Emotional intelligence: The EAR approach

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Emotional intelligence in leadership can make the difference between a stressed and unproductive team and a happy and engaged one. Here are some simple steps for engaging with emotions in the workplace.

A senior manager in a global equipment manufacturing business recently shared a story with me, and I have her blessing to share this story with you.

Sarah was a member of a high-performing team. She was engaged, motivated and productive - so much so that she was promoted to be the boss of the team. She attacked her new role with phenomenal energy, fizzing with ideas for business improvements.

An older, long-standing member of the team (Bill) began to show signs of stress. The issue was that Sarah failed to recognise this up to the point where she saw Bill unable to load paper in the photocopier. He was shaking with anxiety.

As the paper flapped he became increasingly flustered. He was at breaking point. Why had Sarah not noticed before? What could she have done to intervene earlier?

Too task-focused

In her passion for performance, Sarah was entirely task-focused. She was living almost entirely in her head: goals, activities, delegation, and to-do lists. It was as if she was travelling up the motorway at such a speed that she failed to notice the landmarks along the way. She had overlooked important emotional data in her team that would have helped her and saved Bill.

Zenger and Folkman’s work suggests that most leadership competencies relate to emotional intelligence (EQ). Sarah’s almost exclusive focus on task was way out of kilter.

To redress the balance, Sarah needed to find a way to improve her ability to connect with the emotional environment at work and to understand how to create an ecosystem at work that helped emotional intelligence thrive.

The EAR approach

To better connect with emotions, Sarah adopted help the EAR approach:

1. Engage

Tune in fully to what’s happening with your team members. Become an emotional detective.

Notice visual cues: changes in breathing, skin colour and physical posture. Vocal variation: pace, volume, pitch, and hesitation. Also, pay attention to how you’re feeling.

Take time to connect with that somatic data. Notice the differences in the emotional data. Be curious about what’s happening and why that might be.

2. Accept

Accept your feelings at face value - they are what they are. Just as importantly, accept the feelings of others. There’s no right or wrong. Resist the temptation to react, interpret or blame. Opt for understanding over judgement.

Respecting another’s emotions helps to create an environment where openness, creativity and innovation can thrive.

3. Respond

Communicate your understanding. The comfort someone feels in knowing they’ve been understood has the effective of lowering blood pressure, an indicator of anxiety and stress. Take the time to work together to identify a suitable outcome and how you – both individually and collectively – will achieve this.

These three steps and their underpinning behaviours are just one positive contribution to the emotional environment at work.

Contagious emotions

There’s much more that bosses, like Sarah, can do.

Emotions are contagious. We catch feelings from other people and these can determine our mood. Everyone watches the boss. Moods that start at the top of the organisation spread like wildfire. They can singe people in their wake, sometimes leaving a painful scar, which serves as a reminder to avoid that person in the future, wherever possible. It’s the brain’s mechanism for self-protection.

The brain is a pattern recognition system, so when an error occurs – like an emotional hijack – the brain is distracted by that error. As a consequence, less energy is available to the brain to focus on work tasks. We are less able to solve complex problems and our actions are likely to err on the safe side, sometimes resulting in a sub-optimal solution.

Focusing on creating an environment that employees experience as rewarding will help to foster information sharing, build trust, encourage healthy risk-taking and maximise learning.

It’s a vicious cycle and is not conducive to engagement, performance and productivity.

Smile, please!

A leader’s upbeat mood can have the greatest impact on performance. Smiles are contagious too. Scientists as long ago as Charles Darwin, with his Facial Feedback Response theory, have advocated the power of smiling.

Arriving with a smile on your face is a simple and effective way to positively impact the workplace mood, increasing the levels of mood enhancing neurotransmitters: endorphins, dopamine and serotonin.

A Penn State University study showed that smiling could make you appear more competent, more courteous and more likeable. Who would baulk at that? As Mother Teresa said: “We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.”

Smiling is the gift that keeps on giving, and it costs us very little. Yet in the hurly-burly of the results-focused workplace, many workers and managers have their head down, working hard at a task and failing to connect with the people around them.

Humouring people, literally

If you can raise a smile or two a day, try a chuckle, a giggle, or roar with laughter. Humour also reduces stress and increases creativity and productivity.

Focusing on creating an environment that employees experience as rewarding will help to foster information sharing, build trust, encourage healthy risk-taking and maximise learning. What a fantastic rate of return on a meagre investment.

If, like Sarah, you know you give primacy to tasks at the expense of engaging with colleagues, think about how you can change that by lending people your EAR and simply smiling. You know you want to…

Interested in learning more about soft skills? Read 'Machiavellian intelligence: the new emotional intelligence?'

About Ally Yates

Ally Yates

Ally Yates is author of ‘Utter Confidence: How what you say and do influences your effectiveness in business’ and an expert on Behaviour Analysis and the interactions that define us. She combines a deep understanding of people and how to achieve results, based on her many years’ experience working with large corporate clients around the world.

Since 2000 Ally has been working as an independent consultant, facilitator, trainer and coach. She has collaborated with international business schools and has received national and international training awards.

Ally’s approach is grounded in a sound understanding of theory, trends and practice in learning and development, business development and leadership development. Clients value her insights, pragmatism and influence.

She is passionate about family, rugby union, travel and learning.

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