Can you train for emotional intelligence?
Emotional intelligence may be the most important soft skill for the workforce of tomorrow.
As technology evolves faster than workers' technical skills can keep up, employers are being forced to upskill employees on their own. To that end, they're focused on workers with good "learnability," experts say.
But they're not just training on technical skills; they're trying to teach communication, leadership, time management and, increasingly, emotional intelligence. EI (or EQ) is generally considered a self-awareness that allows an individual to identify and express their own emotions and manage their response to things that trigger them. It allows us to recognize and understand emotional responses in others and influence them, if needed. But can you really train for EI?
Training for EI
Most experts agree EI is not an inherent trait: As children, we were trained to manage our emotions. If our parents were successful, we don’t throw temper tantrums as adults. In the workplace, EI is a valuable skill; after all, few work in a complete vacuum, and relationships between colleagues at all levels are influenced by emotions. The ability to recognize triggers and manage responses is a necessity. The ability to recognize what triggers others and influence them is a skill.
EI can be refined to help workers control their own emotions and build stronger relationships with peers. Managing disruptive, knee-jerk responses to emotional triggers reduces unwanted behaviors. And the ability to tap into positive, self-driving emotions — like confidence and enthusiasm — lead to more beneficial outcomes. EI can help manage conflict, lead through challenges and build relationships.
EI is learned and developed over the course of one’s life, according to Marc Brackett, founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and a founding advisor at the Oji Life Lab. "We’re not born with a rich emotional vocabulary or the knowledge of how regulate our feelings," he told HR Dive. We’re taught to control our emotions and while we all feel emotions throughout the workday, "EI development provides the ability to articulate and manage them effectively."
Why it’s so important
It's easy to see where that fits into the workplace. "Emotional intelligence becomes a key ingredient for successful teams and the relationships between managers and their direct reports," Kristen Fyfe-Mills, associate director, communications at The Association for Talent Development told HR Dive via email. "It is an ingredient that can fuel collaboration and cooperation across teams and contributes to a positive culture."
When someone has cultivated their emotional intelligence, they’re often able to see with a broader lens, not just their own perspective and experience of the world, according to Shelley Osborne, head of learning and development at Udemy. In the workplace, this can translate to increased empathy, self-awareness, accountability and, ultimately, improved relationship management, she said.
"Work is all about people and interactions," according to Robin Stern, associate director of partnerships at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and an Oji Life Lab founding advisor. "Emotions impact our focus and our ability to work, to make good decisions and judgments. Emotions are contagious," she said. Similarly, the ability to read emotions is important: they guide us to avoid or approach people, she explained, which affects teams and collaboration.
It makes sense, then, that employers might want leaders with high EI. "Someone with high emotional intelligence assumes good intent and avoids jumping to conclusions when interacting with their colleagues," according to Osborne. They don't immediately point fingers when experiencing a conflict with a co-worker. "They seek to understand and uncover the core of the issue and better understand others' perspectives," she said.
Teamwork and collaboration stand to benefit the most, according to Kathi Enderes, VP of talent and workforce research at Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP. Those items are "at the heart of today’s most successful organizations, and team members who are emotionally intelligent will work together best," she wrote to HR Dive.
Selling it to employees
EI can help anyone work better together, according Andrea Hoban, Oji Life Lab’s head of learning. She said she works with a wide array of clients, from surgeons to ship builders and everyone in between. "It’s acknowledgement that if I don’t know how I’m feeling, I may have an unregulated response that could create a relationship that’s difficult."
And while it may seem insulting to tell employees they need to improve their emotional control, a good pitch can make the difference. Approaching the issue from the perspective of building stronger awareness and more cohesive relationships may be the key.
Teams may be interested to know that such training can help them work more effectively together. For some groups, like nurses and physicians, Hoban said, it even enhances their ability to work with patients and their families more successfully. The training can benefit personal relationships, she noted, even giving individuals the tools to deal with teenage children.
Even employees or leaders who may already have strong emotional intelligence can stand to uncover areas with room for improvement, said Osborne; "Self-awareness is a key component of emotional intelligence and employees who seek honest feedback will reap the rewards of personal and professional development as a result."
Added bonuses for the future of work
Leaders with high EI also may be critical to their organizations' futures. "Emotional intelligence is a key factor to unlock inclusion and innovation," said Enderes. A team with emotionally intelligent members will generate more ideas, create more opportunities to voice these ideas and provide more contribution to the overall business.
It's also perhaps the only component of intelligence that machines have not mastered (yet) and therefore is the only difference between humans and artificial intelligence, according to Enderes; "As automation replaces tasks that machines are best at, having people that are best at what humans do – empathy, sensing, adjusting interactions – will enable businesses to create a powerful human/machine collaboration."
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