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The emotionally intelligent way to make a significant (and long-lasting) change

Follow these three practices before you buckle down and start taking dramatic actions.

The emotionally intelligent way to make a significant (and long-lasting) change
[Photo: Blake Cheek/Unsplash]

When we need to make a big change, our initial response tends to be as follows: Buckle down, make a plan, and push through. Yet we often overlook the holistic picture that we need to make lasting changes. We are unaware of what influences us: our emotionally-driven minds, the protective mechanisms in our brains, relational influences, and our environment.

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If we want to make decisions in an emotionally intelligent way, we need to be aware of how these factors influence our choices. Emotional intelligence (otherwise known as EQ) is not just about introspection and empathy—despite what you might have heard or read. EQ is the intelligent use of emotion, not only in terms of me but also the we and the why.

Change and emotional intelligence

After decades of researching EQ and observing various influencers on habits and performance, I coined a term for the me, we, and why approach to emotional intelligence: EQ³. EQ³ starts by looking at yourself, before shifting to examine the communities and groups that influence you and shape your environment, and finally considers your purpose.

The foundation rests on the basics of brain science. It’s about working with the emotional drivers that live in the limbic system and influence our decisions. That may be fear of rejection, loss, or failure, social threats, your mental fight-or-flight instinct, and more. When it comes to emotion, we tend to think of ourselves as unique. But if we look at the research and neuroscience, we see that often we’re all responding to common, basic drivers.

So, given what we know about the brain, how can we use emotional intelligence to create lasting change? Here are the three elements that you should consider before taking action.

Element 1: Self-recognition

To make a change, we have to be aware of our counterproductive behavior. And not just that—we have to be mindful of why we engage in those habits. Is it a fear of failure, fear of being seen as a weak employee, or fear of making mistakes? Is it fear of not meeting expectations? The short-term gain of feeling a sense of superiority but the long-term harm of damaging a relationship?

These motives often run deep. With my clients, I’ve noticed that people developed these harmful habits because it had helped them in the past. Withdrawing from conflict, for example, might have previously protected them. But what may have been a helpful coping strategy can turn to an impediment to progress.

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I once worked with a director of a department. Her management behavior was too controlling, and she micromanaged the team she led. Sound familiar? When we dug into why that was, she realized that her drive stemmed from the fear of being reprimanded by her boss. Because she feared making a mistake in front of her superior, she clamped down on the team below her.

If you want any lasting change to stick, you need to start with self-recognition. That way, you understand your drivers and motivations. You can then make better assessments on whether you’re making the changes for the right reasons and how to go about making those shifts.

Element 2: Social recognition

After you figure out your own drivers, turn your attention the people close to you. Notice how your behavior is impacting them—whether that be your coworkers, clients, friends, or family. But make it a two-way street: Don’t just think about how your behavior impacts others, but recognize how their behavior affects you. If you can learn what they do that triggers your fight-or-flight, you can see it coming. You can also make a plan for your limbic brain that doesn’t result in counterproductive behavior.

Let’s think again of that department director. What was the social impact of her behavior? At first, her micromanaging resulted in complaints. Then it caused turnover in her department. Her team ended up making more mistakes. She became known as a bottleneck because she needed everything to go through her. Her coworkers grew to resent her, and her team bonded by complaining about her. Research confirms that managers who only focus on outcomes at the expense of employee well-being will lose loyalty and respect.

Element 3: Design structure

Once you understand what’s motivating the negative behavior and how it’s impacting your team and company, you need to think about how you can make environmental changes. That means introducing systems and checkpoints that inhibit counterproductive behavior and support beneficial ones.

Let’s take this director as an example.  Once we identified the drivers and the impact of her behavior, she was able to see the inefficiencies of her current process and its negative effects on quality. We then redesigned her decision-making by creating a documented process with clearly outlined roles and responsibilities. We made decision checkpoints, where others made decisions in their respective areas, and we created quality control to catch errors.

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It wasn’t an easy change, but with the three elements of change—including process and environment changes—the director saw improved results. These results made it easier, over time, for her to let go of her controlling behavior. The processes and environment were designed to address her fears. Before these changes, she felt she was the only one who could address them. When she leveraged the strength of her team, her results improved, and so did the culture.

To make an emotionally intelligent decision, you need to have a full understanding of me, we, and why. The intelligent use of emotions means you have a sense of the brain’s motivators and learn to recognize them when they surface. By considering these three elements, you’ll be in a much better position to make long-lasting and positive changes.


Kerry Goyette is the founder and president of Aperio Consulting Group, a corporate consulting firm that utilizes workplace analytics and research-based strategies to build high-performance teams. She is the author of  The Non-Obvious Guide to Emotional Intelligence

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