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Emotional intelligence at work

By Kathryn Thory - Posted on 21 January 2016

Dr Kathryn Thory recently gave a talk on emotional intelligence at Strathclyde Business School’s Abu Dhabi centre. Drawing on her extensive research, she explored the ‘best’ EI models on the market and how to develop EI skills as well as EI’s ‘dark side’, whether EI advantages women over men, different cultural contexts and key considerations for HR and Training consultants. Here she looks at the pros and cons of emotional intelligence training.

We have over 4,000 English words to describe our feelings, with 600 of those describing negative emotions. Yet many of us struggle to find the right words to express how we feel or ever fully understand our emotions. This is not surprising, given how complex and changing our feelings can be.

In the workplace, around 45% of managers report becoming angry with others too easily, while 31% report constant irritability (Chartered Management Institute, 2012). The figures show an upward trend of negative emotions in the workplace over the last five years.

Given this, it is easy to understand why emotional intelligence (EI) continues to be of interest to business and organisations since its emergence in the mid-1990s. Being able to recognise and manage our emotions, self-motivate, as well as understand the emotions of others and handle relationships are essential ‘soft skills’ for today’s workplace. This groundswell of interest revolves around EI’s association with transformational leadership, resilience and being stress-fit. EI is also the hallmark of enterprising business behaviour and excellent customer service.

Getting personal

It is not surprising that corporate programmes focus on what EI can deliver to the business. Yet EI training that adopts an integrative perspective which encourages participants to reflect on work and life can reap personal and organisational gains.

Crucially, with a focus on emotions, stress tolerance and values, EI training can raise awareness of work strains and work-life imbalance, which can then be addressed through career development, appraisals, mentoring, coaching and feedback. As a by-product of this more holistic approach, insights into non-work relationships can improve participants’ quality of life outside of work.

When ‘popular’ EI models are used, EI training also enables managers to be more authentic and genuine at work by: reconnecting with one’s feelings, character and identity; being more emotionally honest; practising integrity. Many individuals attend EI workshops trying to be what they think a manager or leader should be, but EI encourages individuals to be more comfortable in their own skin at work, removing the strain of pretence.

Avoiding pitfalls

However, HR managers responsible for organising and managing EI interventions must also be aware of some pitfalls.

Some employees might use EI as a strategic tool, adopting those skills for personal gains, such as self-promotion, increasing status or accessing scant organisational resources, perhaps using praise and other tactics to ingratiate themselves to a supervisor. Managers beware!

In addition, research shows that participants may disclose private information (thoughts, feelings and experiences) during EI training as a way of making sense of themselves or exploring past feelings in relation to current thinking and behaviour. For some, the nature of training can be intimate and intense and have a profound impact. A clear benefit is that genuine emotional and intellectual growth can take place and sessions can be cathartic for participants.

Often though, issues of confidentiality and third-party dissemination become pertinent. Mindful of career progression and reputation management, managers may feel concerned about whether or not their employer receives a report of their performance during the training. Thus, practitioners and participants should mutually agree upon the general types of disclosure and privacy boundaries adopted at the outset and agreements should be made on how disclosed information is treated during training.

Similarly, the training experience can bring to the surface or ‘unlock’ uncomfortable emotions in participants, even when unsolicited. Practitioners should therefore be trained to recognise when to refer participants to appropriate professional counsellors or employee assistance programmes - and have the basic skills themselves to manage such situations sensitively. This extends to the careful management of any mental health issues that may surface through participants’ disclosures in EI workshops.

Gender issues also need to be taken into consideration when delivering EI training. EI is often equated with natural ‘feminine’ abilities and it’s widely assumed that women have a head-start when they use EI in the workplace. Yet when women use these skills in managerial and team-working roles, their feminine qualities do not always lend them the kind of credit or remuneration that men’s strengths offer, or when men ‘do’ femininity. This is particularly the case in masculine work environments where these skills are seen as natural, feminine qualities and are consequently unacknowledged, ignored and unrewarded in women. By the same token there is evidence that the emotionally literate male manager fares well in today’s organisations. Emotional expression can be assessed more positively in men than women – they are seen as more socially competent because their emotional skills are seen as a learned ability rather than a natural aptitude.

Overall, EI training offers much to participants but important considerations include: the explicit content, theories and underlying messages delivered during the training; the experience and expertise of trainers; and how attendees’ organisational culture fosters and support genuine EI development beyond the EI workshop.

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