Collaborate or Compete

Collaborate or Compete

Three trends

  •  Stress is growing.
  •  Empathy is decreasing
  • Collaboration is urgently needed.

Three trends

These three trends combine to offer a nearly intractable problem. A problem that’s driving a resurgent war for talent, and an urgent need for new approaches to leadership. We’re facing an increasingly complex environment where the ability to connect is the number one need – and we’re losing it. The writing is on the wall: unless we develop better capabilities for managing these emotional complexities, the future is bleak.


Stress is increasing a 2012 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology says it’s gone up around 20% over 25 years. The effects are growing; at the NexusEQ Conference at Harvard last June, Dr. Herbert Benson (professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School) said that 60-90% of visits to doctors are actually stress related.

One of the major causes of stress is disconnection, but at the same time.


The skill that would actually let people meet that need, is going down. Dramatically. Research published in Scientific American found a 75% drop in empathy over 30 years. Meanwhile, according the IBM annual study of CEOs, the primary need identified by top leaders:


A whopping 75% of the respondents call it “Critical.” Consider: If the number one need for the future of business success is that people connect, wouldn’t is be essential to develop the skills to do so?

Downward Spiral

So we have increasing pressure, and decreasing ability to connect – and a growing demand that we do so. When we’re stressed, the brain pushes for safety. We retract. We do what we’ve done before. We narrow our focus. Plus, we get a shot of a chemical that is “natural heroin” when we follow the known, the predictable – and yes, it is addictive.

We’ve got long-term problems that require innovation and bringing people together. Yet in the face of uncertainty, we feel vulnerable, stress kicks in, and we become less creative and collaborative, and we focus on the short-term, urgent. This reaction could make us more isolated and overwhelmed, which pushes us toward more stress. So we have a vicious spiral.

This spiral makes it nearly impossible to solve the world’s biggest problems, such as global warming, or even “small” problems like getting a workgroup to be a team. Or building a workplace that attracts and retains top talent.

These challenges require our most creative thinking and remarkable abilities to build coalition. Yet as soon as we start thinking about the realities of environmental devastation, or how impossible it is to work with the guys across the hall, stress kicks in. Ironically, as that reaction continues, we become less able to access the very capabilities that would effect solution.

New Problems Require New Skills

One the one hand, we’re wired to react in a manner that probably won’t help. Yet as Benson and others have shown, we’re capable of learning alternate responses. This, perhaps, is the reason emotional intelligence is so important today: increasing complexity puts social and emotional skills at a premium.

That’s probably why leaders with more emotional intelligence skills create stronger business value. Salespeople trained in these skills outsell others (in one study, 40% better). Many studies show that children trained in these emotional skills earn higher are more healthy, socially connected, and, at the same time, reach higher academic achievement.

At work, emotional intelligence is highly predictive of leadership success, and employee engagement (here is a recent case about a supplier to McDonalds). Even in “hardcore” business environments, developing more skills with people means increasing performance. Even better news: emotional intelligence skills are measurable and learnable.

While the implications for business are profound, the human story is even more compelling. At the NexusEQ conference at Harvard, change makers came together from 32 countries. 50 case studies. 80 presentations. Business. Health. The environment. Schools. Families. Communities. Over and over, everywhere, the skills of emotional intelligence are key to unlocking our capacity to create positive change.

Joshua Freedman

Joshua Freedman is one of the world’s leading specialists on developing and applying emotional intelligence to improve performance.