Can we learn to be more emotionally intelligent?
Both nature and nurture will have an impact on how well we can manage our emotions, react to the emotions of others and successfully navigate through complex social situations. Some may find this easier than others, but fortunately our level of emotional intelligence does not have to remain static.
Few would disagree that the presence of emotional intelligence (EI) plays a key part in the success of an organisation. The impact of improved working relationships on productivity, efficiency and innovation are widely recognised, and it is generally acknowledged that empathy and self-awareness are essential attributes in effective team players.
Knowing how to manage and express your own feelings, as well as engage effectively with others, is critical in today’s workplace. But are we all born with a certain level of emotional intelligence or is this simply another skill that can be learned?
Can emotional intelligence be learned?
Opinion is split on this point, with some psychologists firmly taking the view that our level of emotional intelligence is pre-determined and that, in simple terms, some of us are born with abilities that others lack.
Certainly genetics and early experiences will play a part in determining how we manage our own emotions and react to emotions in others. However, the good news is that even when someone lacks a natural talent, some EI skills can still be learned.
Unlike IQ, which doesn’t change significantly over time, EI can evolve and develop, so long as the desire to learn and grow as a person is present. According to the Harvard Business Review:
"...empathy can be trained in adults. The most compelling demonstration comes from neuropsychological studies highlighting the ‘plasticity’ of the social brain. These studies suggest that, with adequate training, people can become more pro-social, altruistic, and compassionate."
It takes motivation
As with all forms of learning, motivation is key, and this is particularly true when it comes to learning EI skills. It requires commitment and conscious practice and training to improve emotional intelligence.
It also requires the willingness to honestly evaluate your own emotions and drivers. If someone can’t, or is unwilling, to recognise their own emotions then they won’t be able to recognise and react appropriately to emotions in others.
In the same way that no two people are fully alike, employees will have different needs when it comes to developing their EI skills.
How can you support staff to improve their EI skills?
Studies have found that training can be effective in helping participants learn techniques to both identify and regulate their own emotions and become more aware of their impact on others.
One such study by cognitive scientist Delphine Nelis analysed the impact of this form of training over two groups of college students with interesting results. The study concluded that with the right training and motivation significant improvements in EI could be seen, not only immediately after the training, but also some six months later. Therefore the benefit of investing in your staff’s EI skills could have a positive and lasting impact on the business.
So how can you put this into practice?
1. Ensure your staff understand why EI is important
Not everyone grasps how essential emotional intelligence is in the workplace. Make sure your appraisal and review systems include feedback on these softer skills, for example using 360 degree feedback to hold a ‘mirror’ up on any problem areas.
Hearing first hand that others don’t find you approachable or a good listener can be hard but it’s the first step to recognising there’s a problem and making the decision to do something about it.
2. Help individuals to recognise where they need to development
Using 360 feedback and personality tests can be a good starting point to help employees to evaluate themselves and gain the necessary self-awareness.
Most of us don’t really know how we come across to others but without this insight it’s impossible to identify and act on aspects of our behaviour that need attention.
3. Everyone’s different so vary your approach
What actually constitutes emotional intelligence is complex. In the same way that no two people are fully alike, employees will have different needs when it comes to developing their EI skills.
For some the key priority will be helping them to develop self-awareness, starting with recognising how they respond emotionally in different situations. For others they may benefit from developing interpersonal and empathy skills, enabling them to work more effectively with others.
4. Recognise that change is possible but that it will take work
Coaching on a one-to-one basis can really help to improve interpersonal skills but requires practice to ensure that newly learned approaches become embedded. It takes time for new skills to develop so be prepared to invest over the long term to really see the benefits.
5. Feedback is everything
The only way for someone to accurately know if their level of EI has increased is to seek out regular feedback from those around them. However, it’s essential that this is done in a supportive way. Otherwise the risk is that people will revert to defensive behaviours, completely undermining the development of any new EI skills.
Building the right EI foundations with the next generation
Schools are beginning to recognise the importance of EI as an essential part of building the foundations of success in later life.
As well as supporting the development of traditional learning and skills, there is now an increasing awareness that those who succeed in life are frequently those with high levels of EI. Therefore there is a clear benefit to nurturing emotional awareness and skills from a young age.
With the increasing ‘virtual’ nature of both the world of work and our social interactions, the importance of emotional intelligence has never been greater.
Working with young people to develop active listening skills, empathy for others and self-awareness are all essential components of their education.
Supporting children to widen their vocabulary of emotions has also been shown to help. Enabling them to clearly express how they are feeling allows children to better understand their own emotions as well as empathise with the feelings of others.
The future of EI training
With the increasing ‘virtual’ nature of both the world of work and our social interactions, the importance of emotional intelligence has never been greater. With much of our communications now taking place via email and social media, the need to develop and retain essential human qualities is key.
With that in mind, ensuring your staff have the EI skills that give your business the competitive edge should be a strategic priority for learning and development professionals in the coming year.
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Sue Andrews is a senior HR professional with 25 years experience, gained across various challenging sectors and is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.
Having operated as an HR Director with responsibility for a workforce of 3500, she has a broad knowledge of the key issues facing any business when it comes to...