My daughter’s class (of seven year olds) had a lesson on emotional intelligence. “Without emotional intelligence you are a washing machine” was her core takeaway message. I’m not sure if she had distilled this gem for herself or whether it was an analogy they’d shared in class.

Talking about emotional intelligence with participants in a training session this week and – specifically – how to deal with threat responses, one participant asked me whether it was better to suppress emotion (and the limbic system more generally) at work in order to be completely rational, objective and dispassionate - particularly in times of uncertainty, ambiguity and stress.  

Wouldn’t it be better if we could stay solely in the logical pre-frontal cortex at all times? Shut out that noisy emotional interference?  

In a word, ‘no’.  Even if it was desirable, we could not achieve it. We are not washing machines with neural buttons capable of being pre-programmed to deliver the optimum wash for the specific load with the correct data input… On the contrary, complicated as they may sometimes be, emotion, memory and pattern matching are essential for informing our choices. They direct our focus and attention. They tell us when something is not as it should be and assist our conscious thinking. They help us to better outcomes if we use them well.  

The key is to develop more awareness, more emotional literacy.  Notice the limbic output, label it and be interested in its message.   Only then can we use it to make conscious, emotionally intelligent choices.  

So in those heightened emotional states, pause and explore what you’re feeling, with curiosity rather than judgement.  Then choose a conscious course that will take you in the direction you want to go. 

While we may not be able to act out on our emotions at work, we’re not washing machines and emotion plays a fundamental part in great decision-making and leadership…