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An Introduction to Emotional Intelligence

By Galia Barhava-Monteith

Emotional intelligence is a hot topic in today’s work environment where traditional command and control type leadership is all but obsolete. To be effective, managers and leaders need to be able to influence others through gaining their respect and enlisting their passions. All of this suggests that emotional intelligence is something we should be aware of but what is emotional intelligence?

A Definition

According to J D Mayer, widely considered to be the ‘father of emotional intelligence’, emotional intelligence refers to the ability to:

  • recognise the meanings of emotions and their relationships;
  • reason and problem-solve on the basis of emotion.

Emotional intelligence is part of our capacity to perceive emotions, assimilate emotion-related feelings, understand the information of those emotions, and manage them.

The original work on emotional intelligence was done in the 1980s by a group of scientists led by Mayer and Peter Salovey, the co-author of The Emotionally Intelligent Manager. But what made this concept a household name is the 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence and Why it Matters more than IQ by science reporter and psychologist Daniel Goleman. Since then, emotional intelligence has come to mean many different things. There has been some excellent scientific work in this field as well as a few wild claims and even pure fabrications.

Why Should You Care About Emotional Intelligence?

In my experience, emotional intelligence is the secret spice of many outstanding leaders. Indeed, according to John H Zenger and Joseph Folkman’s 2004 Handbook for Leaders (24 Lessons for Extraordinary Leadership, cultivating interpersonal skills is one of the two most important competencies of the extraordinary leader. The other is ‘character’. According to these authors,

Of all the competencies studied, interpersonal skills seem to make the most difference in whether leaders are considered extraordinary.

They also add that interpersonal skills have become more important over time in organisations and I’m sure that anyone who has had to deal with Gen Ys will agree wholeheartedly.

Women in particular should care about emotional intelligence. As a broad generalisation, women are better at accessing and reading emotions and with some deliberate and careful honing of those skills we can gain an invaluable edge both in our professional and personal lives.

Know Yourself

One of the more interesting things about emotional intelligence is that a key to developing it is good self insight. This is not surprising; in order for us to be able to read other people, we must first be able to read ourselves accurately.

It sounds simple, but is it?

We’ve all met a colleague or a manager who looks like they are stressed beyond belief and when asked, “You look stressed, is everything OK?”, they angrily respond with, “I’m fine, everything’s under control!!!”.

And the thing is, these people truly believe that they are fine. They don’t recognise that they are actually stressed.

But if you don’t know when YOU are stressed, how will you ever be able to recognise when others are?

Emotion versus Fact

Unfortunately, emotions have received bad press in modern times. In the modern workplace, more commonly than not, we are discouraged from displaying our emotions. Facts rule supreme, which is fine, except that they often rule to the exclusion of all emotion from the decision-making process. Furthermore, being labelled as ‘overly emotional’ can be the kiss of death in the cut-throat environment of many corporate and professional services firms.

The key to understanding emotional intelligence is that people who have high levels of it integrate emotional information (how they feel about something) into their decision-making process. Put simply, if they hear a suggestion that makes them feel uncomfortable, rather than ignoring that feeling because it is ‘just’ a feeling, they tune in to find out what it is that is bothering them, and then they use that information in their final decision-making.

Emotional intelligence is not about being ruled by your emotions. Quite the contrary, it is about using emotions smartly.

The emotionally intelligent people I know are excellent at regulating their emotions. They are precise and deliberate, they don’t ‘lose the plot’ and they handle interactions in an authentic way.

Emotional Intelligence and Groups

Emotional intelligence works well at the individual level, but how about in groups?

Difficult interpersonal situations, such as dealing with a bully boss, are among the hardest things to achieve when working in groups. Anyone who has spent time inside an organisation knows that emotions play a huge role in the dynamics of groups. When difficult emotions are badly managed, groups can become hostile, unproductive, and at worst, dysfunctional.

You can think of this process as a simple ’cause and effect’ scenario. When conflict happens in a group, it triggers strong negative emotions. Any response by the group as a whole, or by individuals within it, will have an effect on the relationships within the group. When handled well, i.e. with respect and with care, these responses can create a positive spiral of emotions among group members. However, when things are said without thought given to the consequences, and people are treated without care and respect, these responses will instead create a negative spiral.

Group norms

Over time, these interactions will create a culture of collective beliefs among the group about how much they can trust one another, how safe they are, and how well the group operates as a cohesive unit.

When the leader of a group is emotionally intelligent, he or she 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, 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.

How groups show emotional intelligence

An emotionally intelligent group can be defined as one that has shared expectations and norms when it comes to managing emotional situations. An emotionally intelligent group manages these situations in a way that builds trust, group identity and enhances group effectiveness.

Key to emotional intelligence in groups is the ability of the members to:

  1. take multiple perspectives;.
  2. have interpersonal understanding;
  3. confront mavericks in a caring way.

Take multiple perspectives

This is about the willingness of group members to take on others’ point of view when considering a situation, including the speaker’s role, understanding of a situation, agenda and knowledge base. Group members who routinely do this in their interactions are more likely to truly listen to one another and so create trust and willingness to work together.

Remember, when you really listen to another person, it is important to focus as much on the person as on the content of the message. As we know too well, it’s easy to be content-oriented and to disregard where and why the message is coming out.

Have interpersonal understanding

Interpersonal understanding in a group context is the ability of members to understand the spoken and unspoken feelings, interests, strengths, weaknesses, values and principles of their fellows. When group members understand these things about each other, they are better able to deal with the behaviour of others. Research in this area found that members of high performing, self-managing work teams demonstrated significantly higher levels of interpersonal understanding than did members of low performing teams.

Confront mavericks in a caring way

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. But here’s the thing, individuals in those high performing groups are more likely than individuals in low performing groups to confront the mavericks who break norms. Thus, when someone behaves in an unacceptable way, other group members, and not just the leader, speak out. In emotionally intelligent groups, they do it in what researchers call a ‘caring orientation’. This means that members communicate in a positive way, appreciate one another and, most importantly, are respectful. As a result, the group can re-negotiate its values, if necessary, and incorporate the perspective of the maverick (or new) member.

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