How to Take “Emotional Intelligence” from Buzzword to Belief

In a study from Career Builder that surveyed 2,600 hiring managers, 71% said that they value high EQ over high IQ, so much so that 59% of employers wouldn’t hire someone with low EQ, even if they had a high IQ. The rationale here is that employees with high EQ are more likely to stay calm under pressure, listen more, talk through sensitive issues with more maturity, and generally display more empathy – all things anyone would learn in EQ 101.

Unfortunately, EQ 101 isn’t as easy as any other remedial course. While EQ is trendy and employers seem to like it, it isn’t often easily executed. People who are emotionally intelligent innately seem to have a hard time explaining to their coworkers how and why they act the way they do, and those who want to cultivate their emotional intelligence are left with platitudes like “listen before speaking” or “communicate your feelings.” Rather than humanizing the workplace and leveling the playing field, sometimes it might seem like EQ creates an even bigger divide between emotional and non-emotional people.

Kerry Goyette, president and founder of Aperio Consulting Group, is a frequent contributor to Entrepreneur and Medium, and the author of The Non-Obvious Guide to Emotional Intelligence. Having led workshops and courses on EQ, Goyette knows all the best ways to hand-craft an emotionally intelligent workplace – and all the worst ways that EQ is misunderstood.

What do people think emotional intelligence is?

Goyette begins by saying that EQ is known as a “soft skill” – one of the “squishy people skills.”

“Common responses often include elements of empathy, reading people, and emotional regulation,” Goyette says. “People often think emotional intelligence is just about showing empathy for others. It’s so much more than that.”

“Each of us operates within a system,” Goyette continues. And sometimes, it’s not just about the way that you act and interact, it’s about the people around you, the patterns in your office and life, and the culture you’re surrounded with. “That’s the often-overlooked element of emotional intelligence — looking as deeply into our environment as we look at ourselves.”

1. Misunderstanding

In an article called “What People Still Get Wrong about Emotional Intelligence” for the Harvard Business Review, Daniel Goleman, the brain behind EQ, states that being emotionally intelligent doesn’t equate to being “nice,” “soft,” or “walked all over.” But often, that’s what people end up thinking after company-wide retreats where presenters impart a namby-pamby, kumbaya-singing version of EQ. Goyette recalls the times that she’s been called in to train businesses in emotional intelligence due to inadequate explanations and unclear execution plans.

“They weren’t happy with past training because they were too fluffy, often anecdotal, and they lacked practical application,” Goyette says. “Emotional intelligence needs to be rooted in science. That’s why I approach it from the ‘brain science’ angle first and make the case showing why it’s essential to organizations.”

Goyette also says that EQ doesn’t happen on its own, and it doesn’t happen if you attend a workshop or seminar, but don’t make a conscious change afterward.

“We’ve also proven in our research that emotional intelligence can be improved, but people have to be motivated to work on it,” she continues. “When you focus and improve the emotional intelligence of an organization, that organization’s business metrics will in turn improve.”

2. Manipulative

Another one of the ways that EQ can be exploited in the workplace is when it’s used for manipulation rather than transparency. Goyette notes that some leaders confuse expressiveness or emotionality for EQ when in reality, too much of either can indicate an emotionally unintelligent person.

“Using interpersonal skills to manipulate others, or feeling the incessant need to be liked are prime examples of [inappropriate EQ],” Goyette says. Often, in the same way, people confuse burnout or exhaustion with empathy, especially in her experience in the healthcare field. In the same way that someone who’s angry isn’t always just passionate, someone’s display of emotionality doesn’t always mean that their open sensitivity is an asset.

“The ripple effects are significant to the individual, the organization, and ultimately, if you’re working in a healthcare setting, the patients you’re treating can also be impacted.”

3. Meaningless

Additionally, as mentioned before, some of the most common pointers regarding emotional intelligence are actually just useless clichés. The more these clichés are used, the less legitimate some find emotional intelligence to be, which can be extremely detrimental to an organization in the case of higher-level management.

“I worked with a CEO who received feedback multiple times on his 360 that said he needed to listen more,” Goyette says. “When I asked him about it, he said, “Yeah, I do need to do that.” I pushed him to dig into why he hasn’t made that change when he knows he needs to. What we discovered in that conversation was that listening more felt passive to him. He’s charged with driving the company forward, and listening didn’t feel like an active way to do that.”

“We talked further about it and changed his goal from “listening more” to “engaging in exploratory dialogue,” Goyette continues. “I explained to him that effective dialogue should be exploratory and should include good listening, processing that listening and then challenging their thinking. This approach was a more active way to support his goals. Just saying he needs to listen is too generic and may not fit the motivations of the person.”

From buzzword to belief

Goyette describes EQ as a “multiplier of intelligence and productivity,” and that the scientific approach to propagating its tenants is the only true way to tap into EQ’s full potential. There are, in particular, four categories that Goyette specifies are necessary for managers to consider to start implementing EQ in the workplace.

1. Environment

The first thing anyone looking to forge an emotionally intelligent workplace should do is start with their environment. You need to understand what’s going on around you in order to make an unbiased choice about what kind of program you need to institute.

“Evaluate your surroundings objectively,” Goyette says. Whether you’re a manager or an employee, taking stock of your workplace is always the first place to start when you’re trying to reinvent your EQ culture.

2. Story

Once you’ve gotten the lay of the land, it’s time to look a little closer at the individual situation at hand. Before you hop to emotionality, take the opportunity to objectively look at the larger arc of various office dynamics, the relationships and interplay between coworkers.

Each office has a narrative built by the employees. When you unveil the patterns of behavior and communication between teams, you can build the story of your office – and rewrite the ending.

3. Others

Now that you’ve figured out Goyette asks, now it’s time to take the beliefs that you’ve cultivated about your workplace and shake them up. Think about individuals whose ideas about the workplace might contrast with your own, or people who have differing opinions about how their workplaces might run. These people will be the most valuable for you, as they’ll challenge the notions you’ve refined about your office’s ecosystem.

“What people need to be involved?” Goyette asks. “What perspectives need to be heard (especially those who may disagree with you)?”

4. Self

Finally, turn to yourself to find out what you can do next time to prevent situations like this from surfacing in the first place. For leaders who want to foster a culture of EQ, this is where you design programs for behavioral change judging by what you read from your environment, employees, and contradicting opinions.

“Ask yourself,” Goyette says, “how do I need to adapt? What do I need to unlearn? And make it practical. For organizations who want a more emotionally intelligent culture, leaders should design behavior change at scale; get clear on what behaviors are needed to achieve our goals, and then design education, training, and incentives accordingly.”

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