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The rise of the emotionally intelligent organisation

Posted on by from The School of Life

Resolving areas of emotional turmoil and barriers to communication can transform the wellbeing of organisations and boost success, argues Aoife Keane, head of business psychology at The School of Life.

The concept of emotional intelligence (EQ) came to prominence in the mid-1990s in Daniel Goleman’s seminal text of the same name. Much has been written about it since. It would be easy to dismiss EQ as just another passing fad in the burgeoning management science literature, but at The School of Life, we view it as critical to the health, wellbeing and success, not only of individuals, but of whole organisations.

What does it mean to be an emotionally intelligent business and how can such an organisation be developed? An organisation committed to raising its EQ sets out to help people develop and flourish by examining and resolving areas of emotional turmoil and barriers to collaboration. This helps develop employees, also addressing how efficiently and effectively people work together in pursuit of organisational goals.

Some hurdles are procedural, while many more are psychological in nature, including defensiveness, irrational rivalry and people-pleasing. Overcoming these is, at one level, a matter for the individual. But there are organisation-wide measures that can develop collective EQ. Issues that feel personal – such as not listening – can be addressed in an institutional way, as the following tips explain.

Direct chats

Trouble within teams can arise from people not speaking honestly about their hopes, disappointments and frustrations. Feelings are bottled up, and then explode or seep noxiously through an organisation.

Power inequalities inhibit frank communication. “What if I speak out and they fire me?”. An EQ-committed organisation knows that wisdom and good practice come to the fore when people dare to be direct. It places an emphasis on the practice of direct chats (DCs).

Any employee, at any level, should be able to request a DC at any time. There should be clear rules around its format, with responsibilities on both sides – the speaker and the listener. Staff should be equipped with the emotional tools to deal with such conversations, in the form of handson training and ‘go to’ DC experts to guide and advise.

Campfire meetings

In an EQ-committed organisation, there are regular‘campfire meetings’ where people gather in small groups to discuss the real issues of the day, with honesty. The aim is to develop a culture in which it’s normal to confess to problems that affect joint working and collaboration.

Once the campfire is (metaphorically) lit, tension ebbs away; it’s the end of the day, pressure is reduced. It’s time to share how things really are. There’s no stigma around having problems, since it’s assumed, from the outset, that everyone has challenges. The meeting enables people to highlight where EQ has been lacking and the impact on themselves, their teams and their clients.

Individual EQ reviews

Everyone has their flaws, but when we note these in a colleague, we rarely share them with the person concerned. Instead, we take avoiding action, giving up on people, suffering in silence or changing jobs. This inefficiency is costly. 

The irony is that a great deal of important information is up for grabs, but we lack the emotional skills to tap into it. We struggle to frame an issue in a way that doesn’t humiliate or offend somebody. A solution is the EQ review , a one-to-one conversation between an individual and an impartial ‘EQ coach’ to identify strengths and weakness. 

Developing the EQ review as a discrete process and embedding it into 360 degree feedback or performance reviews, deepens understanding of the emotional health of individuals and the organisation as a whole.


EQ communications

Emotional development is ongoing and requires topping up. We’re not committed to bad habits, we just need reminders of the good ones.

An EQ organisation might disseminate examples of common EQ difficulties and how to address these. Essays or lectures will not suffice; reminders must be sufficiently persuasive to overcome resistance and lodge themselves in people’s memories.

EQ audits

In our view, traditional employee engagement surveys are unwieldy and focus on the mechanical, transactional and process aspects of employee welfare. They often skip the subtleties of the human experience in the workplace: happiness, sense of meaning and so on.

Tap into psychological aspects of employee wellbeing by asking people one straightforward question: “How happy are you in your work today?” This simple happiness indicator provides a real-time pulse check of organisational culture, and is the starting point for a deeper emotional health audit. The results are both a high-level indication of overall wellbeing within the organisation and a means of identifying specific areas that require particular attention.

EQ at the core

For far too long, addressing psychological issues has been seen as a luxury, an optional extra that is beneficial to individuals’ personal lives outside of the workplace. However, this is an illusion we can no longer afford to retain.

Emotional development is not an add-on for an effective organisation, it has to be at its core. Quite simply, EQ is a vital and valuable skill for team members as they carry out the big collective tasks of modern business.

Aoife  Keane

By Aoife Keane

Aoife heads up the business psychology area at The School of Life. Focused on developing the emotional health of organisations.

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