By Marc Brackett, Ph.D., and the Oji Life Lab Editorial Staff
Burnout, employee disengagement, and retention challenges have engendered their own pandemic in the American workplace. In July 2019, before Covid-19, – the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that the voluntary quit rate of U.S. employees was 2.4%, the highest level in 15 years. Additionally, Gallup data showed that 67% of U.S. employees were disengaged at work and 51% said they were actively looking for a new job or were open to one.
Fast forward to 2022, workers are feeling overwhelmed and even more restless. Two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, a seismic shift in how work is conducted, and an uncertain economy – it’s a lot. That may explain why in a 2021 Predictive Index study, 36% of employees said that their manager was burned out; and of these workers, 70% said colleagues were planning to leave the team or company.
Why are workers so dissatisfied? The data says it’s the managers. Historically, roughly 70% of the variance in employee engagement has been tied to the skills – or lack thereof – of an employee’s manager.
But in that problematic statistic lies the seed of a solution. Decades of research, including the work done at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence – where I am Founding Director – shows that emotional intelligence skills can be built. Today, a variety of firms, including Oji Life Lab are working with organizations that are shifting their priorities from building narrow job skills to equipping leaders with soft skills. These “soft” skills help managers cultivate employee engagement, performance, trust, and retention.
Soft skills are often harder to master and require greater practice than traditional hard skills. But the effort to acquire soft skills can easily be justified given the huge impact these skills have on workers and what they produce.
Many soft skills are rooted in emotional intelligence (EI). In its simplest form, emotional intelligence (sometimes called EQ) is the ability to understand and manage our own and others’ emotions in order to achieve desired outcomes. Based on original research conducted by Peter Salovey at Yale and Jack Mayer at the University of New Hampshire (and popularized by Dan Goleman), the skills of emotional intelligence are critical for learning, decision making, relationships, well-being and mental health, as well as our overall effectiveness.
At the core, managing people is about managing and maintaining healthy relationships that eventually lead to productivity and success. Managers who are skilled at recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing, and regulating their emotions – which I refer to as the “RULER” skills – are often more successful at engaging their direct reports. According to a Yale-led study I co-authored in the Journal of Creative Behavior, managers who use their emotions wisely have happier and more creative employees.
The Three Critical Skills of Emotional Intelligence
Zorana Ivcevic, a senior research scientist in our center, along with our colleagues at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, surveyed nearly 15,000 people across the U.S. to explore the relationship between managers’ EI and workplace attitudes, finding that people who rated their supervisors as being higher in emotional intelligence — i.e., managers who read and acknowledged employees’ emotions, helped them channel feelings, inspired enthusiasm, and capably managed their own emotions —were happier, more creative, and saw more opportunities for growth.
Like other skills, building EI requires guided practice over time, which is what Oji Emotions provides. As you consider helping your managers grow their EI, be sure to support them in developing these three critical emotional intelligence skill areas:
Recognition is the ability to recognize what you’re feeling, label it accurately, and determine its root cause. Recognizing the underlying causes for your emotions can be the key that unlocks your ability to perform and manage others at a higher level. There are three steps to recognizing your emotions:
- Step 1: Tune in to your body. Where are you noticing sensations? Is your stomach upset? Is your heart racing? Do you feel tension in your neck or head? Your physical symptoms can be clues to what you are experiencing emotionally. Exploring what is happening to you physically can help to shift your focus and allow some of the intensity of the emotion to go away.
- Step 2: Notice your larger emotional state. Whether related to or separate from your physical sensations, can you feel the emotion – or emotions – you’re experiencing? Get a sense of whether your emotions are pleasant or unpleasant. How energetic are your emotions?
- Step 3: Can you label that emotion? Is it fear, anger, or anxiety? Are you excited, happy, or calm? Naming the emotion is crucial to the next step, regulation. And yes, you can feel more than one emotion at a time.
Regulation is the skill of using specific EI techniques to shift your current emotion to whichever emotion best fits your objectives. Regulation isn't just about down-regulating anger and anxiety, it’s also about generating emotions that serve immediate goals like inspiring an audience or showing empathy to a team member who needs support. Consider these three steps when regulating your emotional response:
- Step 1: Determine your desired emotion. Think about your goals and situation, or upcoming situation (e.g., meeting, tough conversation, big presentation). Will your current emotion best support you in meeting your goals?
- Step 2: Identify the emotional state you need to get to. If you said “no” to the previous step, ask yourself what emotional state do you want to shift to? Do you want to be inspiring? If so, what can you do to get there? You might want to take a walk, watch a high-energy movie clip, or listen to some upbeat music. Or are you feeling anxious about a hard conversation with a direct report? In this case, you might shift to a more content mood by using techniques like reframing, where you imagine a more positive outcome than the one that’s driving your anxiety. Remember that everyone’s strategies are different. A strong EI training program will help you build a set of regulation strategies that work best for you.
Co-Regulation takes the recognition and regulation skills you’ve developed for yourself and applies them to others, allowing you to support them as they work to regulate their own emotions. Once you've regulated your emotions, you can work to co-regulate with other people, helping them harness their emotions to achieve desired outcomes with the following steps:
- Step 1: Consider emotional contagion. Ask yourself: when you interact with colleagues, partners, customers (or your family), would you want others to catch what you are feeling? If you walk into a meeting angry or upset, chances are that it will rub off on others. That's how emotions work. Given the possibility of emotional contagion, ask yourself how you might regulate your emotions, and tune your emotion expression, in order to have productive and enjoyable conversations.
- Step 2: Help others regulate. By observing facial expressions, body language, vocal tone and, of course, what others say, you can learn to gauge their emotional state. If their emotional state seems incompatible with their goals, you can use concepts like emotional contagion to help others reach a better emotional state. For example, if someone on your team seems panicked about a customer problem, shifting yourself to a calm emotional state can help them calm down, too.
Taken together, these skills can help managers create a climate that fosters creativity, productivity, collaboration, and loyalty. Organizations whose managers ignore these skills experience the high levels of employee turnover reflected in the adage “people don’t quit companies, they quit managers.”
Like any skill, improving manager EI requires practice, reflection, and support from an experienced coach. The good news is that anyone can boost their EI using the techniques outlined above.
Eager to start applying EI thinking to your own practice? Download Oji’s Mood Meter Guide to begin realizing the benefits of emotional intelligence today.
Marc Brackett is a research psychologist and the Founding Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and Professor in the Child Study Center at Yale University. He is also the co-founder of Oji Life Lab