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In the academic environment, we put a premium on the ability to tackle complicated problems in a nuanced way and to reason at a high level. This approach emphasizes the components of general intelligence, the set of highly correlated cognitive skills that some people associate with IQ tests or other measures. Yet we often overlook the vital quality of emotional intelligence for groups -- as well as for their leaders.

Emotional intelligence, or EQ, is the ability to manage emotions, facilitate interpersonal relationships and be aware of the emotional states of others. EQ’s encapsulating skill set is not linked to IQ, although some think it can be measured. Certainly, it can be improved through practice and experience. A leader’s knowledge of and ability to use such skills are essential to promoting workplace cohesion, motivating and inspiring a group, and promoting positivity. Studies show that employees view leaders with high emotional intelligence as more effective.

Emotional Intelligence as a Leadership Skill

Good leaders know the members of their work groups as both individuals and as a collective. They are aware of what motivates their colleagues, how they each respond to criticism and the types of work that play to their strengths or provide growth opportunities. This can be important, for example, in giving them feedback, especially when it might be difficult for them to hear.

Beyond this, however, an often-overlooked quality of a good leader is self-awareness. It is not enough to know how work affects others within the group. Leaders should know what their own effect is on each member and how it influences the overall group dynamic as well.

Having a good grasp of one’s own strengths, weaknesses and tendencies is also a feature of emotional intelligence. Leaders who know how their emotions affect themselves and others are more likely to end up with a more cohesive working group in which people feel comfortable airing different perspectives, as well as giving and receiving constructive feedback.

Compare this type of self-aware leader to one who is unaware of how emotional dynamics affect the group, one in which animosities or jealousies undermine productivity or governance. Good boundaries between professional and personal opinions can be hard to achieve and immeasurably valuable to the healthy functioning of a group. Many academic department meetings, for example, get sidetracked by conversations that lead the discussion away from agenda items or other matters to be decided. As the person running the meeting, how do you decide when to pull the discussion back on track; conversely, when do you decide that the matter being discussed, while “off topic,” reveals feelings and attitudes that need some public airing and working out?

An emotionally intelligent leader has an ability to help group members cultivate self-awareness and self-governance. We need not like each other to be effective at working together, as long as the group has a common mission and a shared set of norms and boundaries about where personal feelings should and should not be brought into professional interactions. An emotionally intelligent member of a larger group has the skills to separate their personal feelings from their work and also to try not to take the frustrations of work out on people in their personal lives. Emotionally aware leaders who walk their talk and who can raise awareness of and monitor the tone of interpersonal interactions in a group tend to be more effective and trusted leaders.

Managing emotions in the face of opinions or observations about one’s efforts is also an essential skill that most professionals need every day. If nobody feels comfortable giving a leader or each other constructive criticism, the overall productivity of the group suffers. This raises the stakes on the ability to frame feedback -- positive or negative -- as about the work being reviewed, not necessarily about the professional competency of the worker or the leader.

Leaders with a high EQ recognize that differences are usually a path to strength. A rich array of experiences and cultures in a group can be its best asset if the group as a whole has cultivated respectful boundaries about how to interact with each other in light of those differences. That requires emotional intelligence from its leaders and from its members so that everyone can feel respected and heard. For a person to be heard, others must be listening: simply hearing the words is not enough. Yet active listening requires the listener to be sufficiently emotionally intelligent to recognize their own emotional responses and to be able to focus on the speaker.

Due to their ability to listen to a variety of points of view, emotionally aware leaders are also better at managing conflict. The most effective leaders are ones who know how to resolve conflicts of many types. Conflict resolution includes many aspects of emotional intelligence -- understanding both sides of a conflict, asking the right questions and listening for how each actor is emotionally affected. When these skills are used in conflict resolution, it is easier to see what the conflicts are really about.

Have you ever been a member of a group that has the same conversations over and over, without resolution? Or where the most innocuous-seeming statements trigger what seem to be disproportionately strong responses? Those patterns, which play out in too many academic units, reflect a dynamic where what’s being discussed is not the real issue -- and it often reflects a lack of emotional intelligence on the part of the leader, the group members or both. Understanding the unspoken role that emotions can play in such contexts requires attending to more than surface-level appearances.

Take, for example, a seminar where graduate students and faculty present and discuss their research. Each week, the same two faculty members take most of the discussion time debating with each other. The substance of their comments is worthy, but they keep returning to the same dispute -- to the point where it seems clear that the argument is at least partly about something else, something of which they may themselves be only partly aware. This lack of self-awareness leads to an ineffective use of both students’ and faculty members’ time.

On the face of it, what looks like dispute over a project may, in fact, be a power struggle, or have roots in personal antagonism or resentments over other issues. But there is no way of knowing that unless somebody asks the right questions and is able to appreciate the needs and struggles of each person. When leaders are tuned in to what is really at play in a discussion, they are better situated to lower the temperature of a discussion and turn it toward more constructive problem solving -- or, at least, to set boundaries on where and when the conflict plays out.

Even in the absence of active conflict, good active listening can demonstrate respect and the desire to understand what is being said. When people can see that what they are saying is heard and understood, it builds trust and increases the likelihood they will feel comfortable expressing opinions in the future, rather than shutting down and tuning out. Thus, good leaders cultivate other good leaders -- people will remember how they feel when they are listened to and begin to use the same skills with others. That helps create and sustain a climate and culture of excellence.

Developing Emotional Intelligence

Developing and improving one’s emotional intelligence is possible with time and effort. A good start is to be aware of how the processes of emotion occur deep within the brain in one of the oldest evolutionary structures, the limbic system. When we encounter a stimulus, it is processed there before it is sent to the frontal areas for rationalization.

Understanding that can teach us is to postpone reacting to the initial emotion-inducing stimulus until we can further deliberate about what we are feeling and why that may be. Then, we are better equipped to respond in a rational way. Like all skills, this can take some time and is easier said than done, especially when one is talking about more primal emotions such as fear, anger and aggression. It is often difficult to avoid reacting on an emotion until we can come to center and reflect upon its meaning.

Therefore, an important aspect of developing emotional intelligence is to slow down and step back.

We already know that self-awareness is a key component to emotional intelligence, so how do we get to know ourselves? Taking some time for reflection is important. For instance, many effective leaders keep a journal to record their thoughts and feelings. After practicing this technique, recognition of one’s emotions and emotional tendencies will become second nature, and it will be easier to recognize those emotions as they arise.

This is also a good time to be aware of the fundamental attribution error: the idea that we are quick to attribute our own errors to features of the situation, but the errors of others to their dispositions. (Imagine: I was slow to respond to an email because I was overloaded with obligation, but when my correspondent is slow to reply to me, I assume that it is because they consider me a low priority.) Being aware of this tendency in ourselves and others can help us move judgment away from someone as a person and allow us to see what might actually be causing the problem. Here are some helpful questions to consider:

  • How would you explain the behavior if it were your own?
  • What would you do if you were in their shoes?
  • What situational factors could have caused them to do what they did?

The next step to take after recognizing present emotions is to start regulating the expression of these emotions. Nobody likes to be told to calm down, yet that is often the goal in fraught situations. Simply taking a short break or having a mechanism for self-calming before reacting can help you be more effective in managing difficult emotional situations. Improving the ability to recognize and regulate emotions leads to better decisions -- it is easier to focus on the problem without getting caught up in anger or stress. Even more, the ability to stay calm and collected will help others stay centered as well. This, too, is a dimension of effective leadership.

When we have a better idea of how to manage and regulate our own emotions, it becomes easier to see both how we affect others and how emotions are affecting group interactions. Emotional intelligence is thus one of the most important skill sets for a leader to master. Terms like “soft skills” tend to underestimate their importance -- they can be very hard to do well and consistently.

Ultimately, leaders establish the culture of a group. A group with a leader who is in touch with their own feelings, and with the individual experiences and goals of other group members, will promote a more amicable and productive workplace in which everybody feels respected and is able to perform at their best.

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