The Emotionally Intelligent Brain, Part 1

emotional intelligenceThere is much–albeit not enough–talk in the business world today about emotional intelligence (EI) and its importance in understanding what makes leaders transcend to the next level. There is less discussion of EI as it pertains to matters of love—couples, parenting, friendship. From what I know as a psychologist who is interested in neurobiology, I do not think of EI independent of thinking about the brain. Daniel Siegel, M.D., is one of the cutting-edge leaders in this new area of study called “Interpersonal Neurobiology.” Dr. Siegel, in an article for the Psychiatric Annals in April of 2006, wrote the following (I recommend reading it slowly):

An interpersonal neurobiology view of well-being holds that the complex, nonlinear system of the mind achieves states of self-organization by balancing the two opposing processes of differentiation and linkage. When separated areas of the brain are allowed to specialize in their function and then become linked together, the system is integrated. Integration brings with it a special state or functioning of the whole, which has the acronym of FACES: Flexible, Adaptive, Coherent, Energized and Stable. This coherent flow is bounded on one side by chaos and on the other by rigidity. In this manner we can envision a flow or river of well-being, with the two banks being chaos on the one side, rigidity on the other.

The focal point in this paragraph is on the idea of a “complex non-linear mind” that is “integrated.”  Integration comes about when the special functions of the brain work well (differentiation) but are also connected and communicative (linkage). As a result we get FACES.  When we consider these five functions of an integrated mind, also think of a leader, partner, parent, friend—who has all these functions working together as well:

  • Flexible … the ability to bend without breaking
  • Adaptive … ability to adjust to different conditions
  • Coherent … clear, logical, and forming a whole
  • Energized … having vitality and enthusiasm
  • Stable …  firmly established, not easily upset, not likely to give way

This is how Siegel describes a mentally healthy brain-mind. It is a mind that “flows” optimally between chaos (disorganization) on one side and rigidity (over-organization) on the other. What I find compelling is that these five (FACES) brain-mind functions aptly describe an emotionally intelligent leader (partner, parent, friend) as well. Emotionally intelligent people apparently have healthy, integrated brain-minds.

Who would not like to be married to (or have as a parent or friend) a person who is Flexible, Adaptive, Coherent, Energetic yet Stable–in other words, emotionally intelligent? Likewise, who wants people in their organization–not the least of which a leader—who possesses the opposite attributes of being inflexible if not rigid, unable to adapt, incoherent (confused, unclear and illogical), depressed, unmotivated or unstable? Having someone like this to follow (be married to, parented by and/or friends with) would be at best unpleasant and at worst damaging.

We can’t choose everyone in our life, of course. We get to pick our partners and friends. (Unfortunately we do not get to pick our parents.) We don’t always get to choose our workmates, but organizations can choose employees and leaders. So if emotionally intelligent leaders have healthy or integrated brain-minds and these integrated brain-minds make for transcendent leaders, how do we get a few of these brains into our organization?

I often argue that it is easier to hire a star employee rather than develop one. That is why I spend a good bit of time in my consulting practice helping organizations hire best-fit (emotionally intelligent) people. It is relatively easy to find someone who has the right education, training and even experience–especially in this current “buyers” market. It is much harder to find someone who is Flexible, Adaptive, Coherent, Energized and Stable . . . someone who has a healthy brain-mind, someone who is emotionally intelligent.

But it is not possible to hire an entirely new company full of integrated emotionally intelligent people. We have to work with the employees (and owners) that we have. This begs an important question: Can we retrain the brain?  Fortunately the answer is YES, however it is a qualified yes. It is not easy, and not everyone is willing or capable of retraining his or her brain. Siegel and other neurobiologist agree that the brain is “elastic.”  What they mean by that is that—although difficult—we can recondition the brain: build new and better brain-mind integration. How does one do this?

The better question might be “where do we do this?” We do it in the Middle Prefrontal Cortex. It is the at the crossroads between the emotional limbic system and the thinking cortex and it has to do with things like emotional balance, empathy, insight, fear extinction, intuition and morality. One key way to effect and eventually develop this part of the brain-mind is through awareness. When we raise people’s awareness we increase the proper functioning of this important region of the brain.

There are different ways to raise awareness in a business environment: the use of assessments, targeted workshops and especially one-on-one coaching.  But there are other ways to affect this region of the brain-mind. Stay tuned, I will discuss them further in part two of this article. For now, I hope you are encouraged to understand that we really can increase emotional intelligence and thereby improve relationships with everyone who crosses our life path.

Please let us know your experiences with emotionally intelligent (or lack thereof) bosses or leaders, as it pertains to FACES. And remember, EI is intelligence you can live with.

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5 comments
  1. Sam,
    Enjoyed reading your blog. It took me a while to realize it EI and EL ( I thought that’s an interesting title for a blog…like EL SID or something.) Looking at my church staff and self through an EI lens has been helpful to me. We’re looking for a position to be filled and the FACES acronym will be helpful in that process.

    Your former admin assistant,
    Garrett

    • Dr. Sam said:

      Thanks Garrett. I use the FACES model as well when I help organizations hire their staff. WE know about the EL versus the EI but don’t know how to fix it. Thanks for for your thoughts.

    • Dr. Sam said:

      Thanks to you feedback about “EI” not “EL,” we changed the title to “EQ” instead. I hope that clears up the confusion.

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