The importance of emotional intelligence in the workplace
Getting to grips with emotional intelligence and understanding how it could benefit individuals and organisations is the first step to creating a happier workforce and a healthier working environment.
If there were ever a year in which we all need to better understand emotional intelligence, 2020 surely is it. In the face of such widespread disruption and with individuals working remotely, connected through technology, emotional intelligence is needed more than ever before.
Emotional intelligence strongly impacts individuals' behaviour and their performance at work.
As we now look to adapt our ways of working to today's challenges, however, is corporate culture ready to integrate emotional intelligence as an active management tool? How can companies empower their staff and management through emotional intelligence? Some thoughts and proposals follow.
Understanding emotional intelligence
Management experts emphasise that the use of emotional intelligence needs to be prioritised in the workplace, but what does emotional intelligence actually mean, and what are its potential limitations?
Emotional intelligence (EI) is "the ability to monitor one's own and other people's emotions, to discriminate between different emotions and label them appropriately, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behaviour" (Salovey and Mayer, 1990).
Emotional intelligence refers to the individual differences in the perception, processing, regulation, and utilisation of emotional information. Emotions are multiple and mostly portrayed as positive (e.g. interest, contentment, joy, enthusiasm, pride, happiness, love, awe, serenity, gratitude and amusement) or as negative (anxiety, anger, guilt, upset, jealousy, shame, nervousness, irritation, sadness and fear). Recent studies in psychology and advances in neurosciences and related fields clearly show that emotional intelligence strongly impacts individuals' behaviour and their performance at work. It thus becomes an important managerial tool and organisations need to learn how to use it – do not think of it as a panacea, however.
Despite a lot of enthusiasm for the relatively new concept of EI management, emotions are still a taboo topic and are hardly ever taken into account in many (and very likely most) organisations. There is still a widespread belief that most emotions have no place in the workplace. Or at least, that one may exhibit only the positive ones, while hiding any negative ones.
One must make sure that individual human reactions are properly understood and recognised.
Some employees/managers take pride in being emotionless, or at least, appearing very 'controlled'. Why? Discussing emotions is seen as displaying vulnerability, and in a context where strength is at a premium, many individuals are reluctant to do it. As gender, age, cultural background, and personal traits influence our reactions, that must be respected. Of course, managing emotional intelligence can’t mean flooding the organisation with personal feelings or accepting improper behaviour, but one must make sure that individual human reactions are properly understood and recognised to ensure the good heath of any organisation.
Research shows that employees who feel continuously constrained in expressing their personal feelings end up limiting their contribution, and organisations do not want that.
Thinking about Emodiversity - defined as the variety and relative abundance of the emotions that humans experience (Quoidbach et al., 2014) – can enrich our reflections about recognising emotional intelligence in organisations. Emodiversity, whether positive or negative, is associated with better mental and physical health. In short, a rich and diverse emotional life can increase our good health.
Recognising and addressing negative emotions in an open and intelligent way could prove highly beneficial.
An interesting parallel can be made with organisations. Their performance may very well increase if they recognise that going through different emotional stages is an important part of their organisational life and that they need to find proper ways to manage that. Is the common experience of 'upset' among colleagues best left alone, or is there a way to address such an issue through open and respectful discussion? Can rescheduling an annual review if one feels in a bad mood be accepted as reasonable management? Is an emotionally-charged discussion a problem?
Instead of overemphasising (or even glorifying) only positive emotions, can we not accept that recognising and addressing negative emotions in an open and intelligent way could prove highly beneficial for organisations?
L&D departments have a key role to play. Firstly, they need to alert the C-suite about the benefits of EI management. Many studies have tested the impact of training on emotional intelligence and it’s now shown that the impact is positive (Nelis et al., 2009), so the C-suite can’t pretend it’s just a fantasy. L&D can keep track of the latest research. Applied psychology, neurosciences and related fields are very active and the results of state-of-state research continuously enriches our understanding of human behaviour both at an individual and organisational level.
Consider re-naming your Chief Happiness Officer as Chief Emotion Officer!
A good starting point for L&D to consider is the new Geneva Emotional Competence test (GECo). This measures four major EI components in organisational outcomes: emotion recognition, emotion understanding, emotion regulation in oneself, and emotion management in others.
Secondly, L&D can spread more knowledge of EI Management throughout their organisations. A good example is Sodexo, a worldwide leader in Quality of Life services with nearly 427,000 employees in 80 countries across the globe, which dedicates a space on its website to “Creating the Emotionally Intelligent Workplace”. It shows how emotional intelligence is indispensable in the workplace. Even if some figures/facts presented may be disputed, the importance given by the company to emotional intelligence is well emphasised.
Third, ensuring training for all categories of employees from top to bottom is indispensable. L&D may also work with universities and business schools by contributing to organisational studies with a feedback loop.
One last suggestion for organisations who have adopted this title: consider re-naming your Chief Happiness Officer as Chief Emotion Officer!
Interested in this topic? Read Emotional intelligence: navigating today’s leadership challenges.