How To Build Your Social and Emotional Intelligence

Some people wonder if they can actually do anything about their social and emotional intelligence (S+EI). Are you one?  This is especially true for those of us who have been repeatedly sabotaged by deeply ingrained emotional reactions.  Negative emotions and linked behavior patterns can surface in a flash and seem to take on a life of their own, so much so that their owner feels like a victim without control.  In addition, it seems as if people who are congenial, authentic and high in S+EI are just “naturals” who are born that way.

Well, the good news is “yes you can” grow your S+EI abilities or skills.  The other news is that it takes some work. For inquiring minds who want to see the evidence, Goleman’s article “What Makes a Leader” and Boyatzis book “Becoming A Resonant Leader” are good resources.

It’s true that all 4 domains of a person’s S+EI abilities, in particular empathy, are part nature and part nurture. And while people vary in their natural abilities, everyone can improve. For those in leadership positions, getting better is not an option if you want to take your leadership to the next level.  In fact the higher the leadership position the more likely the leader is to have lower S+EI ability scores, which is not surprising when you think about it.  Who wants to be the one to tell the boss they are acting like a jerk?  This is one reason why CEO disease is rampant but that’s another story for another time.

So where do you start? First, understand conventional training  just won’t work for improving your S+EI abilities because it is oriented toward concepts and technical details, both of which target the neocortex. Further more, when a typical training approach has been used to improve S+EI, not only has it been shown to fail, but it can have a negative impact as well….you can get worse!!

Because the heart and soul of S+EI reside in the limbic system, that’s where you have to begin and where you have to focus in order to improve.  Training the limbic brain requires an individualized approach and takes lot more time than conventional training.  This means feedback, motivation, and extended practice are also required.  In addition, old behavioral habits not only have to be broken but simultaneously replaced with new ones.

Why the difference in training approaches?  Because our brains are hard-wired to give emotions the upper hand, as the diagram below shows.

SEI BrainPath

The fact that our brain can adapt, modify and grow new neural connections makes it possible to improve our S+EI abilities, even for those with the most ingrained negative patterns and behaviors. It’s akin to taking the connection between the limbic brain and neocortex from an simple 2-lane country road to a reinforced, 5-lane super highway. Even better news is that with the right approach, these changes are sustainable over the long term .

Building your S+EI increases the quantity and quality of neural connections which gives your rational centers the resilience to keep from being overwhelmed and hi-jacked when emotions run high. A robust S+EI gives you the capability to put a “space” between stimulus and response.  It empowers you to move from reactive to being reflective and responsive so that over time new habits can be built that serve our best interest and replace the old ones that sabotage us.

Nice cartoon and concepts, but is there evidence that improving our  S+EI ability actually makes us better in the workplace? Yes there is:

  • Senior managers in one company with a critical mass of S+EI abilities real divisions that exceeded yearly earning goals by 20%
  • Direct correlations with earnings: every point increase in overall S+EI adds $1,300 to an annual salary
  • 83% of people high in self-awareness are top performers while only 2 percent of bottom performers are high in self-awareness.
  • S+EI accounts for 58% of performance across a variety of jobs and is the strongest driver of leadership and personal excellence.

Furthermore, positive effects are transferable to home and other social settings, particularly when it comes to empathy.

If we know that we have the capability to improve our S+EI abilities and that they’re the largest contributors to our success, why don’t more people work on it? One reason is that most people don’t think they can change. They settle for “that’s just the way I am”.  I think another is that we all have blindspots and need the help of others to find out what those are so we can do something about them.

Are you motivated to build and improve your S+EI abilities? You know it’s possible, you definitely have the capacity, but you have to take action to make it happen. You’re also  going to need to follow the right training principles and strategies. That’s where we are going next so stay tuned.




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6 thoughts on “How To Build Your Social and Emotional Intelligence

  1. Interesting post, Rob.

    I am very interested in the science of processing order and the idea of emotion ruling logic. Understanding this better could help me personally as well as carry over to the clinical side and patient management. Can you recommend any reading on this topic?


    • Keith,

      The best condensed source is Goleman’s latest edition of Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence and Boyatzis’ Becoming a Resonant Leader: Developing Your Emotional Intelligence, Renew Your Relationship, Sustain Your Effectiveness. They contain links to the primary scholarly articles and works, many of which were produced by the the authors of these 2 books. Both are very action oriented; I’ve found their exercises to be tremendously useful (and evidence-based)

  2. In your image of the brain it says “spinal cord – enter brain here”. What is it exactly that enters? Impressions? Picked up by autonomic nervous system? Thank you!

    • Mary,

      Afferent impulses from the periphery where they go on to be processed by the various neural centers to which they are directed. Admittedly a very simplistic drawing intended to convey that concept that incoming stimuli from the periphery initially pass through lower parts of the brain.

  3. Great article – I have been interested in EI for since time, especially how it may relate to transformational leadership. I read a recent article “To what extent is the Mayer and Salovy (1997) model of emotional intelligence a useful predictor of leadership style and perceived leadership outcomes in Australian educational institutions?” This article was published in the journal of Educational Management Administration & Leadership in 2014 by Paul Grunes, Amanda Gudmundsson, and Bernd Irmer. Mayer and Salovey offered an updated model that separated from the traditional personality traits and narrowed it to a mental ability, often referred to as an “abilities” model. This is line with leadership studies which had also distanced itself from trait theories. I would be interested in your thoughts in EI as a predictor or component of transformational leadership.

    • Sean

      I am not aware of any specific indicators of EI that translate directly into predictive validity for transformational leadership. However, given that Transformational leadership falls under the relational theory of leadership and it’s similarities to Resonant leadership (which is primarily based on EI), I think it would be predictive or at least correlated.

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