The Effects of Age on Social and Emotional Intelligence… and the Surprising Implications for Business Leaders

A landmark 2014 study, When Does Cognitive Functioning Peak, revealed fascinating insights into how age affects cognitive functions. The research has extensive implications for business leaders who want to sharpen their communication styles and maximize their teams’ strengths.

The research, conducted by Joshua K. Hartshorne with Harvard University and Laura T. Germine with General Hospital of Boston, looked at various areas of cognition and understanding and found a wide range of when different emotional and social skill sets peak.

While adults can most easily process new information at age 18, and while memory function peaks in your mid-20s, other key brain functions take much longer than previously thought to reach their pinnacle.

For example, 12,000 people took a social intelligence test. The assignment was deceptively simple: just examine photographs of eyes and determine what emotion was being communicated. Surprisingly, social intelligence progressively improved during the 20s and 30s, with individuals in their 40s registering the highest test scores. This kind of social intelligence/EQ didn’t start declining until subjects were well into their 60s. Dr. Hartshorne theorized that the long maturation cycle of this skill could be related to life experiences. Perhaps as our understanding of people deepens, this special cognitive resource just gets better and better?

Social intelligence is not even the last mental function to peak. Many cognitive abilities related to vocabulary, information and comprehension reach their full potential even later – as late as age 70, according to some lines of research.

So what does all this cognitive science mean for business leaders? What are some take-aways from this research that can benefit you and help you command your troops more resourcefully? Here are a few ideas:

  • Without violating age discrimination rules (of course!), consider how individual team members score with respect to various types of social intelligence and other intelligence when putting them on tasks. If a position calls for memorizing large chunks of information, does your go-to person have the skills and stamina to handle the work?
  • In negotiations and conflicts, rely on individuals who have racked up experience resolving differences. You need people on the front lines who have the emotional tools to handle conflicts with grace.
  • Don’t discount the insight of a person in his or her 50s or even older. The research shows that certain crucial world skills – such as wisdom and problem-solving thinking related to the domain of the person’s expertise – only improve as time passes.
  • Teach (and learn!), excellent communication, listening and empathy skills, not just for an instant positive return for the business (or for your department) but for longer term benefits that can pay you and your team back for decades ahead. Emphasize:
    • How to read and use social cues.
    • How to navigate office politics.
    • How to diplomatically word requests and criticism.
    • How to handle stress and be mindful during conflicts.

Do you want to improve your social intelligence at work for the purpose of commanding a better equipped, happier and more focused team? Please sign up below to get timely insights to improve and transform your leadership acumen!

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