Think Leadership Ideas

EQ Meets Critical Thinking

First the obvious. Given that “knowledge work” is on the rise, the value that people add to organizations increasingly comes from brainpower – the ability to think. It behooves leaders, therefore, to create conditions that enhance people using their brains to the fullest, especially when leading or managing knowledge workers.

It’s not much of a mental stretch to recognize emotional intelligence – the competency of understanding and using emotions – is quite handy when it comes to helping an organization boost its collective brainpower. After all, complex projects require people working together. (One brain designing a jumbo jet won’t get far.) Working together requires good communication, and you need emotional intelligence to communicate well. And just try to sell that innovative idea to the management team, much less sell a product to a customer, without some emotional engagement to accompany sound reasoning. Sure, there’s a place for emotions in the business world.

What is surprising to many people, however, is that emotions are biologically linked to critical thinking – i.e., to the use of the intellect, rationality, and logical analysis. While conventional wisdom says emotions get in the way of analytical thinking (and certainly they can), or that they are inherently irrational, modern neuroscience appears to embrace the idea that emotions are a key support of intellectual performance. For example, a Cornell University study of radiologists showed that a good mood positively impacted the speed and accuracy of making a diagnosis. Studies elsewhere have indicated that sadness decreases prefrontal cortical activity (associated with idea generation) whereas happiness increases it.

How smart we are at any given moment is significantly influenced by emotions, simply because that’s the way the brain is wired.

Anyone who has spent a few years in the world of work has probably been told some version of “leave your emotions at the door” or otherwise advised to “turn off” emotions – they don’t belong at the office. It’s an expensive misconception, since positive emotions and climate have been linked to employee retention and revenue generation.

Turning your emotions off is as misplaced an idea as turning off your car because it has the potential of speeding out of control. Namely, you cannot ‘turn off’ emotions even if you wanted to – at least, not without shutting off the brain. While emotions can’t be turned off, they certainly can be modulated and directed, and done so intelligently. Rather than trying to get people to ‘turn off’ emotions, how much more useful would it be to encourage them with use emotions appropriately, wisely, and intelligently.

In short, leadership that integrates emotional intelligence into the workings and culture of an organization, all else being equal, will have far more brainpower to draw upon – critical thinking brainpower that can be a tremendous competitive advantage.

by Tom Stevens (c)2006
Tom Stevens helps individuals and organizations create brilliant futures and make a difference. To contact him, visit

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