How to cultivate emotional intelligence in your staff

L&D consultant

Emotional intelligence (EI) – described by business psychologist Dr Susan David of Harvard University as ‘the ability to solve problems with and about emotions effectively’ – is essentially the measure of how well a person monitors their own emotions and the emotions of others, and how they use that emotional perception to guide their thinking and behaviour.

EI is not just a business buzzword invented by HR and L&D professionals; it is a concept born of evidence-based, psychological analysis of the way human beings react to situations, interact with one another and make decisions. Researchers at the University of Bonn in Germany recently undertook a study where they tested participants for emotional intelligence then studied their background. They found that the participants who scored higher on the emotional intelligence tests were rated as more socially skilled by their colleagues and were generally better paid. This outcome remained the same even after the researchers controlled for alternative explanations for higher income such as age, gender, amount of training, or hierarchical position within the company.

A high level of emotional intelligence in your staff can make them more effective communicators, able to build better relationships, more productive, and, importantly, able to quickly spot and resolve conflict. All of these traits are extremely valuable in a business environment, and if you want to harbour them within your own organisation, fostering emotional intelligence in your people should be high on your list of priorities.

The RUUM model

When we are designing learning interventions to develop emotional intelligence in people, the content is largely informed by the RUUM model, devised by Dr Susan David (mentioned above). This model can be broken down as follows:

  • Recognising emotions
  • Using emotions
  • Understanding emotions
  • Managing emotions

Let’s take a look at each of those points in greater detail:

1. Recognising

The first stage in developing emotional intelligence is learning to recognise emotions in others, particularly through nonverbal communication such as facial expressions, or through subtle changes in voice. I mentioned the recent study by the University of Bonn in Germany, and one of the key conclusions from this study, cited by the researchers, was that more value should be placed on the skill of recognising emotions when it comes to selecting managers, particularly within professions where human contact is a big part of the job.

If a person does not have the ability to recognise emotions in the first place, it is going to be extremely difficult for them to use develop a more advanced understanding of them. Any learning intervention designed to develop emotional intelligence, therefore, risks being a waste of time if the recognition element is not dealt with first and foremost.

2. Using

Emotions tend to dominate the thinking process when not managed correctly. If you respond to something emotionally, it grabs your attention, and this can hinder productivity and effectiveness. It is vital, therefore, to be able to think past your initial emotions in the way that is most useful for the task at hand. It is also essential to be able to understand which emotions are useful for what, and use them to your advantage in order to facilitate the right kind of thinking. Creative tasks, for example, often benefit from different emotions than tasks which involve sharp focus or attention to detail.

3. Understanding

Understanding what emotions are is an essential part of developing EI. What does each emotion mean, and what information is it trying to convey? Every emotion carries its own messages and potential actions, and it is important to understand the link between those messages and their associated actions. Once you have that understanding, it is much easier to take a reasoned look at them. This ability is central to the development of emotional intelligence.

4. Managing

Emotions can be managed in a way that benefits the individual and improves their effectiveness. It all comes down to ‘self-regulation,’ and the ability to remain open to emotional signals while blocking out those that are overwhelming to the point of hindering productivity or effectiveness. Managing emotions is also about regulating your own and others’ emotions in order to achieve your own personal goals, but it is only possible to achieve this once you have mastered the other three steps in the RUUM model.  

Actions you can take                                                                                         

Once you are aware of what emotional intelligence is and you are familiar with the above four-step model, there are certain steps you can take to encourage a generally higher level of emotional intelligence, or at least emotional awareness, among your employees. As with any kind of development, it is not always about taking people out of their roles and putting them on training courses for any length of time; there are ways to encourage a more organic level of emotional intelligence within your business, so it becomes ingrained into everything your employees do, every decision they make and the way they interact with others around the business.

Encourage a coaching culture

One of the best ways to develop emotional intelligence in your staff is through coaching. By coaching, you can encourage the coachee to think about how a situation makes them feel, and why, and to reflect upon that. If a colleague has reacted negatively to something they have said, for example, you could help them recognise what emotion that person was displaying, and encourage them to reflect, in a reasoned way, on why that person might have displayed it in response to what they said. The RUUM model also encourages managers to think in an emotionally intelligent way when it comes to dealing with their staff, whether that is through coaching, feedback sessions, one-to-ones or anything else, so it is a fantastic tool for them to have.                                    

Champion the importance

If you want an emotionally intelligent workforce, it is important to properly champion the benefits of EI to your staff. Be clear about how EI can help people make better decisions and form stronger relationships with internal and external customers alike. Yes, emotionally intelligent staff are beneficial to your business, but there are obvious personal and career-related benefits for the individual, too (such as the fact that emotionally intelligent people are, on average, better paid, according to the recent study I cited at the start of this article). If people understand what EI is, what it means to have it, and the positive impact it can have on anything from relationships to decision-making, they will be much more likely to engage with it and any associated development activities.

Hire the right people

As mentioned above, it is difficult to develop advanced levels of emotional intelligence in somebody who doesn’t already have the ability to recognise emotions in themself and others. It is therefore vital, particularly when you are hiring people managers, to take emotional intelligence into account during the recruitment process. It will be much easier for you to develop a high level of emotional intelligence in those people managers if they already have the ability to recognise emotions, so hiring the right people should be the first step in creating an emotionally intelligent workforce.

Facilitate open communication

One obvious barrier to the development of emotional intelligence is an inability to communicate. Make it easy for staff members to have open discussions with one another, and try to encourage healthy debate. By interacting with each other regularly, in a safe and constructive way, people will be able to practise reading the emotions of others and using their own emotions in social situations. The more people interact with their colleagues, the better they will learn to recognise how people react emotionally, and how their emotions affect others around them.

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There is no hard and fast way to ‘make’ people emotionally intelligent; it simply does not work like that. What you can do, however, using the RUUM model as a basis for learning, is help people better understand what emotions are and how they can be used and managed in a way that is productive and effective for the environment or situation they are in. Once people are able to recognise emotions, in others, but also in themselves, it becomes much easier to understand, use and manage those emotions in their everyday working lives.

Mike Davies is a management and leadership L&D consultant with over 10 years operational management experience and 22 years in the learning and development field. His specialist areas include coaching, emotional intelligence and experiential learning.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested in our article on using theatre to develop soft skills from Enhance issue 6.