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ILLUSTRATION BY LISA SMITH

ILLUSTRATION BY LISA SMITH The renowned psychologist and Emotional Intelligence pioneer describes the importance of focus

The renowned psychologist and Emotional

Intelligence pioneer describes the importance of focus

and self-mastery for leadership excellence.

Thought Leader Interview:

Daniel Goleman

by Karen Christensen

Your latest book is about a skill that you call “the hidden driv- er of excellence”. Tell us about it.

My new book is about the power of focus, and the brain systems involved in training our attention. I argue that leaders need to be adept at three varieties of focus. The first is self-awareness, and as a result of that, the ability to manage your own emotions; the second is awareness of other people; and the third is an outer focus, whether it’s an awareness of your organization as a whole or a larger sense of the broader systems that affect your indus- try. The largest possible lens for our focus encompasses global systems and considers the needs of everyone — including the powerless and the poor — peering far ahead in time. Leaders need all three types of focus — in full strength and in balance — in order to perform optimally.

How did you come to see focus as such an integral skill?

In a collective sense, our ability to focus is under siege. Our kids are growing up in an environment with more distractions than at any other time in human history; and for many adults, it’s not even the noise around us that is the most powerful distractor, it’s the chatter in our own minds. On the bright side, our under- standing of focus and attention is now at a point where we have

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more science than ever and a greater understanding of it. Focus encompasses a variety of skills, each of which is im- portant in different circumstances. One well known type of focus is concentration, which entails being able to pay attention here while ignoring what’s coming at you over there. Another form of focus is ‘open presence’, which entails just being with the person who is right in front of you and paying full attention in the mo - ment. A third form is ‘free association’, which is a very different kind of focus where you let your mind wander wherever it wants. This is essential for creativity and innovation. In the book I talk about lots of other forms of focus. The key is to recognize which kind of focus you need in a given situation, and to be able to achieve it. The data is showing us that the ability to pay attention well — in the right way at the right time — is absolutely critical to top performance.

You are best known as a pioneer of the concept of Emotional Intelligence (‘EI’). What are the key elements of your model of EI?

In my view there are four domains of Emotional Intelligence. The first is self-awareness; knowing what drives you, how you’re feeling and why you are feeling that way. Basically, being able

You can get everything else right, but if you fail to drive peoples’ emotions

in the right direction, nothing will work as well as it could.

to think productively about your feelings. The second aspect is self-management, which is built upon self-awareness. In the business realm, this doesn’t mean suppressing your emotions, because it’s important to display evidence of passion and moti- vation in the workplace. Self-management means being able to manage stress and anxiety and other emotional states that affect your ability to think clearly; in other words, being able to ‘handle yourself ’. Particularly in times of crisis, people look to their lead- ers to see if they will be okay or not, and that’s why the leader’s first act is leading himself or herself. The third aspect of emotional intelligence is social aware- ness, or empathy, which means being able to understand some- one else’s perspective, to sense how they’re feeling and have appropriate concern for them. This includes supporting people and letting them know that it’s safe to take smart risks, for ex- ample. Finally, the fourth aspect is relationship management skills. In the realm of management, things like negotiation, managing conflict, cooperation and teamwork are more impor- tant than ever.

How does focus relate to EI?

Emotional intelligence demands focus as a prerequisite, because paying attention within ourselves leads to self-awareness, and paying attention to others builds empathy.

You have said that the best leadership is ‘primal’. How so?

When people talk about great leaders, words like ‘strategy’ and ‘vision’ come up a lot, and the emotional impact of what a leader says and does is overlooked. The reality is much more primal:

great leadership actually works through human emotions. You can get everything else right — hiring, strategy, innovation — but if you fail to drive peoples’ emotions in the right direction, noth- ing will work as well as it could. The emotional task of the leader is ‘primal’ in two ways:

it is both the original and the most important act of leadership. Throughout history, the leader in any group has been the one to whom others look for assurance and clarity when faced with uncertainty or threat, or when there’s a job to be done. In modern organizations, this ‘primordial’ emotional task is largely invis- ible, but driving collective emotions in a positive direction — and clearing away the ‘smog’ of toxic emotions — remains foremost on the list of a leader’s tasks. Understanding the powerful role of emotions in the workplace is what sets the best leaders apart from the rest. But all leadership contains this dimension — for better or for worse.

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When it comes to excelling on the job, which is more impor- tant, EI or IQ?

There is a widespread misconception that I favour emotional intelligence above regular intelligence. To be clear, I don’t; I think they’re both extremely important. Every leader must have a very high level of intelligence and business expertise. But I’ve talked to countless people who do C-level recruiting, and they tell me that when executives fail, it is invariably the case that they were hired for intelligence and expertise, but fired for a lack of emotional intelligence. So the prerequisite — the threshold ability — is high intelligence; but over and above that, what distinguishes star leaders is their emotional intelli- gence skill set.

In your experience, which aspects of EI and focus do leaders tend to have the most trouble with?

A colleague of mine, Cary Cherniss, who heads up the Consor- tium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organiza-

tions, has analyzed competence models in a variety of organiza- tions and has found that the domain that is most often left out is self-awareness, which requires an inward focus on and attention to the self. This is understandable because it’s the least-visible of the four domains of EI; but as indicated, you cannot prog- ress to self-management or empathy without a strong degree of self-awareness. When leaders are complained about behind their backs, people often say things like, ‘He just doesn’t get it’ or ‘He doesn’t understand us’. In short, he doesn’t empathize. There are three different kinds of empathy. The first is cognitive empathy: I know how you see things, and I can take your perspective. Man- agers who rate high on this kind of empathy are able to get better than expected performance from employees, because they can put things in terms that people can understand, and that moti- vates them. The way to improve on this is to talk to people about how they see things, so you can get an idea of what their mental models are. The second type is emotional empathy: I feel with you. This is the basis for rapport and chemistry between people. Those who excel at emotional empathy make good counselors, teach- ers and group leaders because of their ability to sense, in the moment, how others are reacting. And the third type of empa- thy is empathic concern: I sense that you need some help and I am ready to give it. Those with empathic concern are the good citizens in a group, organization or community who voluntarily help out as needed.

These three abilities give a leader an emotionally-secure base, creating an environment where people feel supported, un- derstood and trusted. In general, the more emotionally-demand- ing the work, the more empathic a leader needs to be.

What is a ‘neural hijack’, and how common are they?

In the brain’s ‘blueprint’, the amygdala holds a privileged posi- tion: it is the brain’s radar for threat and the trigger point for emo - tional distress, anger, impulse and fear. If it detects a threat, in an instant it can take over the rest of your brain, and you have what’s called an amygdala hijack. Whenever someone gets upset at work, has an outburst or loses their temper, it is a sign that their ‘fight or flight’ response has been triggered and basically, their brain has declared an emergency when it really isn’t an emergency situation. To man- age any real crisis well, you need to manage your emotions well, too. Amygdala hijacks are never helpful, particularly in leaders. They can actually damage relationships and connections with the people around you. That’s why self-management is so impor- tant for good leadership. Unfortunately, in an economy with great uncertainty, there is lots of free-floating fear in the air: people fear for their jobs and for their financial security. In such an environment, many people are operating day-to-day with what amounts to a chronic, low- grade amygdala hijack.

What should we do when we get ‘hijacked’?

First, you have to realize it’s happening. Hijacks can last for sec- onds, minutes, days or weeks. For some people it may seem be their ‘normal’ state; they get used to always being angry or fear- ful, and this can lead to conditions like anxiety disorders or de- pression. One way to get out of a hijack is to talk yourself out of it. Reason with yourself and challenge what you are telling yourself. If the trigger was something someone else did or said, you can apply some empathy and imagine yourself in that person’s posi- tion. ‘Maybe he treated me that way because he is under a lot of pressure’. There are also biological interventions. You can use a method like meditation or relaxation to calm yourself down. This works best during a hijack when you have practiced it regularly, even daily; you can’t just invoke these methods out of the blue. Another remedy is mindfulness. In the most popular form of mindfulness, you cultivate a ‘hovering’ presence to your experi- ence in the moment — an awareness that is non-judgmental and non-reactive to whatever thoughts or feelings arise in your mind.

THE TOP FIVE ‘NEURAL HIJACK’ TRIGGERS IN THE WORKPLACE

  • 1. Condescension and lack of respect

  • 2. Being treated unfairly

  • 3. Feeling unappreciated

  • 4. Feeling that you’re not being listened to or heard

  • 5. Being held to unrealistic deadlines

 

This can be a very effective method for decompressing and get- ting into a relaxed and balanced state.

You have said that whether we know it or not, we are con- stantly impacting the brain states of other people. Describe how this works.

This is due to the design of the human brain — what scientists have begun to call the ‘open-loop’ nature of the limbic system. Our circulatory system, by contrast, is ‘closed-loop’, in that it is self-regulating: the circulatory system of other people doesn’t af- fect us at all. But an open-loop system depends in large part on external sources to manage itself. Put simply, we rely on connec- tions with other people for our own emotional stability. Scientists describe the open loop as ‘interpersonal limbic regulation’, whereby one person transmits signals that can alter another person’s cardiovascular function, hormone levels and even their immune functioning. This has been a winning design in evolutionary terms: early on, it is what enabled mothers to soothe crying babies or a ‘lookout’ to signal a threat to his tribe. While we have become more sophisticated in many ways, the open-loop principle still holds today. For example, research on intensive-care patients shows that the very presence of another person lowers the patient’s blood pressure. In another study, even more dramatically, researchers studied men who experienced three highly-stressful events in one year: divorce, getting fired, and having financial issues. What they found is that the socially-isolated men in the study were three times as likely to die, while the death rate of the men who maintained close relationships showed no effect. The open loop is also alive and well in offices, boardrooms and shop floors. In all areas of social life, our physiologies are intermingling and our emotions automatically shifting into the register of the person we’re with. People in work groups ‘catch’ feelings from one another, sharing everything from jealousy and angst to euphoria; and the more cohesive the group, the stronger the sharing of moods.

Of all the aspects of business, customer service is perhaps most affected by the open-loop aspect of the brain. Please discuss the implications.

Customer service jobs are notoriously stressful, with high emo - tions flowing freely, not just from customers to the front lines but

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THE PERILS OF A FOCUS DEFICIT

In the spring of 2010, in the first weeks after the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, as countless sea animals and birds were dying and residents of the Gulf were decrying the catas - trophe, BP executives were a textbook example of how not to manage a crisis. The height of their folly came when CEO Tony Hayward infamously declared, “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. I’d like my life back.” Rather than showing concern for the spill’s victims, he seemed annoyed by the inconvenience. He went on to claim the disaster was not BP’s fault, blamed their subcontractors and took no responsibility. Widely circulated photos showed him at the peak of the crisis blithely sailing on a yacht, taking a vacation. As a BP media relations exec put it, “The only time Tony Hayward opened his mouth was to change feet. He didn’t understand the animal that is the media. He didn’t understand the public’s perception.” Signe Spencer , co-author of one of the first books on competence modeling, tells me there is a recently-identified capability seen in some high-level leaders called ‘managing your impact on others’ — by skillful leveraging of their visibility and role to have a positive impact. Hayward — blind to his impact on others, let alone to public perception of his com - pany — set off a firestorm of antagonism, including front-page articles demanding to know why he hadn’t been fired. Even President Obama declared that he would have fired him. Hayward’s exit from BP was announced the following month. The disaster has since cost BP up to $40 billion in liabili - ties, saw four executives charged with Negligence, and led to the U.S. government forbidding BP further business — includ - ing new oil leases in the Gulf — because of a “lack of business integrity.” Tony Hayward offers a textbook case of the costs of a leader with deficits in focus. “To anticipate how people will re - act, you have to read people’s reactions to you,” says Spencer. “That takes self-awareness and empathy in a self-reinforcing cycle. You become more aware of how you’re coming across to other people.” With high self-awareness, she adds, you can more readily develop good self-management. “If you manage yourself better, you will influence others better.”

-From Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence (Harper 2013)

 

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also from workers to customers. From a business standpoint, bad moods in people who serve customers are always bad news. First, rudeness is contagious, creating dissatisfied, even angry cus- tomers; second, grumpy workers serve customers poorly, with sometimes devastating results. In one study, cardiac care units where the nurses’ general mood was ‘depressed’ had a death rate among patients four times higher than comparable units. By contrast, upbeat moods on the front lines benefit a busi- ness. If customers enjoy their interaction with a worker, they start to think of the store as a ‘nice place to shop’. That means not only repeat visits, but also good word of mouth advertis- ing. Moreover, when service people feel upbeat, they do more to please customers: in a study of 32 stores in a U.S. retail chain, outlets with positive salespeople showed the best sales results. In all of those retail outlets, it was the store manager who creat- ed the emotional climate that drove salespeople’s moods — and ultimately, sales — in the right direction. When the managers were peppy, confident and optimistic, their mood rubbed off on the staff.

In many organizations, emotions are seen as ‘too personal’ or unquantifiable to talk about in a meaningful way. What first step would you suggest for leaders who want to address the emotions in their workplace?

I actually don’t believe it’s necessary to talk about emotions at work; it may not even be functional. What I’m really talking about is building an internal awareness of our own emotions and dealing with those emotions in a smart way, so we are more effective at dealing with others. Also, building an awareness — which doesn’t have to be put into words — of how other people are reacting, and having the ability to fine-tune how you respond to them. The bottom line is that emotional intelligence gives us a way to take emotions into account, rather than trying to suppress them or sweep them under the rug. The fact is, emotions will refuse to be suppressed. They are with us every moment of every day.

THE PERILS OF A FOCUS DEFICIT In the spring of 2010, in the first weeks after

Daniel Goleman is a psychologist and science journalist. His latest book is Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence (Harper, 2013). A two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee, he has written 14 books and wrote for The New York Times for 12 years. He is ranked in the top 40 on the Thinkers50 list of the world’s leading management thinkers.