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Emotional intelligence in the workplace

23rd Dec 2020
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This article is a guest piece from ESCP Business School, Executive Education. 

Recruiting new managers based on their experience, university degrees and professional accomplishments is relatively straightforward. That’s the way all businesses have recruited new people for decades now. But when it comes to deciding whether that person has the right qualities to fit into your team, communicate effectively, convey the right message, listen with intelligence and patience, understand and anticipate the emotional needs of others - well that’s a much more arduous task.

Understandably so, since “emotional intelligence” is not a line that often features in CVs.

Furthermore, even though it is increasingly regarded as a key priority within HR departments, the impact, necessity and management of emotional intelligence are not always clearly appreciated.

Emotional intelligence is a soft skill

As opposed to hard skills (know-how), soft skills are personal qualities connected with attitude and approach. They include reliability, adaptability, the ability to resolve conflicts, flexibility, creativity, ethics, the capacity to find solutions to complex problems, cultural intelligence etc. Emotional intelligence is one of the most important soft skills of all, since it has a direct or indirect impact on all the others.

Where does emotional intelligence come from?

Emotional intelligence is a concept which emerged from the University of Yale in the early 1990s, thanks in large part to the works of American psychologists Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer. In 1996, journalist Daniel Goleman drew inspiration from their research in a book now considered to be the founding text of the popular adoption of emotional intelligence: “Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ”. That book topped the bestseller lists for months.

But why is emotional intelligence so important today?

Far more than just a buzz word or fleeting fad, emotional intelligence has become a permanent fixture of the professional landscape. It is useful to businesses in general, but also to employees specifically as they go about their day-to-day work. Emotional intelligence makes organizations and the people who work for them better. In a world undergoing profound technological and organizational transformations, it contributes to value creation, puts human qualities front and center and helps to influence corporate culture by working on the personal qualities of employees and managers.

At the individual level, it also plays a crucial role in the development of leadership. This is probably the most immediate and most important impact of emotional intelligence - when it is correctly passed on, taught, nurtured and shared.

Emotional intelligence: back to basics

In purely academic terms, emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to perceive and express emotions, to integrate them into thought processes, to understand and reckon with emotions, and to regulate one’s own emotions and the emotions expressed by others. It is not a clear-cut skill with a beginning and an end. It is above all a quality which evolves over time, shaped by the experiences of our personal and professional lives.

What is emotional intelligence?

It is perhaps best considered as a set of skills, sensitivities and approaches which can be reflected in concrete actions. These include identifying and recognizing emotions and being able to control and master one’s own emotions. As well as this, it’s about knowing how to identify other people’s emotions, and of course being able to handle other people's emotions.

Emotional intelligence is not an innate quality, it is something which we must acquire and which evolves over time. But the first weeks of our lives are very important – as they are for the development of many other skills and qualities - because emotional intelligence is shaped by our experience of childhood and adolescence. It is also strongly influenced by the social, domestic and environmental contexts in which we live.

Nevertheless, it is in professional settings that emotional intelligence develops most rapidly, since we are constantly exposed to the emotions of others, which may have a direct impact (negative or positive) on our own professional lives.

What is the point of emotional intelligence?

Humans are profoundly social animals. We need interaction, contact, discussion, the feeling of being recognized as part of a group. Emotional intelligence plays an important role in the way we interact with our peers.

Make decisions which must be strategic, pertinent and, above all, timely. Hesitation is natural in certain situations, but indecisiveness can be very costly. When we trust ourselves, and the team around us, when we are sure that we have understood and taken on board the emotions of others, then decision-making becomes quick and painless.

Implement a strategy effectively, whether for commercial development, mergers and acquisitions, restructuring or launching new products and services. Strategies cannot be constructed alone. Working together with an emotionally intelligent and cohesive team is the best way to make the process clearer, more innovative and easier to share.

Build lasting alliances, both internally with management teams, unions and business units, and externally with partners, suppliers, influencers and other stakeholders. Emotional intelligence comes into play in all human interactions, and has the power to accelerate or hamper projects and discussions.

Anticipate problems before they happen by trusting your team, taking the time to communicate and being alert to the behavioural micro-signals which might indicate a challenge to be tackled or a change of approach to be considered. Emotional intelligence allows for a sort of emotional benchmarking, gauging how your colleagues are feeling and identifying future talents.

Conduct negotiations to secure a better price with a vendor or supplier, support processes of change, or agree new conditions with the board of directors or employee groups. Emotional intelligence can help you to interpret other people's emotions, anticipating their actions and thoughts and improving your listening capacity and decision-making ability. It requires you to be authentic, empathetic and truthful. Nobody is ever persuaded by constraints or authority.

Get messages across and persuade people in all situations. Professional life has its ups and downs, but

emotional intelligence can help to considerably reduce the tough moments (site closures, redundancies, lost contracts, bad buzz etc.) and boost the engagement and adaptability of your teams. Trust is key. You need to trust yourself and be capable of sharing that trust with others.

Develop influence strategies as a manager and as a leader, in order to gain recognition and facilitate the sharing and transmission of your ideas, to surround yourself with a motivated team and dare to innovate.

Who needs emotional intelligence? The answer is easy - everybody.

Emotional intelligence is not a luxury reserved for the upper echelons. It is a capacity which all employees can acquire and develop, and which will have a major influence on their behaviour, their work and their

capacity to communicate and work as part of a team.

Nevertheless, the professionals who benefit the most from the impact of emotional intelligence are those who regularly work in groups, managing and coordinating teams. That’s why managers and directors are so interested in the concept, and why HR departments now consider emotional intelligence as a key factor in recruitment.

Emotions are what define us as human beings. Knowing how to handle them intelligently is a way of standing out from the crowd, earning recognition and creating a positive and benevolent working environment where individual performance is made possible by the strength of the collective spirit.

But why is emotional intelligence so important right now?

We are all shaped by our history. The same applies to companies, which are often regarded with a certain suspicion by younger generations. And not without cause: for too long, companies were organized on pyramidal, hierarchical, virtually monarchical lines. This led to a weakening of social bonds, at the expense of a vaguely paternalist authoritarianism.

The organizational structure always seems to be the same: a boss, deputies, silos, tightly controlled communication, a limited interest in new ideas, a mistrust of collective intelligence and a general lack

of recognition and empathy. Fortunately, that's all changing now. In fact change is an obligation, because that old model has become irrelevant and unsustainable.

Using emotional intelligence to strengthen your leadership skills: becoming a better person and a better performer

All employees should work to develop their leadership capacities. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they should all strive to become managers, rather that they should appreciate the importance of emotional intelligence in their professional lives. Greater emotional intelligence means better communication, clearer and more positive exchanges, greater benevolence and the capacity to better understand the world around us and to work more effectively as a result.

The good news is that it is never too late to learn. From young graduates to seasoned experts with 30 years of experience, everybody can work on their emotional intelligence at any moment in their career. That may involve training courses, conferences and coaching sessions, which are generally finely tailored to the precise needs and circumstances of individual learners.

The second bit of good news is that it is entirely possible to implement a strategy based on emotional intelligence in companies of all shapes and sizes and in all sectors of activities - from small firms to multinational corporations. While the methodology may differ, in all contexts the impact can be unprecedented. Last but not least, do not dismiss emotional intelligence as an optional luxury. The only thing that keeps companies going is the women and men who work for them, devoting their time to keeping the business alive and thriving. Effective leadership has a lasting impact on your organization. It is a catalyst to performance which can help you to better plan for the future and to remain solid in times of unexpected turbulence.

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