Suppose you made a decision and things didn’t turn out as well as you had hoped. When your boss asks you to explain, you say, “I’m not surprised it didn’t go well. After all, I ignored half the data.”
That may sound crazy, but in truth many leaders make decisions every day while ignoring a lot of the data available to them. That’s because they discount the value of heeding their emotions, under the mistaken belief that “touchy-feely” stuff has no place at work. Wrong! That’s because emotions are not messy distractions best left to greeting cards and chick flicks. They are hard-wired and essential activities in normal brain function.
If you’re skeptical that emotions are data, think of it this way: At the most basic level an emotion like fear helps prepare our bodies for fight or flight, because the emotion triggers an adrenalin rush and heightened awareness. But emotions help in more complex ways, too. Positive emotions help us expand our thinking, generate new ideas and encourage us to consider new possibilities. And negative emotions improve our ability to focus clearly, examine details more efficiently and identify errors.
Some people compromise their ability voluntarily by suppressing or ignoring their emotions. No doubt you’ve seen these people at work – smart, highly skilled people who somehow seem unable to achieve the performance and success expected of them.
Fortunately, our emotional intelligence can be both measured and developed. The better you understand emotional data, the better your own decisions can be – and the more you can help the people who work for you. Here’s how:
• Understand the basics of emotional intelligence. There are two fundamental ways to think about emotional intelligence. The first is to consider our ability: Four key skills (identifying emotions, using emotions, understanding emotions and managing emotions) describe how our brains respond to emotional data. Although the abilities are universal, some people have developed them much further than others and few people have developed all four abilities equally well. Someone may be good at identifying emotions (“Boy, is she mad!”), for example, but not as good at understanding emotions (“Why did that upset her?”).
The second way to consider emotional intelligence (EI) is to look at our behavior. Let’s consider an actual example: A man went out for an after-dinner walk, and came home with a new car. This wasn’t a planned purchase; he saw it, he wanted it, he bought it. To say that his wife was surprised is an understatement. In this example, the man’s poorly developed abilities to understand emotions (Why do I want the car? How will I feel if I buy it? How will my wife feel if I buy it?) and manage emotions really cost him (in more ways than one). Behaviorally, he has poorly developed impulse control skills. Experts have identified 15 such skills, which fall under five broader categories: intrapersonal, interpersonal, adaptability, stress management, and general mood. Understanding these skills will help you see your employees’ strengths and weaknesses. You may see them with greater empathy, too. (One employee might easily manage stress levels that would overwhelm another, for example.)
• Identify which skills are most important for your employees. Just as no individual is equally skilled in all areas, few jobs require strength in every area. Interpersonal skills are less important for accountants than for salespeople, for example. Problem-solving skills are more crucial for engineers than for valet parking attendants. Decide which abilities are most important for the jobs you supervise.
• Assess skills. Once you know which skills are most important for specific jobs, assess employees. Begin informally. Let’s say you’re supervising an airline gate agent. The potential for stress in that job is about on par with being BP’s PR rep, so it’s important that employees in that position can handle stress. How do employees react when flights are delayed or canceled? How do they respond to several passengers talking to them at once? What happens if angry passengers yell? Watching these situations will tell you whether employees need help.
You may also take a more formal approach. There are several assessments of emotional intelligence on the market. Two highly respected examples include the BarOn Emotional Quotient Inventory or EQ-i and the MSCEIT. The EQ-i is a self-reported, multiple-choice assessment that measures behavior by asking people how they typically respond to specific situations. The MSCEIT (the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test, named for its creators) is an ability-based assessment that measures EI skill levels. For example, people taking the test look at photos of numerous faces and identify the emotions they see being expressed; the answers are then compared to the answers of a wide representation of the population and those of EI experts. Both tools are administered by experts, and have been validated.
• Coach to reinforce the appropriate skills. Once you’ve focused on key skills, help employees hone those skills. When you see them effectively use the skills, point it out and praise them. If they miss opportunities, take a moment (privately) to ask them to suggest some other ways they might have handled the situation. If they don’t have other ideas, suggest some of your own and discuss whether they’d be comfortable trying other approaches. Don’t force the issue; emotional intelligence can be coached, but it can’t be imposed.
• Reward improvement. Although improving emotional intelligence is possible, it isn’t easy. When employees improve, reward their efforts. Rewards can range from a note in their annual review to free movie tickets or even promotion to another job. It all depends on how important the skill is to a job and how much improvement you see. Watch for sustained improvement.
• Keep emotional intelligence in perspective. There’s a difference between emotional intelligence and personality disorders. For example, being assertive is not the same as being aggressive. Although you might offer coaching to an employee who seems to have a negative attitude, you can’t let employees get away with being abusive or disruptive. In those cases, employees need discipline.
Real Life Examples
Poor impulse-control skills are one thing when they result in eating too many bowls of Chubby Hubby® ice cream or having favorite catalog order desks on speed dial. But they’re another thing entirely when they result in toxic behavior that impacts morale, productivity and turnover. Consider the boss described by one former employee as “the boss from hell,” a walking time bomb who could explode at any moment for seemingly no reason. Not only did she frequently drop “f-bombs” at virtually everyone around her, she once threw her cell phone across her desk and another time threw a stack of art boards on the floor and expected the employee to pick them up. “She called me an idiot and other choice words within ear range of other people. She yelled. She screamed. She ranted and raved about me, my work, and anything and everything else,” the former employee recalls. “I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t think. I was numb. I began to feel like a complete idiot.” Eventually, the employee decided that the boss was the idiot and left the organization. It turned out that she was just one in a line of people who couldn’t work for the screamer, resulting in high (and costly) turnover.
Here are some other examples of less-than-ideal emotional intelligence skills:
• Every day, employees said “good morning” or “hi” as they passed their co-worker in the hall or saw her at the coffee pot, and every day they were greeted with silence. No one ever heard “good morning” in response, or even made eye contact as she strode by, eyes to the floor.
• An employee did as she was asked and decorated the office for Christmas. Several co-workers told her how much they enjoyed the decoration, but the boss said, “They’re nice, but the color scheme doesn’t match the office. The lights should have been purple and blue, but we’ve had too many expenses this month so it will do. My Christmas theme at home is white and blue. You should see it; it’s so beautiful.”
• An employee told her colleague that she was going to be out for a few days, explaining that she was going to get married. “OK,” said her co-worker. “You might as well get your first marriage over with.”