Want to raise your emotional intelligence? Focus on these 3 components

What was regarded in the past as a "soft skill" has emerged as one of the most critical determinants of career and leadership success: emotional intelligence.

"Most often, success or failure in a job comes down to how we manage ourselves and how well we manage relationships with our co-workers, not how much we know," Jen Shirkani, CEO of talent management solutions provider Penumbra Group, said at the AMN Healthcare 2016 Healthcare Workforce Summit in San Diego.

The ability to manage one's emotions and relationships is tied to emotional intelligence, which is defined as the ability to recognize, understand and manage our own emotions and the emotions of others.

A leader's EQ — emotional quotient — has a direct effect on the way he or she communicates with others, approaches challenges and reacts during crises. It is also a significant influencer of employee engagement, which has hovered near 30 percent since 2000, according to Gallup.

While one could reasonably assume that those at the top of the corporate hierarchy have the highest EQs, this is not the case, according to Travis Bradberry, co-author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0. His research shows EQ scores increase with rank from direct report to manager, but steeply decline beyond that. On average, CEOs have the lowest EQ.

Why is that? "Once leaders get promoted they enter an environment that tends to erode their emotional intelligence," Forbes wrote of Mr. Bradberry's findings. "They spend less time in meaningful interactions with their staff and lose sight of how their emotional states impact those around them."

Ms. Shirkani argues emotional intelligence is largely garnered through experience, not learning. However, determining an EQ score and identifying problem areas can help leaders improve their communication and overall leadership techniques, she said.

Ms. Shirkani outlined three tenets of emotional intelligence, or what she coined the 3Rs.

1. Recognize who you are socially and emotionally.

2. Read people and situations accurately.

3. Respond appropriately based on who you are interacting with and what the situation calls for.

Each of the 3Rs can be applied when it comes to key EQ skills, according to Ms. Shirkani. For instance, one of the most important factors of emotional intelligence is self-awareness, which encompasses both emotional and social self-awareness.

"Social self-awareness becomes quite important to long-term career success, but it's a moving target," said Ms. Shirkani, who noted many professionals plateau or derail in their careers because of a lack of self-awareness. "People assume bad leaders are the way they are because they don't get any feedback, but sometimes just the opposite is true." In some cases, the leader is so beloved among their closest colleagues that they are shielded from candid feedback that could help them gain an accurate sense of self-awareness. In this scenario, leaders must recognize others' perceptions of them, read the particular situation at hand and respond appropriately, perhaps by asking a trusted co-worker for honest feedback.

When it comes to empathy, another major factor of emotional intelligence, Ms. Shirkani said it is easy to assume more is better. But in healthcare, "too much empathy in a physician isn't always better," she said. Physicians must keep some emotional distance between themselves and the patient to remain objective and make the smartest clinical decisions. However, there is a balance. Physicians with higher empathy scores tend to fare better when they are sued for medical malpractice, according to Ms. Shirkani. Here too, physicians must employ the 3Rs on a situational basis.

Self-control is a third significant factor of emotional intelligence. When we hear "self-control," we tend to think of employing meditative breathing or some other coping mechanism to prevent ourselves from displaying anger or having an emotional outburst. But like empathy, self-control must be scaled up or down depending on the situation. Ms. Shirkani gave the example of a meeting between a hospital administrator and the family of a patient who had a negative experience in the hospital. As the family members grew angrier and more emotional, the administrator deliberately became calmer in an attempt to pacify the situation. However, the administrator's calmness had the opposite effect — the family interpreted her calm tone as apathetic or not understanding the gravity of the situation.

While leaders may not be able to change the aspects of their personality that others find unappealing, adding communication and thinking strategies such as the 3Rs can help improve their interactions with others, and ultimately lead to higher career success. 

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