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Emotional Intelligence–Without the Touchy-Feely Stuff

emoticonsEmotional intelligence is, essentially, the ability to recognize and manage emotional states. While it is not quite the rage that it was 10 years ago, emotional intelligence is still an important quality for leaders to possess. That said, just the mere mention of “emotion”–especially “negative” emotions such as fear, shame, and sorrow–makes many people in organizations uncomfortable. Emotions cloud our judgment and make us vulnerable, right? Who wants that? We should just get back to work…

Not so fast.

What we often think of as negative emotions are actually useful early warning signals of problems in our environment. The emotional components of our brain pick up signals from our environment far more quickly and effectively than does the more conscious, deliberative part of our brain. (The popularity of emoticons, such as those seen above, is because they help to send emotional signals that register in our non-conscious but are not otherwise available in written communication.)

Emotions are often one part of our brain’s attempt to tell another part of our brain to pay attention to something that could be important. Learning to recognize and heed those signals is a useful skill. For example, we should understand that:

  • Anger often indicates that we perceive that an injustice or inequity has been done to us and needs to be addressed.
  • Shame indicates we feel we have done something wrong and we need to correct it.
  • Fear indicates that we perceive a threat that we need to mitigate.


The emotional structures of our brain developed during a time when the behavioral options of “fight, flee, or comply” were sufficient to deal with the rigors of day-to-day life. Our environment is much more complicated today, however, and we need to learn to take better advantage of those emotional stimuli. With a little practice we can learn to value our emotions and use them as tools for problem solving.

Here is how to do that:

  • Learn to identify and name your emotions. Ever feel angry for a while without really realizing it or knowing why? It happens frequently to most of us, and when someone asks us what we are angry about it may take a moment to figure out the root cause. Practice recognizing your emotional states as quickly as possible; eventually you will learn to see the emotions as they arise and you’ll be hijacked by them less frequently.
  • Identify the cause of the emotion. If you recognize that you are feeling anxiety, for example, ask yourself, “What, specifically, is causing me to feel this way?” Are you concerned about an upcoming sales call or worried that you didn’t leave enough time to complete a project? Clearly identifying a problem is the first step to correcting the problem.
  • Let go of the emotion and begin working to solve the problem. Carrying on a negative emotional state after we’ve identified the problem causing is like carrying the boat after we’ve crossed the river–it only makes the journey more cumbersome. Take a deep breath and as you exhale consciously release the emotions–feel the chemicals leaving your body. It’s okay to experience emotions, it’s not okay to allow ourselves to dwell in them after they have served their purpose.
  • Get to work on solving the problem that triggered the emotion. Once you let go of the emotion you can think rationally, develop a clear plan, and take appropriate action.
  • Leverage positive emotions–happiness, excitement, etc., to add energy to your activities.


Good leaders don’t fear emotions–either in themselves or in others. They see them as a useful evolutionary legacy and they learn how to manage them rather than being ruled by them. They also learn to recognize the emotional states of others so they can be more effective at helping others solve problems and motivating them.

How does that make you feel? Excited, I hope.