A Conversation with Daniel Goleman on Emotional Intelligence, Emotions & Leadership

A Conversation with Daniel Goleman on Emotional Intelligence, Emotions & Leadership

Daniel Goleman is an internationally known psychologist who lectures frequently to professional groups, business audiences, and on college campuses. As a science journalist Goleman reported on the brain and behavioural sciences for The New York Times for many years. His 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence was on The New York Times bestseller list for a year-and-a-half, with more than 5,000,000 copies in print worldwide in 40 languages and has been a best seller in many countries. Apart from his books on emotional intelligence, Goleman has written books on topics including self-deception, creativity, transparency, meditation, social and emotional learning, Eco literacy and the ecological crisis.

The Harvard Business Review called emotional intelligence— which discounts IQ as the sole measure of one’s abilities — “a revolutionary, paradigm-shattering idea” and chose his article “What Makes a Leader” as one of ten “must-read” articles from its pages. Emotional Intelligence was named one of the 25 “Most Influential Business Management Books by TIME Magazine. The Financial Times, Wall Street Journal and Accenture Institute for Strategic Change have listed Goleman among the most influential business thinkers.

Goleman is a co-founder of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, originally at the Yale Child Studies Center and now at the University of Illinois at Chicago. CASEL’s mission centers on bringing evidence-based programs in emotional literacy to schools worldwide. He currently co-directs the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations at Rutgers University. The consortium fosters research partnerships between academic scholars and practitioners on the role emotional intelligence plays in excellence. Goleman is a board member of the Mind & Life Institute, which fosters dialogues and research collaborations among contemplative practitioners and scientists. Goleman has organized a series of intensive conversations between the Dalai Lama and scientists, which resulted in the books Healing Emotions, and Destructive Emotions.

In this interview, I speak to Daniel Goleman about the purpose of emotions, the importance of emotional intelligence and why leaders need to understand emotions & emotional intelligence.

Q:  What do emotions do for us?

[Daniel Goleman]: Emotions are the brain’s way of making us pay attention immediately to what is most important so that we can react as quickly as possible. In evolution, that meant ‘survival’ – the rustle in the bushes may be our next meal or may make us its next meal – something that we have to chase, or run away from – and in either case, we don’t want to have to stop and think.

Q:  How did you realise the significance of emotional intelligence?

[Daniel Goleman]: For a long time, I was a science journalist at the New York Times. My beat was brain & behaviour, and whilst initially there wasn’t a great deal of brain research- we saw the emergence of what’s called affective neuroscience, looking at the brain and emotions. It was around that time that Peter Salovey (now President of Yale University) and his (then) graduate student, John Mayer, published an paper on something called ‘Emotional intelligence’ – at first it sounds like a complete oxymoron, why would you put intelligence and emotion together? But I realised that it signifies that you can be intelligent about emption. So, I wrote the book Emotional Intelligence which was received well around the world.

In the book, I had a little chapter on managing with heart. I was making a case for teaching emotional skills to kids in schools, what we call social emotional learning. That chapter got a huge amount of interest from the business community and so that led to my next book Working with Emotional Intelligence which looked at the leadership and business implications of this topic. At Harvard, my mentor was a man named David McClelland. He was one of the first people to talk about competence in the workplace and to build a model around competence. He said that if you want to hire the best person for a job, that you shouldn’t look at their grades or IQ – instead, you should look at someone who has the job now (or had it in the past) who was in the top 10% of performers (however you measure that) and compare against that benchmark. Hire people like that and help people develop strengths in those characteristics. That’s become standard practice in most world-class organisations.

In the Harvard Business Review, I wrote an article to show how emotional intelligence was- indeed- the essence of effective leadership. This article was called What Makes a Leader and became one of the most requested reprints in the history of the review, it went ‘platinum’ so to speak! They paid me $100 for the rights, but it probably endowed a Chair at the business school! <laughs!> – I think people in the business community have always known about emotional intelligence – but just didn’t have language.

Q: What is emotional intelligence?

[Daniel Goleman]: I break emotional intelligence down into 4 capacities.

Firstly, self-awareness. You need to know what you’re feeling, why, how it’s impacting what you do, say and how you perceive. Emotions are very powerful!

Secondly, you need the capacity to manage upsetting and disturbing emotions so you’re not distracted and can focus. You need to marshal your positive emotions, the ones that motivate you, make you enthusiastic, and engage you.

Thirdly, you need to recognise emotions in other people. It’s not enough to lead yourself, you need to tune into the people you work with- the people that you know- your family. You need to pick up non-verbal cues, facial expressions, tone of voice.

Fourthly, you need to manage relationships effectively with everyone around you; and that brings together the first 3 capacities.

I’m not dismissing IQ however, it is important, but studies show that to get an MBA and to be a high-level executive you need to be a standard-deviation above the norm (have an IQ of 114 or more). After that, it turns out there’s a negative relationship between IQ and leadership effectiveness. Perhaps because at that point people become narcissistic or egocentric. The University of Cambridge did a study of teams which found that if you have a lot of high IQ people on a team, they were terrible as all of them were competing to be the smartest person in the room. When Google (a very high IQ place!) looked into their highest performing teams, they found the hallmark of those teams was a sense of psychological and emotional safety.

Q:  Can emotional intelligence be taught?

[Daniel Goleman]: We’re born with certain traits. Some people are more outgoing, some people are more empathic, some less-so. Emotional intelligence however is a skill that is learned and learnable. We learn it in life- and we can be trained in it. It’s not enough to have someone come and talk to your team about why it’s important however, it’s something that needs practice, something that you have to work at.

My colleague Richard Boyatzis at Case Western Reserve School of Management has done years of research with his MBAs where he finds what they care about, what constitutes their ideal self. He then looks at whether there is a toolbox through emotional intelligence that can help them get there.

This isn’t just about work either, emotional intelligence can be practiced in any human relationship we have- the brain doesn’t make a distinction about whether it’s work or home. The key is to practice, practice, practice so that the skills become spontaneous and automatic.

If you have a national or multinational brand, your customers are as diverse as the human population. If you’re smart, you realise that you need people in your business who can relate to all those different kinds of people, whoever they may be. This is actually one of the smartest supports for diversity and inclusion in the workplace. The argument is this; if we’re going to be a national or international brand, we have to reflect our customers in our own workplace. It isn’t happening fast enough.

Q: How are our emotions hijacked, and what can we do about it?

[Daniel Goleman]: Our brain was designed for survival and was developed in the 99.9% of human history that occurred before culture and civilisation. As a result, there are situations in our lives today where the brain doesn’t work so-well. We call this an emotional hijack, and it occurs when the amygdala (the brain’s emotional centre and threat radar) sees something in our complex social reality as a threat. For example, you may feel you aren’t being treated fairly in a situation and your amygdala may marshal the same biological reaction to that treatment as it would when your ancestors were trying to survive on the savannah. That reaction isn’t useful anymore – and will suddenly give you a surge of stress-hormones that will make you angry and scared. These reactions can also make you do or say things that you later regret- it’s how we’re wired; it’s how our brains are set up.

Being more self-aware allows you to recognise the signals of the onset so that you can short-circuit the whole thing. If you’re in the middle of an emotional hijack, it turns-out that by naming it you activate the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that can say no to the amygdala) which shifts the brain’s energy and allows you to manage the situation better. We can learn to manage hijacks better!

Q: How do these primal emotions relate to our technological reality?

[Daniel Goleman]:  There’s a sad disconnect between the design of the human brain and the potential that technology and civilisation unlock, and we see this manifest in many ways, not least in how we can be abused using technology.

I have a podcast called First Person Plural, and I just did on with someone who is an expert on the disconnect between the things we buy and the degradation of the environment. As a species, we have become extremely powerful, yet we have a blind spot about the negative impact of the things we buy and use. If someone buys a new mobile phone, it’s unlikely they will be thinking about the several-hundred parts, how they were sourced, the rare metals that were mined, the potential for slave labour in the supply chain. As it turns out, you cannot have a mobile phone without many of these things…

We have a blind spot about the ways in which the things we innocently buy and use actually are decaying the environment we depend on, the global systems that support life on the planet.  We are super-monkeys- super because of the technology, and our monkeys because our brains haven’t kept up with the change.

Q:  Are there applications for emotional intelligence in fields like peacebuilding?

[Daniel Goleman]: I have a friend who now teaches at a business school in Switzerland. He is a clinical psychologist who became a hostage negotiator for the police in the USA. He had to deal with a lot of difficult and dangerous situations, but always managed to get to a point where he made a human connection with the hostage taker- and used emotional intelligence to know them person to person and being able to therefore navigate the situation. Another friend of mine does negotiations around river systems in parts of the world where river systems are managed by people who hate each other. He’s gone to many of the world’s most dangerous hotspots and one of the techniques he uses is not to get people to talk about what they will give or take, but rather, to get them to talk about the spiritual meaning of water in their culture. It’s a new frame. He shows them two maps. One is the river with all the divisions, and one without. It shows people how they’re connected rather than how they’re divided.

Research tells us that if you have a friend- as a child- who belongs to a group that your own group doesn’t get along with, you will never have a bias against that group as an adult. It comes from the fact that you learned- as a child- to be friends with someone from that other group.

We have to make strong human connections. Our technologies have allowed us to balkanise so that we don’t run into attitudes other than those which support ours, and so you see a growing sense of ‘us and them’ – humanising connection could be part of the antidote, and I hope we do it in time

Q: What is the power of meditation and mindfulness in the business setting?

[Daniel Goleman]: I’ve been a meditator since my college days, I’ve done a lot of research around it and published a book called Science of Meditation.

Mindfulness is a paradox; it looks like you’re doing nothing (and performance is all about doing ‘something’) but actually you are doing something, you are calming yourself. There’s a direct relationship between your level of anxiety and how well you take in information, process it, and respond. Anxiety reduces and narrows your cognitive ability.

Meditation also gives you focus. When you are in performance mode, you don’t want to be distracted, you want to keep you mind on the things that matter most in that moment.

Mindfulness also makes you a more compassionate, connected and concerned person. Those are qualities that people engage with, they’ll connect with you better and be more engaged with you.

Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?

[Daniel Goleman]: I’m thrilled that the emotional intelligence work has penetrated into schools around the world. When it’s done well, and implemented with best practice, the results are stunning. It helps to level the playing field. I don’t care what town or neighbourhood you grew-up in. Kids who have done social and emotional learning do better in life, better in their careers, better as leaders.

I’m also pleased that businesses are taking emotional intelligence to heart. Business is about people, and if you don’t know how to work with or get the best out of people, you’re not going to be a good leader. Now, emotional intelligence is woven into the DNA and culture of so many businesses and organisations, and they’re seeing the benefits.

I’m also very interested in piercing the blind spot we have about our environmental impact and continuing my work on meditation.

I hope I have a lasting impact on this world, but we all build on the shoulders of people who went before, and I welcome people who build on whatever I’ve done, and it will emerge in some different way, and that’s fine.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.