A guide to emotional intelligence in the workplace
Hopefully we all know somebody who is a really good listener, who always knows what to say and how. Somebody who makes us feel better, even if they cannot offer a ready-made solution to whatever is troubling us.
We probably also know at least one person who stays calm under pressure, who always makes the right decision, who takes criticism well and knows how to offer it to others without hurting their feelings too much.
Sounds familiar? To use a trendy phrase, these are the people with a high degree of ‘emotional intelligence’, or EI. They know themselves well and take into account the emotional needs of others. Would you like to be more like them?
What exactly is EI and how relevant is it in the context of one’s career? According to Mike Ponting, director of corporate training provider Making the Link, EI is about ‘the intelligent use of emotions’. In a nutshell, it consists of: self awareness (ability to recognise our own moods and emotions), self management (ability to control these), social awareness (ability to perceive emotions of others) and relationship management (when we understand how people feel, we can build and manage effective relationships).
Emotional intelligence is distinct from our IQ, or our ‘regular’ intelligence. A Harvard professor, Daniel Goleman, demonstrated this in the mid-1990s, when he looked at the lives and careers of two people, both with the same high level of IQ and the same level of experience in their field.
‘One achieved great things in their life and career, the other didn’t,’ says Amanda Knight, director of Minds4Success Ltd and co-author of Applied Emotional Intelligence. ‘Goleman concluded that the high achiever had (in addition to the technical and intellectual knowledge, skills and experience necessary to succeed) a high level of EI: they were highly self-aware and self-managing and very effective at creating and building healthy relationships.’
Nowadays, EI is an essential component of high performance and effective leadership, and most corporate organisations consider EI when they hire and promote. ‘They assess “emotional competencies” such as self-motivation, empathy and conflict handling to identify how well you manage yourself and others,’ says Knight. ‘Psychometric tests, tasks and interview questions test both your technical ability and your EI. For example, in an assessment centre, you and other candidates may be asked to complete a complex task quickly. The observers won’t just look at the process you go through, they’ll also want to know how you handle the stress of the situation, how you deal with setbacks that interrupt the process, and whether you consider the needs of other participants.’
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People with high EI succeed in most things they do. When they send an email, they get a prompt reply. When they need help, they get it. Why? ‘Their self-awareness, empathy with and understanding of other people, optimism and adaptability lead to trust and good communication,’ say Jeremy Marchant and Kay McMahon, experienced EI trainers and co-owners of Emotional Intelligence At Work.
‘They’re calm under pressure and have an optimistic, not a “doom and gloom”, approach,’ adds Ponting. ‘They invite the trust of others through being reliable, consistent and approachable. They handle conflict assertively, not aggressively,’ and without apportioning blame. They always seek the win/win result in their interactions with others. ‘These people are also highly authentic: there are no sides to them and they don’t “play games”,’ says Knight.
Improve your EI
As you have probably gathered, emotional intelligence is key to success in your life and your career. In business especially, the ability to manage relationships is essential in all leaders, so developing and using your EI shows your leadership potential. ‘Practise and grow self-awareness and awareness of others: listen, let go of the need to always be right and don’t judge,’ recommend Marchant and McMahon.
‘Learn about non-verbal communication and body language,’ adds Ponting. ‘Pay attention to the language you, and others, use. What are you HEARING? What are they NOT saying?’ Also, observe how you react to people. Do you make rush judgments before you know all the facts? ‘Don’t jump to conclusions. Instead, seek to understand other people’s motivations and why they act the way they do,’ says Knight.
Examine how you react under pressure. Do you become angry when something does not go according to plan? Do you seek to blame others? At work, the ability to stay calm is invaluable so learn to control such negative emotions. ‘When stressed, ask yourself: “What’s the worst that can happen here?” This way you get a realistic perspective of the worst-case scenario and what you can do to ensure it doesn’t materialise,’ says Knight.
Think about how your intended actions will affect others. How would you feel if you were at the receiving end? ‘Seek the win/win – try to ensure that some of the needs of all the parties are met in the process,’ says Knight.
I feel, therefore I learn
Emotional intelligence can also help with your study and exams. ‘Exams in particular are isolated work so practice self-awareness and self-management,’ say Marchant and McMahon, ‘to improve your ability to handle stress, to stay calm and positive.’ If you allow yourself to panic, ‘your mind goes fuzzy and you haven’t got the recall or insight you need,’ adds Knight.
Knight is also adamant about the need to ignore what she calls our ‘inner head-talk’. ‘Do you sometimes beat yourself up that you’re not good enough or haven’t worked hard enough? Whenever you notice that you say “I should/shouldn’t”, “I can’t”, or “I won’t”, replace this with “I choose” – this is far more empowering.’
When preparing for exams there is no substitute for hard work, but if you are emotionally intelligent, you will also take time to rest and exercise. ‘Coffee and late night study sessions may do the job, but sleep is important, too,’ says Ponting. ‘And physical exercise can give you the energy to do more than you thought possible.’
Hugs all around?
Some people feel uncomfortable talking about emotions in the context of business and professional study and wonder whether we are starting to favour sentimentality over intellect. Also, isn’t EI just a form of manipulation designed to get into people’s heads?
Ponting does not believe we are about to start ‘hugging each other all the time’. In fact, EI is about something quite the opposite: ‘it’s having the assertiveness to face up to crucial conversations and tough decisions.’ Marchant and McMahon add that, whether we like it or not, we do have emotions when we are in a business context. ‘We may try to ignore them but they’re still there, so why not manage them to our best advantage?’ As for the question of manipulation, ‘everything is manipulation at some level,’ they say. ‘It is the intent behind our behaviour that counts.’
These days, in every sphere of life, we must take responsibility for how we handle our emotions. ‘It’s no longer acceptable to say “well, it’s just the way I am”,’ says Knight. ‘We are expected to manage our personalities. Emotional intelligence gives us a useful framework for understanding ourselves and managing relationships with others, in business and in life.’
Iwona Tokc-Wilde, journalist
This article was first published in Student Accountant