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Courageous Conversations and the Emotional Intelligence of Groups

By Galia Barhava-Monteith

I remember working in a high performance group early on in my career. One of the group members would walk out at 5.30pm every night. Back then, we didn’t know about ’emotionally intelligent groups’ and ‘courageous conversations,’ and rather than confronting the person who was clearly out of step with the rest of us, we just bitched about her. Predictably, this spiralled out of control to the point of ostracising the team member. This badly undermined the team’s cohesion and trust and we all suffered.

In hindsight, this was a classic case where a courageous conversation by one of us could have simply stopped the situation and provided us with an opportunity to re-negotiate what was acceptable in terms of hours worked. We would all have benefited and it would have prevented the negative chain of events which ensued.

Of course, when the leader of a group is emotionally intelligent, the leader can influence the response to the difficult situation and create a positive cycle which enhances the functioning of the group. But, as we all know too well, a leader is not always available to manage this situation. Emotionally intelligent groups have a culture where there are agreed norms on how to behave in such situations. These norms result in the group as a whole being able to deal with difficult emotions in a way that creates positive outcomes and committed team members.

The Emotional Intelligence of Groups and Courageous Conversations

That’s all well and fine you say, but what’s that got to do with courageous conversations?

Well, think about it, the kind of people who choose to work in high pressure environments have high expectations. One of these is that they should be able to be ‘themselves’ at work. However, for the group to function well, they also need to ‘fit in’. Research demonstrates that the more group members are allowed to ‘be themselves’ they are, paradoxically, more willing to put their individualism aside to fit in with the group’s needs. Put simply, if someone in a high performing group is a fitness freak, she is more likely to put aside a valued personal training session to help out in a pressured situation when she feels can be herself and that she is trusted and valued by the group.

But here’s the thing, individuals in those high performing groups have been found to be more likely than individuals in low performing groups to confront members who break norms (i.e. to have courageous conversations with the mavericks). Thus, when someone behaves in an unacceptable way, such as taking off to that personal training session when a deadline is looming, other group members, and not just the leader, speak out. However, in these emotionally intelligent groups, group members speak out in a respectful way. They are able to do so because they have the ability to take perspective and have interpersonal understanding of one another.

The researchers call this a ‘caring orientation’. It means that members communicate in a positive way, appreciate one another and, vitally, are respectful.

According to the literature on the Emotional Intelligence of groups, it is when these types of ‘courageous conversations’ take place in a respectful manner that groups are able to re-negotiate their values. Through this ongoing negotiation, the values and norms are agreed on and become a true part of the group’s functioning. The key aspect of this approach is that new members to the group will be confronted in a caring way when they ‘step out’. When the confrontation – or courageous conversation – is done in a caring and respectful way, the individual is likely to feel supported, accepted and respected.

A Successful Courageous Conversation

I think the first time I used a courageous conversation successfully (before I knew that was what it was called) was when I was working on another time-pressured high-stakes project. My manager had a habit of constantly introducing new tasks for me to do, each time ignoring what I was already working on. At first I managed, but after a while I found myself growing increasingly stressed.

I asked the manager for a meeting and prepared for it with examples of how the times she’d handed me extra tasks without thinking about other priorities. We had a great working relationship and she was very open-minded. I suggested that we meet twice a week to discuss what needed to get done. We agreed that she would bring to those meetings a list of all the things she urgently needed and that we’d agree priorities together. If there was something truly urgent she could always ask me to do it and I would give it the highest priority.

This worked beautifully, and our relationship and the project functioning benefited.

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