Emotional intelligence: How to exercise your right brain muscles

Many IT people identify as left-brained: But science has proven anyone can exercise their creative and artistic side. Here's why and how IT leaders should build their right brain skills
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The idea of thinking with the left or right side of the brain has turned out, in recent years, to be more of a figure of speech than scientifically proven fact. Nevertheless, it’s a persistent myth that “left-brained” individuals are more analytical and quantitative, while “right-brained” folks are more creative and artistic. Regardless of where in the brain these functions actually occur, many people identify with one side more than the other – and if you’re in IT, your logical left brain might even be a source of pride.

Fortunately, your way of thinking is not as fixed as previously believed. If you are a strong analytical thinker, you can absolutely tap into the creativity associated with the right mind as well: It just takes practice. Think of it like exercise, suggests Teri Baydar, peak performance coach at White Lily Individual Development.

“Most people, especially in technology occupations, lean heavily on the functions of logic because they believe it’s what is needed to succeed,” says Baydar. “But the right mind is where creativity, innovative thought, and human connection happen – you need that too. If you don’t use that part of yourself as much, it gets weak, like a muscle.”

[ Working on your emotional intelligence? Learn the behaviors to avoid as you build your EQ: 10 things leaders with emotional intelligence never do. ]

Left brain vs. right brain – and why IT needs both

If you are unfamiliar with the theory, here’s a quick primer from Ganes Kesari, co-founder and head of analytics for Gramener.

Data analytics projects require both logical and creative - think visualizations - skillsets.

"A good example of left-brain thinking is working with numbers and analytics. AI and data science are often associated with left-brain thinkers in the IT profession,” says Kesari. “Building machine learning algorithms, AI models, and implementing statistical techniques are activities that call for logical thinking.”

“A great example of right brain thinking is design,” he continues. “Visual design and information design call for artistic abilities, and they are often associated with right-brain thinkers. Creation of data stories and compelling data visualizations need this creative quotient.”

Although the traits of left-brain thinking are prized in IT, teams rarely succeed without a blend of both sides, says Kesari.

“Most analytics initiatives falter by failing to enable consumption of statistical results to the end users. Data visualization and storytelling helps address this gap by making the insights vivid and obvious for the users. But, this is tough in practice since it calls for a balance of left-brain and right-brain thinking,” he points out. “A key prerequisite for IT leaders to succeed in their analytics initiatives is to bridge the two by conveying insights (from AI) as stories (through design). They must bring together AI experts along with information design wizards to achieve this. This is called as insights-as-stories, in practice. This is now widely accepted as a way to solve the typical last-mile consumption issue of data analytics.”

Another strong argument for right-brain thinking in IT? As more and more technical tasks are automated, there’s a greater need for creative problem solvers to take the vision of IT to the next level.

For example, “Not too long ago, web developers had to consider the languages they were going to use, server requirements, bandwidth issues, etc. These were aspects that lent themselves to left-brain thinking,” says Shayne Sherman, CEO, TechLoris. “As we advance, the technical side of web development is being automated. This automation leads to simpler implementation and that enables the [human] thinkers to be creative while letting the system handle the logistics.”

EQ tips for balanced thinking

If you feel stuck in thought patterns typically associated with the left brain, it’s time to call on your emotional intelligence. Recognizing when you are imbalanced requires self-awareness.

“The first step in cultivating a healthy right mind is to slow down and put away distractions,” suggests Baydar. “It’s very much about being present and empathetic with yourself so that you can do so with others by extension. That is the quintessential point of emotional intelligence too.”

Tune into feelings of burnout as a sign of imbalanced thinking.

Dr. Tara Swart, neuroscientist, senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management, and author of “The Source: The Secrets of the Universe, The Science of the Brain,” works with leaders all over the world to help them achieve mental resilience and peak brain performance. According to Swart, leaders should tune into feelings of burnout or even indigestion as signs of imbalanced thinking.

“Feeling physically agitated or getting signs of burnout like sleep disturbance, indigestion, aches and pains, or muscular twitches can be signs you are sticking to default pathways of thinking instead of integrating your whole brain,” she says.

“Raise your awareness of what is going on interpersonally in a team or on a project, ask open questions, maintain good eye contact, and use your intuition as well as logic,” she suggests. All of these actions can improve balance in the brain, according to Swart.

For leaders, developing traits typically associated with right-brain thinkers will pay off, says Baydar. “It is not feasible to become a leader of substance without the development of the skillset associated with the right mind. So if you are planning to lead well – or at all – develop the right mind. Be with other people and learn to listen and care about where somebody else is coming from. Consider how you can connect better and more authentically with another and try it out.”

[ Working on your emotional intelligence? Learn the behaviors to avoid as you build your EQ: 10 things leaders with emotional intelligence never do. ]

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.