Imagine working in an organization where staff meetings start with a question about how everyone feels, followed by time to reflect and share the answer? In this organization, people consider how their decisions could make others feel, and they address these feelings. When disagreements happen, people take a moment before expressing their firmly held opinions.
If you feel a release of tension just imagining such emotionally intelligent organizations, you are not alone. The climate in these organizations is palpably different from that of organizations that define being professional as leaving emotions at the doorstep. The truth is that it is not even possible to leave their emotions at the doorstep. Even if we try, they find a way to leak into our daily work. Sometimes they ooze, and at other times they explode.
Simply put, emotionally intelligent organizations are organizations in which people act in emotionally intelligent ways.
What does it take for people across an organization – school, factory, agency, corporation – to act in emotionally intelligent ways?
In emotionally intelligent organizations, people have skills that help them reason about emotions; they are motivated to use emotions and have opportunities to do it in their daily work.
First, skills. There is no emotionally intelligent behavior without emotional intelligence skills. Like any other skill, they can be learned. Children can learn these skills in their families and schools, and adults can learn them at their workplaces. Those who develop emotional intelligence skills are able to:
• accurately perceive their own emotions and emotions of others,
• use emotions to inform problem-solving and decision making,
• understand likely causes and consequences of emotions, and
• successfully influence their emotions and help others successfully manage theirs.
Next, to act in emotionally intelligent ways, people should want to put their skills to use. If you have ever been in a situation where you ask yourself (or ask a child or a colleague) whether they want to be ‘right’ or helpful, it becomes clear why motivation matters. When we want to be ‘right,’ we want to express our deeply held beliefs or strong feelings. But expressing them or expressing them in all their might is not always helpful. Before we do what can be helpful, we need to decide to do so – because we think it is essential to act in emotionally intelligent ways or because acting in emotionally intelligent ways can be beneficial (help us get praise or rewards).
Finally, organizations provide opportunities for emotionally intelligent behavior or impose obstacles for it by the culture and climate they create. When the organization and its leaders acknowledge that emotions matter and should be recognized, they send signals to their employees that emotions have an important role in the workplace. Leaders thus give employees permission to feel and communicate that acting in emotionally intelligent ways is desirable at work.
Emotionally intelligent organizations will purposefully create systemic change and infuse principles of emotional intelligence in work activities (e.g., staff meetings, feedback sessions) and across work teams and departments or other units. And this systemic change will be most effective if supported by the top leadership.
However, this does not mean that individuals who are not senior leaders cannot do anything to move their workplaces to be more emotionally intelligent. Here are some specific action ideas.
If you are a supervisor
A recent study at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence showed that supervisors make a big difference in the emotional climate of their teams. We asked workers to describe to what extent their supervisors acted in emotionally intelligent ways and then asked them about their experiences at work. When supervisors embodied emotional intelligence, workers said they were motivated and fulfilled at work, they had fun, and they enjoyed work. But, when supervisors did not act in emotionally intelligent ways, workers felt underappreciated or unappreciated and experienced more anger at work as a result of being irritated and aggravated to mad.
As a supervisor, you can create an emotionally intelligent climate in your team.
• Notice how staff feel and explicitly acknowledge people’s feelings.
• Express emotions to motivate people. That does not need to be peppy at all times. Empathizing with others’ needs or frustrations can motivate solving problems at the base of those frustrations.
• Emotions are information, which is helpful in making effective decisions. Best decisions will be those that capitalize on opportunities (which we are better able to see in energized and optimistic moods), and that also acknowledge and prepare for what can go wrong (which we are better able to see in pessimistic moods).
• When making decisions or instituting policies, consider how they will impact others and directly address feelings that can be triggered.
• Take a moment before reacting to emotional situations and consider how you can help others manage their feelings.
If you are not a supervisor
Emotions are contagious. So even if you cannot influence work policies, you can influence the emotional climate in your immediate environment. When coworkers are supportive of each other and provide each other actionable feedback, other team members are less likely to want to leave the organization. You are always able to ask how others are feeling and be present to hear their answers. When conflict happens, coworkers who act as peacemakers and help manage strong emotions in a group will help create an atmosphere where team members dare to voice their concerns.
Emotions can, at times, make us feel that we are at their mercy. Pulled and pushed like puppets on strings, the truth is that we have agency in relation to our emotions – we can prevent some emotions and influence their course. We will be more successful with a little help from our teammates, supervisors, and supportive values and practices.
Ivcevic, Z., Moeller, J., Menges, J., & Brackett, M. A. (2020). Supervisor emotionally intelligent behavior and employee creativity. Journal of Creative Behavior. doi:10.1002/jocb.436
Zhou, J., & George, J. M. (2001). When job dissatisfaction leads to creativity: Encouraging the expression of voice. Academy of Management Journal, 44(4), 682–696. https://journals.aom.org/doi/10.5465/3069410