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Will Hutton

Will Hutton

Principal, Hertford College, Oxford University and chair of the Big Innovation Centre

Thursday 20 Sep 2012
Emotional intelligence and improving business performance

Emotional intelligence and improving business performance

How many times has someone knocked on your door with a whole list of issues with a person they work with and they just cannot get along with? They feel they have reached the end of the line with the person and it is now HR’s job to ‘fix’ the situation. How can we prevent such intrusions? Emotional Intelligence (EI) is one way, and is a powerful means of communicating effectively, building relationships and creating a positive working environment. 

In today's business world, HR professionals and managers need to be emotionally intelligent - deal with problems, lead by example, take the initiative, handle difficult situations and develop good relationships with clients. Successful human resource professionals know that their job isn't just about hiring: they can help line managers deliver measurable improvements in productivity and win the hearts and respect of management to contribute to the bottom line. Through EI human resource professionals now have a strategic tool that can help management produce results. 

EI provides methods to help solve your retention and morale problems, improve your company's creativity, create synergy from teamwork, improve information flow, drive forward your objectives, and ignite the best and most inspired performance from your employees. 

Developing EI is all about being self-aware and aware of others. This involves lifting your head from the task in-hand and looking to see what is going on around you. In the past, emotions were often deemed as an unwanted and unsociable set of characteristics that needed to be controlled as they were associated with weakness and instability. However, research is emerging that emotions are essential for motivating actions which are critical for adapting to challenges of survival or well-being, both personally and professionally. We experience many types of emotions in our daily lives such as fear, anger, enjoyment, disgust, interest, surprise, contempt, shame, sadness and guilt. These emotions become much stronger during times when our values and beliefs are compromised by ourselves or others. 

However, in order to function professionally, we often have to temporarily manage these emotions to encourage smooth communication or avoid conflict. But managing these emotions does not equate to ignoring them, as this can, over time, take its toll and lead to stress, with true personal feelings leaking through the mask. The consequence of such mismanagement of emotions leads to HR functions being overwhelmed by petty conflicts in the workplace which spiral out of control. One concept which may help with this is EI. In 1995, Daniel Goleman described EI as knowing how one is feeling and being able to handle those feelings without becoming swamped; being able to motivate oneself to get jobs done; being creative and performing at one’s peak; sensing what others are feeling and handling relationships effectively. 

Sounds great, but how can we develop emotional intelligence? Are you born with it or can you learn some strategies to develop it? The reality is that some people are better than others at reading their own and other’s emotions. Like everything, once you know what to look for, you can practise and start to pay close attention to some key signals and cues which are all around you. Here are some ideas to help you develop your emotional intelligence: 

Listen to your own emotions – they are offering you some very important data about your instinctive feelings about people and situations and will give you some real clues as to whether the person or situation is making you feel a certain way. This information will allow you to assess whether this person or situation is possibly in conflict with your values or beliefs. This process of naming the feeling may reduce an impulse reaction against them or the situation. You can also experiment with creating a visual representation of the emotion if naming it is difficult. This underlies some of the practices of art therapy and is an alternative means of describing the emotion. 

Pay attention to how others are feeling – sometimes when handling a task we are focused on how we are feeling, but we may be causing some uncomfortable stirrings of emotions within the person we are communicating with. There are many clues that we should be alert to. The first is body language, which includes facial expression, stance, gestures and tone. For example, a simple physical movement may indicate that someone is withdrawing from a conversation. This may be because the subject no longer has any relevance for them, or you may have said something that they don’t agree with. Do not to plough on regardless, but stop and ask some open questions as to what they think or how they feel about what you have just said. This will give you some time to assess if you are on the right track and whether you are still engaging them or not. 

Notice moods – notice how some people make you feel more energised than others. Think about why that is the case. Do you share similar values or beliefs? If so, you can leverage this good mood and bring it to your next meeting or encounter, which will allow you to further create a positive mood in others around you. Good moods are contagious most of the time, as are bad moods! Don’t underestimate the power of your mood in your work, as it is contagious and can be the deciding factor as to whether people actively want to work with you or not. 

What is behind the emotion? When you meet an emotional response, such as someone being angry or sad, before you react, think about what may be behind such a response. This can be difficult if it is aimed at you, but most of the time, it is not about you at all. Sometimes when people feel inadequate, or out of control, they will react emotionally if their beliefs are being compromised. An emotionally intelligent person will not react to the emotion, but find out what is really going on. This may involve moving the person to a less threatening location, changing the subject until they regain composure and displaying some empathy. Then, once they have calmed down, some gentle probing and questioning may reveal what is really going on. This can take some real confidence and bravery to put aside how their reaction has made you feel and focus on what is really going on for them. One way to engender a culture of having such difficult conversations may be to offer people a safe forum to practise these difficult conversations before any such need arises. This will give people confidence to face the difficult situation assertively and manage it to a successful conclusion when it arises. 

Managing our emotions – during our lives, some people and situations will make us feel better or worse than others. Sometimes we have no choice but to deal with and work with people who are very different to us and will evoke some strong reactions inside us. The important thing is not to ignore these feelings, but manage them in a way that works for us. If you feel angry or upset in a situation where it would be inappropriate to display such emotions, work out some strategies that will allow you to channel that emotion into a safe and effective outlet. This may involve removing yourself from the situation when the time is right, and going for a brief walk outside to breathe some fresh air. 

Organisations also have a responsibility to their people in helping them manage their emotions within the work environment. The provision of a suitably qualified mentor by the organisation with whom people can talk to is a very healthy way to allow people to get rid of their day and gain some perspective and wisdom on the situation. Alternatively, it is worth having a trusted work colleague with whom you can discuss your frustrations. This may be a person who makes you feel good when you are around them and will bring your mood to a more positive place. This will allow people to arrive to work the next day with a clear head and hopefully a light heart. Those with such an attitude are the clear headed thinkers and feelers who will be creative, fun and easy to work with. An HR manager’s dream team.

Kerrie Fleming is a member of the Leading People faculty at Ashridge Business School and specialises in leadership development with a particular expertise in leader emotional intelligence.