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Emotional intelligence in the workplace makes a difference

Technologists need to know people as well as they know their craft. Applying emotional intelligence in the workplace helps convey ideas and change organizations.

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In my first years as a technology consultant, I would tell my clients, "You have to do abc because it is better." Most clients nodded. I am certain not many believed me. One day, a consultant colleague challenged me with, "Why is it better?" I stuttered and may have mumbled, "Because, obviously." And then I never said it again.

The ability to educate on a subject, to explain it and its applicability to someone else, is directly proportional to one's own understanding. I needed to apply emotional intelligence in the workplace, and, clearly, my understanding of the situation was lacking in the above example.

I realized later just how ignorant and robotic I was in those days. I was copying and reusing others' statements as gospel, unable to apply sufficient context and nuance to decisions and advice.

This particular time in my life was rife with Agile transformations. Consultants would parachute into an organization -- usually at great expense to the client -- and attempt to change much of what they were doing. Why? To make them better. It is true that they were struggling and that we could have helped, but in retrospect, I can assure you that some of us did not properly grasp either the psychology of change or the role emotional intelligence in the workplace plays in transformation.

Continuous change is inevitable

Responding appropriately to change is a learned skill.

The Change Curve, originally created by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross to describe the emotions of the terminally ill, has been said to apply to all disruptive change. The sequence of emotions is as follows:

  1. denial
  2. anger
  3. bargaining
  4. depression
  5. acceptance

While some dispute that this model applies to organizational change, it is worth recognizing that there are indeed emotional reactions to change.

How one responds to emotions depends on emotional intelligence, or EQ.

At school, we might have studied technical, business or arts subjects. But we probably didn't learn as much as we should have about how to play nice. EQ is the ability to not only recognize and understand emotions in others, but also to manage them in ourselves and others by responding appropriately. When we speak of culture in a company, we should consider EQ.

I realized later just how ignorant and robotic I was in those days.

People who act childishly lack EQ. Those who fly off the handle and cannot control themselves lack EQ. A technologist who routinely blames someone else for problems or incidents lacks EQ.

The excellent work by Dr. Sidney Dekker talks about no-blame cultures and how to collectively and maturely respond to incidents and transformations. I highly recommend his work.

A person who can tactfully navigate a crucial conversation and come out the other side with everyone winning possesses EQ. A person who can genuinely empathize with you and see your perspective possesses EQ. Successful diplomacy is an execution of EQ.

Applying EQ in the workplace

If you as a consultant, to use a crude analogy, can duck and weave in a boxing match by reading your opponent well and still have both of you emerge victorious, you are applying EQ.

If you as a technologist face a transformation imposed by management or their consultants, your ability to apply EQ may well save your job. It also may help you understand why these changes are occurring and how they could possibly benefit you. Or, if perhaps you cannot avoid a loss of employment, EQ can help you learn from the experience and respond maturely and speedily toward the next opportunity.

If you're a manager and you determine that you need to make changes to the company and its personnel, it is critical that you know and apply EQ. How you assess and execute these changes directly reflects your ability to empathize with the people involved and the longer-term consequences of the changes that you bring about.

EQ deeply affects how you execute your actions. While you may have a particular internal reaction, it is how you externalize this that reflects your EQ.

As I view my earlier life with 20/20 hindsight, my advice to that inexperienced technology consultant Theresa is: Know your subject. Know it so well you can explain it to anyone, at any level, in any context. And second: Know people better. Study and know EQ and empathize with people's responses to change.

To this day, I am grateful to my employer that put the study of EQ and crucial conversations on my required reading list. It has forever improved my resilience and changed for the better how I interact with others on the job as well as those outside of work. I highly recommend that all technologists consider how emotional intelligence in the workplace could make them better professionals.

This was last published in August 2018

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