Sara Ross, founder of the BrainAMPED research group and a leadership strategist, always has been interested in science, and in particular, the science of why people do the things that they do. Then, during her final year in graduate school, Ross took a cognitive neuroscience-based course and discovered, she said, “that’s what I absolutely loved.”
Ross spent a decade at the Institute for Health and Human Potential (IHHP), which anchors its educational programs in the science of emotional intelligence. As IHHP’s vice president and global head of leadership innovation and coaching, she trained employees at companies across the world. She left IHHP to launch BrainAMPED, in order to focus on research, she said, as well as coaching and teaching.
Convene caught up with Ross by phone to talk about her love of learning and teaching about the brain and her 2019 PCMA EduCon presentation, “Tapping Into Your Emotional Intelligence to Succeed in Work and Life.”
I think emotional intelligence is one of those things that everybody has heard of, but maybe aren’t so sure about what it means in practice.
When I did a survey of 1,500 people from law and financial services firms, 96 percent of people said, “Yup, I know what emotional intelligence is.” And then came the follow-up question: Only 13 percent of the people believed that their colleagues demonstrated emotional intelligence. That’s a significant difference. Almost a hundred percent of people are saying, “I know what emotional intelligence is” — but nobody’s doing it.
There are competencies that we talk about in emotional intelligence, but the work of it is the hard stuff. We sometimes stop on the competencies and forget that it plays out every day in how we interact with people. And when we’re busy, there’s inherently a sense of stress, and stress causes our brains to turn in and focus on ourselves. We are less attuned and aware of the impact we’re having on other people.
What should we know about our brains?
It’s really important to recognize that our brains are designed for emotions to get the upper hand. And what that means is that we often get frustrated with people and we expect them to be logical. The challenge is, our brains actually are designed for emotions first and logic second.
In the event space, you’re so regularly dealing with crises. People are putting their reputations, their hopes, and their vision in your hands and, inevitably, emotion is at the forefront. When we see that, we try to deal with it logically. [We’re more effective] if we can shift our thinking to: “Connect to the person first, and address the problem second.” But we try to fix the problem and the person standing in front of us is not even hearing us. Their brains are caught up in their emotions.
How do you strike a balance between emotion and logic?
When we talk about leadership, there’s no doubt we need the technical side of things, the business intelligence — I call it BQ — that includes technical experience, expertise, and intellectual curiosity. There’s no doubt we need that. But it’s not enough. There’s emotional intelligence — EQ — how we are managing ourselves and executing through others. Both of those are critical.
The piece we miss is the vitality quotient — the energy and the capacity to make those two work together. So often we see people doing negative things, and we think it is a representation of their character. We think, “that person doesn’t care,” or “that person isn’t engaged.” But what the research is really clear on is that so much more often it’s actually just a representation of an exhausted person.
When you see somebody doing something that seems irrational or just negative, our reaction often is to ask what’s wrong with them. Knowing that our brains give emotions the upper hand, we can shift our reaction to one of emotional curiosity and ask ourselves what might be going on for that person and what they might be feeling. That’s a very different approach.
Every person, when we are stressed out and tired and not feeling well, we are not the best iterations of ourselves. And we don’t always recognize that we have more choice in managing that than we sometimes think we do.
Barbara Palmer is Convene’s deputy editor.