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Emotional intelligence: the ‘new’ imperative

Mar 22, 2019

The concept of emotional intelligence has been around for decades but, year after year, the profession insists it’s a new path to success. Paul Price explains. 

Interpersonal skills have always been considered a critical success factor when working with others. However 'emotions’ only entered mainstream management discourse in the mid-1990s following the publication of Daniel Goleman’s best-selling book, Emotional Intelligence. Since then, countless column inches and conference hours have been dedicated to this ‘new’ imperative for organisational and individual success.

By now, most professionals are familiar with the constituent elements of emotional intelligence (EI), namely: self- and social-awareness, self-control, motivational and relational skills. Most of us would also agree on how vital these competencies are to any managerial or leadership role. The importance of these skills can outweigh even our technical expertise as the number of people under our responsibility increases. Every best-practice company recognises this by incorporating some measure of EI into its selection and promotion criteria.

However, EI continues to be treated as ‘new’.

Only a few weeks ago, I attended an evening talk at the Chartered Accountants Ireland on the topic of emotions in the C-Suite. There, in an audience of seasoned business leaders and professionals, I got an acute sense of deja vu. Even though this subject matter is nearly a quarter century old, it seemed that we were still talking about the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of emotional intelligence instead of the elusive 'how'.

For sure, many well-researched books validate the virtues of EI and explain how to assess it psychometrically. They re-confirm how, unlike IQ, it can indeed be taught to adults, but there are far fewer books that explain how it can be learned, and even fewer show us how it should be taught. This is something we must master as managers and leaders if we are to engage and motivate our people.

EI, it seems, does not lend itself well to rote learning. It can only be taught ‘in relation' and therefore can only be explained in vivo by experience through action-learning, observation and role play.

Learning EI

The first questions when trying to expand your EI are always: how do I genuinely assess my self- and social-awareness, and how do I improve if I deem it to be lacking?

To understand these more significant questions, we should break them down into smaller ones:

  • How am I affected by my work environment and by the behaviours of my bosses, peers, customers and other stakeholders that affect my work-role?
  • How adaptable am I to changes in working structures?
  • Do I quickly settle into new work-teams, or does the stress of joining or forming new groups, project-teams or clusters prevent me from volunteering for more responsible roles that I’d prefer to take up?
  • Am I unable to speak up for myself in such situations?
  • When I feel these emotions, do I repress them or do I bring them into the group in a productive manner?

By asking such human questions, we catalyse a process of self-observation that gradually draws us closer to our emotional selves.

Understanding our emotional selves is a much broader and challenging task that takes time, commitment and some co-regulation. Attempting to answer these questions is best done with the help of an experienced, and qualified mentor or coach, acting impartially.

Reframing

Big social hindrances that prevent us from performing to our best potential are relics of the past –  mental frames that were adopted much earlier in life to cope with different social circumstances. These frameworks were most likely learned to deal with stresses in our families of origin or other formative groups. These frameworks were useful then but are no longer useful now.

Any team we are part of is not only a functional unit, but also an emotional unit, and every decision, interaction and communication has an emotional affect that has a significant bearing on its effectiveness. Even if our self-awareness is high, to move forward we need to ask ourselves:

  • How do my behaviours affect my teammates and their perception of me?
  • How does the ‘way I am' affect how the team performs, especially when it is operating under stress?

Work-in-progress

Being able to empathise with others, not only rationally but emotionally, forms the basis of excellent relationships. The ability to build excellent relationships is the basis of remarkable careers.

Yes, emotional intelligence is always ‘new' because it's always a work-in-progress. As Carl Jung said, ‘We are never quite whole’.

Paul Price FCA is an executive and team coach and is Principal at dynamicconnections.ie.