What role can emotional intelligence play in our professional lives?
Ah, emotional intelligence, otherwise known as “EQ.” Such a popular buzzword these days. Organizational and clinical psychologists alike tell you to sharpen it in order to cultivate a better you, your HR contact at work challenges you to contemplate it, and your Facebook feed just inundated you with a Business Insider “listicle” on the 5 ways to improve it. But what actually is “it?”
Well, Psychology Today defines it succinctly as “the ability to manage your own emotions and the emotions of others,” and expounds on that definition by listing three skills that define the use of EQ: emotional awareness; the ability to harness emotions and apply them to tasks like thinking and problem solving; and the ability to manage your own emotions and the emotions of others, which includes regulating your own emotions and cheering up or calming down other people. To me, this definition is simple and makes sense, but leaves a lot to be desired. Most attempts to describe abstract human behavior need contextual or anecdotal evidence to make sense to the audience, and emotional intelligence is no different. For me, when I conceptualize this notion of “emotional intelligence,” I think of those people to whom I have intuitively gravitated toward; those managers/bosses, family members, friends, etc., who are quite adept at exercising those ‘EQ’ muscles and it all makes sense why I’m able to connect with them so easily.
As humans, we are all very inherently different creatures. Sometimes we bond with folks that are very similar to us because we find comfort in the commonalities that we share. Sometimes we bond with folks that seem to be our own personal antithesis, because we laud that person’s embodiment of the very traits that we recognize are lacking in us, but nevertheless admire greatly. Regardless of the seemingly infinite ways that one person could be both similar and different from another, one thing remains immutable; we all have emotions that affect our behavior. Some of us identify with certain emotions more than others, but unless you are a true sociopath, you have most certainly felt a full range of emotions at different times throughout your life. Notice I said, “affect our behavior” and not drive our behavior. That is because we all express our emotions differently. If I am feeling a certain emotion, for example, anger, and that anger triggers a resulting behavior that I display, the exact same situation and feeling may trigger a completely different resulting behavior or reaction in someone else. Some express their emotions openly and honestly, sometimes to their benefit and sometimes to their detriment i.e. they wear their emotions on their sleeves. Others are better at hiding their emotions i.e. they don’t “show their hand” to represent how they are feeling, also sometimes to their benefit and sometimes to their detriment. This post is not about debating whether or not it is better, in the long run, to be overly emotional or unemotional, but regardless of where you lie on the spectrum you will be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t work on fostering better emotional intelligence within yourself and recognizing the EQ or lack thereof of others. The trick is to master your own emotions, recognizing your own feelings and emotional patterns and directing them in a way that supplements the emotions of others in order to create a mutually beneficial relationship or engagement for everyone. That way, you will become better at connecting with others, and you will feel more at ease in your interactions with others because you will be able to direct your time and energy toward those relationships, both professional and personal, that are worth your time and you will be able to remove yourself from those that will do nothing more than exhaust and frustrate you.
As far as actual, real-life examples go, let’s take your boss. Or maybe your coach on your sports team. Pretty much any authority figure applies in this example. A great boss/manager is someone who can exercise emotional intelligence to incite a desire to perform from their people. They know what they are good at, they are self-aware about their unique personality traits, and even more important, they know yours. They know what you’re good at and where your developmental areas are, and their words and actions are geared toward praising your strengths and illuminating your blind spots in a tactful way. Have you ever heard someone say that “they would run through a wall for that guy/girl?” Well, that’s likely because that person has built a strong connection with the other through exercising exceptional emotional intelligence. Your boss knows that you are an energetic self-starter, highly motivated and impatient, ready to dive into any new interesting project. You have a tendency to get excited about new opportunities quickly. He/she appreciates this in you and will leverage those traits by assigning you to certain projects. But, they will also know that your tendency to be a tad overzealous at times causes you to sometimes miss the small, but important details, aka the ‘fine print’. Knowing this, he or she will inspire confidence and excitement in you, but they won’t forget to mention how important it is that you organize certain aspects of the task that may be tedious, but yet very important. They will praise you for your good qualities and will mention the areas that you need to work on, but they won’t harp on them. And let’s not get it twisted, exercising effective EQ is not manipulation, but rather a way of acting and behaving toward someone in a way that ignites a mutual understanding. Those that do not display EQ are the ones who, when you are speaking to them, you just know it is going through one ear and out the other. They are not really listening to you, they don’t recognize your opinions or your feelings. They are the ones who are unabashed and unfiltered, saying whatever the hell they want without any regard for the people in their company. They are the people who brag about their beachfront houses in front of the people who they know are going through hard times. They are the people who disparage victims of addiction knowing full well that the person in front of them lost a brother to addiction and is extremely sensitive about the topic. They are the coaches and bosses that are quick to acknowledge what you did wrong but sell short what you did right. In the long run, these people are not able to build genuine rapport and connection, but instead, they incite only disdain and contempt from the people around them.
Emotional intelligence is not something we often think about consciously, but you’ll find that many great managers, leaders, and friends have a knack for it. People who are great at building authentic connections with others just ‘get it’. And as we all well know, we could all use a little more of that in our ever-changing virtual, digital, computerized world.