Social Leadership Requires Emotional Intelligence More Than Ever!
Have you ever found yourself sitting behind a computer screen or on your phone having a bad reaction to something someone said in an e-mail, text or social media post? Was your first reaction to pause, think about what might be going on with the other person, and then reach out to connect with them? Or did you immediately craft a brilliant and fiendish response that would make it clear once and for all that you are right, and they are in the wrong?!
Yup, we’ve all done that. In the absence of any human interaction—tone of voice, visual cues, etc.,—we default to our base emotional instinct, which is to amplify the negative and respond accordingly. Those emotional responses most often do not help the situation—in fact, they almost always make things worse.
In a world of technology, social media, and virtual relationships, the need to recognize and manage our own emotions, and connect to and influence the emotions of others (Emotional Intelligence/EQ) has become more important than ever in order to bring people together, collaborate more effectively, and drive innovation.
The Problem Is Our Emotional Brain
If we only used our cognitive brain, we’d be able to objectively determine if a person’s e-mail or response to our social media post was really meant as a put down, let down, or shut down. Most times we’d realize that was not the person’s intention, and we’d respond skillfully.
But there is a different part of our brain that is always on the lookout for potential threats—the emotional part of our brain that is centered around the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of our brain that manages our fight or flight responses. It reacts to any perceived threats. If we are in the jungle and there is a tiger lurking in the area, then the amygdala must be on high alert and assume that every little noise, movement, etc., is a threat that needs responding to.
When the amygdala does respond to a threat, it does the following things:
- It processes incoming stimuli up to 100 times faster than our cognitive brain.
- Before our cognitive brain can even think about it, the amygdala releases chemicals into our body—moving blood to the major muscle groups, shortening our breathing, and tensing up our muscles.
- It then releases chemicals into our brain that reduce our thinking capacity. It limits our ability to think complex thoughts.
- It amplifies the negative and assumes everything is a threat.
- It causes us to become more reactive and judgmental, and we feel a strong need to act.
- It moves us toward default behaviors—to fight or run.
In the jungle, this a great system to have because it protects us from physical threats. Here’s the challenging part: The amgydala does not differentiate between real physical threats (like tigers) and social threats (like people criticizing our ideas in an e-mail or a post).
And behind the veneer of our mobile devices and computers, we don’t take the time to determine if the person did not intend to impact us, we assume the worst and then move to default behaviors: to fight (send a nasty response) or flee (don’t respond and generally try to avoid the person). Neither of these approaches helps build the relationship, foster collaboration, drive engagement, or demonstrate effective leadership.
How Can We Manage Emotion in the Social Arena?
In our Science of Emotional Intelligence training, we teach several strategies to calm the amygdala when it’s triggered so we can think more clearly, objectively assess the situation, and act appropriately.
One of the powerful techniques we teach is Intention vs. Impact. Here is a description of each:
- We all have good intentions: we want to make a difference for our clients, support and influence the people around us, earn a good living for our family.
- Our impact is how we show up: our decisions, our behavior, our tone in e-mails, texts, and social media responses. Impact is how we make people feel.
The dichotomy of intention vs. impact is that we judge ourselves by our intention and others judge us by our impact. Conversely, we judge others by their impact, not their intention.
Reacting to Impact
If we posted something that was a little harsh or curt, we tell ourselves we didn’t mean to. But the other person is reacting to the impact of the harsh comment. Their amygdala starts to trigger, it amplifies the negative (they assume you had a negative intention) and they pounce back with a biting response. Then you respond even more harshly, and the downward cycle begins.
Or somebody makes a suggestion in an e-mail that feels like a criticism of your idea. Your amygdala triggers and moves you to a flight response: You shut down, forget you ever had the idea, and talk negatively about that person behind their back.
That’s all about impact and the amygdala loves to respond to impact!
Assume and State Positive Intention
The emotional brain is wired to assume others have a negative intention, especially when we aren’t talking to the person, and we only have the computer or phone screen to interact with. Try this the next time you are having a difficult virtual exchange with someone:
- Assume they have a positive intention. Is that person making a suggestion that feels like a criticism? They may be trying to help me avoid a mistake or help me improve on something. It doesn’t mean I accept them criticizing my ideas, but if I assume their intention is not bad, and is positive, that calms my emotional brain down enough to let me respond more skillfully.
- State your positive intention. Knowing people will amplify the negative, make sure you start any conversation, discussion, response, or post by clarifying your positive intention. For example, “This suggestion I am making is intended to help you create the best product possible.” Their amygdala now feels safe, it doesn’t trigger, and they can hear your feedback without becoming defensive.
As you start to practice this, you will be amazed at how many times you jumped to assuming a negative intention about someone, only to find they were thinking something completely different. And we all know how many times we say/do something that people interpret because their amygdala assumed we had a negative intention.
Focusing on positive intention for ourselves and others counteracts the negative thinking and emotions that trigger the emotions system, allowing us to remain calm and respond more skillfully to difficult situations. It even allows us to demonstrate more empathy and collaborate more effectively with others.
In a world of social, virtual, and online interactions, it’s more important than ever to manage our emotions and show up at our best when it matters most.
Bill Benjamin is a training and leadership expert at the Institute for Health and Human Potential and a contributor to The New York Times best-selling book, “Performing Under Pressure.” Benjamin is a sought-after speaker on the topics of emotional intelligence and performing under pressure, and is a monthly contributor to CEO Magazine. He works with people in high-pressure environments, including Intel, Goldman Sachs, and the U.S. Marines.