Perspective: Three ways to stimulate emotional intelligence

By Teresa Kotlika

How can you stimulate growth and development among your team, in the right way? Teresa Kotlika suggests three courageous questions that every manager can rotate into check-ins that have the power to create a positive organisational climate. 

A central focus of emotional intelligence is the narrow space between stimulus and response; a powerful place where the famed American psychologist Rollo May says we “create ourselves.” Yet, when society, organisations and individuals are calling out for a change in status quo, there could be a more courageous EI hack to build intelligence: change the stimulus. 

An obvious start is to find and align ourselves with the organisations, teams and leaders that bring out the best in us - where the person-environment dynamic mirrors a successful product-market fit. Yet, finding the dream context may be a luxury not freely available to all. Even more so, shaping our current environment over finding a more perfect one has the greatest potential for cumulative impact.

The second obvious option is to scale change by empowering and equipping team leaders to be a new sort of stimulus. While managers are uniquely positioned to unlock conversations for the benefit of organisational and personal success, plenty stops them. We are complex at best, where no single standard for navigating relationships and group climate exists. With this variation it’s easy to lose confidence and stumble in ambiguous chat. Yet, that unknown is exactly where untapped opportunities lay. 

Here are three courageous questions that every manager can rotate into check-ins that have the power to create a positive organisational climate. Each can be a new stimulus for inspiring growth and development. While none provoke the highly addictive quick right answer, they all have the power to trigger a new emotionally intelligent response. 

1. Embrace emotional needs 

In hindsight, what do you wish you had done, felt or thought about more this week? Why?

Dr Roger W Birkman, a B-17 bomber pilot during World War II, came back from war fascinated by our interpretation of others’ behaviours. His subsequent research marked how we are not equipped to deduce people’s emotional needs by observing their actions. Even more so, he outlined how unmet needs are the source of stress behaviours; ones we’re expected to “manage” in the workplace (Birkman, 2013). 

In an effort to increase emotional intelligence, we have an opportunity to stimulate more conversations around emotional needs at work. By not doing so, even the most emotionally intelligent managers are missing a critical data point. 

Such conversations are not about efficiency. They are not about tasks. Instead they are about calling out longing and giving desires room to exist. Wherein the fulfillment of needs has the potential to give us a new response.

To prepare yourself for such a conversation, consider:

  • Longing, wishes and wants are powerful insights into what matters most to the individual and clear clues on how to increase motivation. However, they may feel like inconvenient truths for those that are time or attention poor. What are you willing to let go of this week to prioritise this conversation?
     
  • Our learnt approach is to capture facts and evidence, where emotion may feel at odds with such logic. However, facts are not sufficient to understand the human experience and some falsely portray universal truths. Can you learn what is true for your team member about the last week and no one else in your team?
     
  • Resolution isn’t necessary and mostly falls within their responsibility. However, it’s as valuable to be heard as to have answers and creating the forum to discuss why things matter signals intention. How will you frame the conversation as an opportunity for understanding and a chance to engage differently with to-do lists?

2. Avoid best practice 

Who could contribute to the success of your current project from a completely unrelated department or perspective? Who are you going to connect with and why? 

In his 2015 book The End of Average: How to Succeed in a World that Values Sameness, Todd Rose presents how modern people practices have not let go of the white knuckle grip we have on supposed efficiency, hailing from the manufacturing contexts of 1880. 

To intensify that point, we could lean into Plato’s interpretation of Heraclitus who - in paraphrase - shares that no man actually steps in the same moving river twice. For time only goes forward and contexts aren’t replicable. 

Yet, as we try to make sense of the chaotic world around us, businesses seemingly crave making an illusion of “best practice.” And unfortunately, best practice only works for the individuals who write it. 

To create a practice around fit for purpose design, leaders can stimulate team members to solicit varied perspectives and use their insight to curb tunnel vision. Such creative spark strengthens emotional intelligence, inviting a new response via unexpected voices.

To navigate such a conversation, consider:

  • A minimal understanding of other departments and functions is a prerequisite for seeking engagement. If you sense that the conversation is stunted, take a step back and get an organisational chart out. Which departments are most unknown to your team member and how can the general bar of understanding be lifted?
     
  • Once information is known to us it’s hard to imagine it being unknown to others. Once your strategy has been set, discuss how to raise the general awareness of the team. How can one best share the learnings more broadly with others?
     
  • Making the introduction to a senior counterpart to facilitate the connection is a fast and easy way to get the ball rolling. However an opportunity to own the full conversation has its benefits as well. Ask directly, what role would they like for you to play in this situation? 

3. Find your own inspiration

Where are we mistaking busyness for adding value? What can we do about it?

In his 2018 book, How to Get Great Ideas, Dave Briss reminds us that “not all information is equal. If you have mediocre data going in, you can’t expect anything other than mediocre results to come out.” By refraining from habitual self-induced inspiration, we limit our mind and creativity.

What gets in the way of our own creative quality assurance is what writers like Brigid Schulte explore in her 2014 book: Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. Where “we’ve attached importance and status to busyness,” we forget to make our own roadmap for getting time to work, love and play.

As leaders, Briss’ call to “feed your mind” and Schulte’s expose on how to do it are critical to creatively inspiring your team and ensuring they aren’t the busiest ones. Instead, they are the most valuable.   

To further encourage such conversation, consider these follow-ups:

  • What would you do with one less day of work?  How do you bring that into your day of work?
  • What part of your day job would you eliminate entirely? 
  • If you could build our team from scratch, what new roles would you introduce? 

Most gripping is the realisation that we may get it wrong, say something that doesn’t land or appear incapable. Yet, as we elevate the conversations about race and gender and equity and inclusion at work, we are already committing to being a new sort of stimulus in 2020.

We have collectively agreed that the fear of getting it wrong does not outweigh the importance of making the overdue effort. And as we strengthen our practice of discussing what has been muted, let’s extend the playing field. Let’s explore emotional needs, next practice and personal inspiration in the same way. We have a chance to create ourselves in not how we respond, but what we dare to stimulate. 

What are other ways we change the call to get a more emotionally intelligent response? 


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