Balance may be the key to success

Since Daniel Goleman published his best-selling book “Emotional intelligence” in 1995 and brought this concept to the attention of the public, it has been widely appreciated but also debated and criticized. Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to identify, express and manage one’s own as well as others’ emotions. Its four main components are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and social skills. Even though each person can possess and develop these four aspects in different ways and proportions, in order to reach a high level of emotional intelligence it is usually suggested to achieve them progressively. As Daniel Goleman himself wrote on the Harvard Business Review “Being emotionally intelligent is not equal to being nice”. Many complex skills such as empathy, self-control, motivation, listening abilities and critical thinking are required at the same time. 

Since emotional intelligence appeared in the debate, it has always been considered rival of the traditional intelligence measured with IQ tests. Many theories involving emotional intelligence tried, at first, to replace the IQ with the new EQ, emotional quotient, suggesting that it could be a better predictor of success in different fields such as leadership and academic or job performance. Among scientists, the correlation between a high level of EQ and success is a controversial topic. Since emotional intelligence affects the way we perceive ourselves and others, it is inevitable that is has deep effects on our relationships, both personal and professional, and consequently on our performance and success. However, a direct correlation has not been proved yet. For a long time, it remained an open question whether one intelligence was more important or useful than the other and which was the best one to invest in. An interesting insight comes from recent neuroimaging studies. 

Research by Professor Anthony Jack at Case Western Reserve University describes two of the major neural networks functioning in our brains as the analytic network (AN), or technically the task-positive network, and the empathic network (EN), also known as the default-mode network. The AN helps us make sense of things and events. We use it when we are solving problems and making decisions. It helps us engage in abstract or analytic thinking, like financial analysis and data analytics. The EN enables us to scan the environment and be open to new ideas and other people. What’s really interesting is that these two networks oppose each other. More specifically, they actually suppress each other. When one is activated, the other is deactivated. Professor Jack calls these two networks opposing poles. Both involve cognitive activity, fast and slow thinking and reason. However, the AN reasoning is more about information and analysis and the EN reasoning is more about people or qualitative observations.

These findings show that both IQ and EQ are fundamental to face the tasks we encounter in our everyday life and therefore it is essential to find the right balance between the two, especially since they seem to require completely different brain efforts. Obviously, this is simpler said than done. There are both cultural and environmental factors that make it difficult for us to achieve the correct equilibrium. 

Firstly, our education systems are currently based on an analytical approach which aims to raise our IQ level and rarely stimulates our emotional skills. The latter are always seen as something that people must mature autonomously during their life, but, as Daniel Goleman sustains, emotional intelligence can be (and indeed should) cultivated and developed. After families, schools are probably the first place where people learn how to relate with others. However, as long as emotional education is not considered a fundamental aspect of human development, students could continue to face dreadful experiences, such as isolation, bullying or burn out. In fact, these are all examples of how uncontrolled emotions can impact  our lives and have long-term effects on our growth. This educational background implies that developing emotional intelligence could be more difficult, since we must do it on our own without adequate means or knowledge. Moreover, the development of emotional intelligence can be an extremely uncomfortable job. Getting out of our comfort zone in order to test our emotional and social abilities could be very challenging and sometimes discouraging. 

The second, more technical, problem is that we often get stuck into one network and we are not able to switch to the other when some tasks require us to. It can happen because we developed one intelligence more than the other, because we did not train ourselves to be elastic between the two or because of particular situations, such as the Covid pandemic. This was clear during lockdowns, when some people were not able to be productive because they were overwhelmed by their feelings or, vice versa, others cannot stop working because they did not want to process their emotions. In both cases, the balance was lost and people got stuck. The current pandemic forces people to communicate remotely and  this makes it even more difficult to cultivate emotional skills. We are experiencing new emotions and we cannot rely on the physical dimension (i.e. body language) to catch other people’s feelings. 

Developing and balancing these two types of intelligence is probably the key to success. Since emotional intelligence is a relatively new concept, people should pay attention to their emotional skills and try to develop them if lacking. Equilibrium would allow to achieve stability in personal life and to be even more valuable in the job market. For instance, it is essential that managers, in addition to analytical skills, achieve a high level of emotional intelligence, since it’s a fundamental part of their job to communicate effectively with other people, especially now that smart-working is the rule and not the exception. Another interesting aspect to consider is that in the future artificial intelligence will be much more present. Since people are being replaced by machines for many computational and analytical tasks, emotional intelligence could become the most important human resource. This can be some food for thought for policy makers as well. Implementing emotional education in schools could be a good starting point. Actually, some emotional coaching already exists, but it is still considered superfluous and unnecessary, and it is usually reserved to the few people who pay for it. For now, intervention in schools is rare. However, some experiments have already been performed. A curious example is an optional art course aimed at developing self-awareness in students aged from 10 to 12. They had to draw mainly portraits representing a wide range of emotions and to compare their own works with those of the others. The purpose of the project was to give students a moment for reflecting on their feelings through a creative activity and to deal with others’ emotions as well in a critical manner.

Summing up, in achieving the right balance we should consider our educational backgrounds and all the environmental factors that may affect us. However, despite all the obstacles, it is fundamental, now more than ever, to acknowledge that the equilibrium between analytical and emotional skills can be the key for success, since it is the only way in which we can fully develop ourselves and efficiently tackle different challenges.

Daniel Goleman, “Emotional intelligence”

TED Talk x Daniel Goleman “About compassion”

Marinela Rusu, “Portraits and Emotions. Developing emotional intelligence through Art school intervention”

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