The Connection Between Emotional Intelligence and Trauma (Part 1)

The Connection Between Emotional Intelligence and Trauma (Part 1)

There have been times when I’ve chased the proverbial rabbit down a dark hole.

You know what I mean. You’re concentrating hard on a particular task or subject and before you know it your mind starts wandering or you start daydreaming or chasing some esoteric idea down an internet rabbit hole.

It’s what happens most of the time on Facebook and Instagram.

Because I do struggle some with focus, I began researching information on how to be better focused. I found a number of “focus” related quotes which I thought (somewhat) helpful. 

“Lack of direction, not lack of time, is the problem. We all have twenty-four hour days.” - Zig Zigler

“That’s been one of my mantras – focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” - Steve Jobs

Basically, then, we have 24 hours to move a mountain.

If it were only that simple.

I’ve been intrigued for quite a while about what makes a good leader. Why is it that some people succeed as leaders while others don’t? Why are there thousands of books and articles on leadership? Shouldn’t one good book tell us what we need to know regarding how to be a leader?

Apparently not. Research by Eric Douglas at Leading Resources, Inc., claims that 40% of all new executives fail within 18 months.

18 months?! Ugh.

Ostensibly, there are many reasons for leadership failure. Douglas’ article says failures happen because of issues usually dealing with culture, teamwork, expectations, and political savvy.

One thing which wasn’t mentioned by Douglas was how traumatic events shape a person’s brain in such a way that makes it hard to effectively lead (and follow).

Let’s see if we can make a case for helping leaders succeed by understanding the connection of trauma and leadership.

Daniel Goleman, a leader in the discipline of Emotional Intelligence, wrote an article titled, “The Focused Leader,” which was published by Harvard Business Review in December 2013.

Goleman said that leaders need to focus their attention on three areas: on yourself, on others, and on the wider world. He found it’s the internal and external focus (i.e., yourself and others) which helps cultivate emotional intelligence.

For brevity’s sake, I’d like to discuss a few insights on focusing on yourself. We will look at focusing on others and focusing on the world at a later date.

A key component of internal focus and emotional intelligence is ‘self-awareness.’

You might think of it as that inner voice which tells your brain whether something ‘feels’ right or wrong. The older we become and the more experiences we have the more likely we are to be self-aware. In other words, we learn from our experiences which refines and sharpens our thinking.

Self-awareness also includes being open to how other people see us. This is critical and challenging for leaders. The higher an executive climbs the ladder the less likely employees will share their true feelings.

However, being open, or as Goleman calls it – ‘open awareness’ – means “we don’t judge, censor, or tune out; we simply perceive.” Turns out, we are better at ‘open awareness’ when small, irritating events don’t trigger an overly emotional response. Goleman uses the example of the person in an airport security line who takes forever arranging their bags to be scanned and holding up the line. If we have ‘open awareness’ of what is happening, then we can take in the event without worrying about it or responding irrationally.

Which leads us to the second aspect of internal focus: self-control.

Scientifically speaking self-control is “cognitive control.” It conveys the idea of focusing on the things you want to focus on without succumbing to the temptation to wander. It also allows us to delay self-gratification. We might easily equate self-control with high performing athletes or musicians or, hopefully, successful leaders.

Self-control is what helps people (and leaders for this discussion) follow Goleman’s insight for the need to: “stay calm in a crisis, tame their own agitation, and recover from a debacle or defeat.”

I heard in Goleman’s insightful statement three words: trauma, dysregulation, and resiliency.

(Click here to read why I promote the science of hope over resiliency. However, in this context 'resiliency' works).

We know our brains are built over time with the foundation being laid in the first four years of life. If our early years are filled with negative experiences (abuse, neglect, and household dysregulation), then it makes sense that without help, we will continue to be easily triggered by events throughout our lives.

Furthermore, self-control is one of the last skills to finish developing. In fact, the developing process continues well into a person’s late teens or mid-twenties.

As we’ve seen before, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and childhood trauma are prevalent in nearly 65% of people. Additionally, between 12.5% and 15% of all people have four or more ACEs out of the 10 commonly recognized ACEs. In the United States alone, that’s over 40 million people.

Thinking back on the 40% failure rate of new executives, is it any wonder that the number is so high given how trauma can affect both the leader and follower? If either had significant trauma in their lives, it’s going to be hard to be as successful as most people desire (or companies demand).

The next time you see people who are inattentive, extremely fatigue, hyperactive, socially withdrawn, easily distracted, aggressive, anxious, prone to angry outbursts, or have recurring headaches and stomach cramps, think about the possibility that these symptoms are triggered by an ACE.

In other words, when people fight (become aggressive), flee (avoid social interactions), or freeze (become silent or unresponsive), there’s a strong likelihood ACEs are at the root of the problem.

As leaders, we must be self-aware and have self-control so we can “stay calm in a crisis (i.e., trauma), tame [our] agitation (i.e., dysregulation), and recover from a debacle or defeat (i.e., resilience).”

Sounds like emotional intelligence and understanding trauma go hand in hand.

(Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash)