evolutionary built-in mechanism in the human brain called the “Negativity Bias”. Our brain is equipped with the ability to constantly search for and respond to any form of threat as a defense system that protects us from danger.

It serves us well if we are living in a war zone or in a high crime neighbourhood. The COVID reality we are living with today, threatens our health and wellbeing. So, currently, the negativity bias helps us to be careful and vigilant.

However, the constant activation of this bias also means that our brain becomes continuously primed for a stress response, becoming a self-preserving mechanism that narrows its focus on surviving perceived threat. In this state, our brain struggles to distinguish between real and perceived threat and advanced functions, like problem solving, creativity, complex reasoning and perspective-taking are hampered.

The Mood Map, Perception Filters, and the Optimal Performance Zone

In 2004, Caruso and Salovey developed a framework that provides us with an understanding of how emotions occur in the brain and which emotional states are the most effective for high levels of performance and effectiveness. Our emotional states can be organised into four main categories as illustrated in the diagram. Each quadrant represents the level of energy and “pleasantness” of an emotional state and how it filters our perception of reality.

The Mood Map and the Optimal Performance Zone (Adapted from Mayer & Caruso)

The red zone is characterised by highly charged and unpleasant emotional states such as anger, frustration, and fear. In this zone our outlook is biased towards threat.

The brain is primed for fight or flight and tends to stay on the alert for any signs of danger. The blue zone consists of low energy and unpleasant emotional states like sadness, demotivation, and apathy. The perceptual filter is one of helplessness and hopelessness and we may regard challenges as insurmountable.

The yellow zone is characterised by high energy, positive emotions like happiness, enthusiasm, and optimism. The perceptual filter here is one of optimism, a feeling that nothing can stop us.

The green zone represents low energy and pleasant feelings of calm, relaxation, and tranquillity. Our perception is biased towards letting things be.

As shown in the diagram the optimal performance zone falls at the bottom left of the yellow zone slightly overlapping onto the other zones. Neuroscientific research reveals that consistent feelings of happiness and satisfaction, are strongly associated with better judgement, creativity, increased productivity, and enhanced ability to learn and grow. So how can we manage our emotions towards this area of optimal performance?

Three steps to using Emotional Intelligence competencies to gravitate towards the Optimal Performance Zone

Identifying emotions: The first step is to be aware of the various emotional changes that occur within us as we go through our day and navigate different situations. Research into emotional regulation shows that by pausing for a moment to get in touch with our negative feelings and naming those feelings as they arise in us is an effective way of stopping them from overwhelming us or spiralling out of control. It helps us to gain perspective and avoid becoming enmeshed with the emotion we are experiencing.

Understanding Emotions: The next step is to think about the cause of this emotion. Why are we reacting in this way, how is it affecting our thinking? This enables us to understand our emotional triggers and why they have such a powerful emotional impact on our thoughts and perception.

Using and Managing Emotions: The third step is to use our emotions as important data that determines our behaviour so that we can take the best course of action. First, we need to check our thinking. How are we thinking about the situation or event that has caused us to feel this way? Is this the most constructive and useful way to think about it? How can we think more realistically and positively about the situation so that we can achieve our desired outcome? Once we gain control over our thinking we can then decide how to act in the best possible way.

So, for example, you receive an email that frustrates you with its tone and content. Your natural reaction would be to go to the red zone on the mood map and reply with the same tone. By pausing for a moment to recognise your emotional state, thinking about why exactly you are feeling frustrated and what is the best possible outcome that you want from this situation, you will be able to calm down and take a course of action that manages the conflict rather than escalates it. With this simple but effective process you may gradually move towards the “yellow” zone and act responsibly and professionally.

This process can be challenging especially when we are caught in the grip of negative emotions. However, with practice and perseverance, we can achieve emotional self-mastery and respond effectively to challenging situations.

In part two of this article, next week we shall be looking at how Emotional Intelligence competencies are critical to effective leadership.

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