When you hear emotional intelligence, what do you think? Often, people think of EQ as only about introspection and empathy. We think of it as focused on the “me” because it involves our emotions and what we do or don’t do about them.
In fact, much of the existing literature on EI enforces this belief. But if we think of EI on an individual level only, and leave out the “we” and the environment, then we are only looking at one piece of the puzzle.
If you want to use emotional intelligence to create positive change in your workplace, then you have to move past me and consider we and why. What does that look like?
Recently, I was called in to work with an engineering plant to help them improve their team and systems. The products this company makes have very little room for error, and the stakes are high. If the team isn’t accurate, then errors can cause a lot of harm.
The company was having problems with a manager, whom I’ll call Alex. Alex was a people-pleaser. He was a nice guy who connected his self-worth to whether or not people liked him. When people wanted critical feedback to improve their work and reduce their errors, they went around Alex and asked his boss or other employees for help. They knew that going to Alex would mean only praise, whether or not it was warranted. He failed to give constructive feedback, which inevitably resulted in problems.
Alex had, in effect, lost credibility and trust with his team, so everything around him had started to unravel. At first, it was slow, but like water swirling around a drain, it started to move more and more quickly.
Now, if we were to apply only the popular version of emotional intelligence here, what would we tell Alex to do?
- We might say Alex needed to take a hard look at himself. Once he did, he would realize that he was people-pleasing because of a need to be liked, and that need was harmful to the work culture and the company.
- We might remind him that it’s impossible to please everyone, and that trying to do so was harming his work and relationships with others.
And that might even work.
But here’s the problem: it would be temporary. In fact, the team leaders had already tried telling Alex to change. It failed for a predictable reason: Telling someone to change without helping them to change their environment rarely leads to success.
Here’s another way to look at it: If you wanted to quit eating junk food, would you continue to buy chips and candy and keep them around your house? Or would you change your environment whenever you could?
If you wanted to quit smoking cold turkey, wouldn’t you start by throwing out your cigarettes?
What wasn’t being considered was the why behind Alex’s people-pleasing. They didn’t have a system in place to show Alex the impact and cost of covering for his employees.
Alex needed to change, but he needed his environment to support that change.
That’s the often-overlooked element of exercising emotional intelligence—looking as deeply at the environment we are operating in as we do at ourselves.
Just telling Alex to learn and address his own tendencies without changing the environmental factors that triggered those tendencies is a Band-Aid when you need a suture.
The Three Elements of Change
By the time I was asked to work with the executives at Alex’s company, they were facing high rates of turnover. The data I collected showed a lack of engagement across the board. In one instance, another executive voiced her lack of trust in Alex because he had attempted to protect an employee by covering up their error-ridden work. (Alex had claimed, “We can’t expect this person to be perfect.”) It left the other executives wondering if they could trust Alex at all. They needed a management team that consistently held people accountable.
So, what did we do?
The company had invested a lot of time, energy, and resources in Alex. They didn’t want to see him go; they just wanted to see him change.
We focused on three elements:
We spent time doing one-on-one individual work so that he could begin to recognize when he was engaging in counterproductive behaviour. Was he doing what was needed or just telling people what they wanted to hear?
Alex’s assignment was to begin to observe and investigate how his people-pleasing was impacting his team. After asking for feedback from one of the supervisors that reported to him, he was surprised and disappointed by what he heard. The supervisor recounted a recent situation when Alex reversed a tough decision to send an employee home after a safety incident. The supervisor told Alex how this had undermined him. Alex finally began to see the impact. He had never seen it before because he had never asked; doing so caused him to take a hard look at the consequences.
Finally, I worked with Alex and his colleagues to create structure within his environment for addressing his people-pleasing tendencies. We designed a system for tracking accountability. Alex liked metrics. He began to track when an issue first surfaced, the number of days until it was resolved, the resolution, and the impact to the team. The final piece was getting feedback from his team to determine if they felt the issues were resolved. Alex began to see the value in feedback and recognized that it was key to keeping him from avoiding issues.
Avoiding the hard stuff was Alex’s emotional reaction. It was a reaction based in fear. Once he was finally resolving issues, his team and the CEO recognised his efforts. Suddenly positive reinforcements began coming in from all over—other executives, me, his team members.
And what happened?
Alex started to rely less on his need for people to like him. He was able to be more objective with his decision-making because we set up an environment where objective decisions were rewarded.
We had identified the problem, the impact it was having, and then created environmental checkpoints that would support the change Alex was trying to make.
Teamwork and collaboration improved in his department because Alex was no longer inhibiting his team’s ability to learn from mistakes. When Alex finally realized what was at stake, he realized that his own need for approval was getting in the way of what his team truly needed.
These weren’t earth-shattering changes. They were relatively small habits that made a big difference. His department’s employee engagement started rising.
Alex’s intervention shows what happens when we understand that emotional intelligence is about more than just me or the individual or the self. It is about the role of the individual within their environment. It’s easy to think about EQ as being all empathy, all compassion, all feeling. But it’s also about design. How can you create an environment that enables people to work with their strengths, weaknesses, and quirks to do their jobs well?
Smart leaders engineer their environments to support emotionally intelligent decisions.
Our emotional intelligence exists within a community. The brain’s reactions are essential and they’re hardwired into us, whether it’s the classroom or the boardroom. And in order to achieve growth — whether in ourselves or someone else — we need to understand the people and their individual motivators and perspectives, as well as the way our environment is affecting us.
Kerry’s non-fiction work, The Non-Obvious Guide to Emotional Intelligence is out now and available in paperback at Amazon.