By Joyce E.A. Russell
Monday, October 18, 2010; 24
Recently I witnessed a speaker give a talk to a business audience in which he used a significant amount of profanity as well as a number of off-color jokes and offensive comments. It's not that I am particularly squeamish, it's just that I -- along with many in the audience -- was shocked that in this day and age someone so highly educated and trained would make so many inappropriate comments. Shouldn't he know better? The comments didn't add value to the speaker's message; in fact, they detracted from the important points and made him look less credible.
As one passerby commented, "Why would you want to take advice from a guy who seems so crass and insensitive to people of different races, appearances or gender?"
The episode highlighted for me the importance of emotional and social intelligence.
Psychologist and author Daniel Goleman popularized the concept of emotional intelligence with his book on the topic, and numerous workshops have been devoted to teaching leaders how to understand and enhance their own emotional intelligence. Goleman has also written on the topic of social intelligence. The distinction he makes between the two is that emotional intelligence addresses self-awareness and self-management, while social intelligence refers to social awareness and relationship management. Taken together, an individual with strong emotional and social intelligence has the ability to make his or her emotions work in ways that produce desired results -- to facilitate performance and success. Such a person certainly wouldn't give speeches that alienate half of the audience.
For people to have high self-awareness means they have an accurate understanding of how they behave and how others perceive them. They are also in touch with their feelings and senses so they know when they are becoming defensive or angry or experiencing mood shifts, and are aware of the impact of their behavior on others.
For example, a manager giving a performance review might note that her employee is shutting down when she sees that he is folding his arms over his chest, or looking away. At that moment, if she is an effective manager, she will realize her tactics are not working effectively. It is especially important for people to understand how they react under stress.
Perhaps the speaker I originally mentioned was going through a rough period in his own life. If he knew stress created a tendency for him to blurt out offensive comments, then he is one step closer to managing this behavior.
Self-management refers to tactics you can use to manage your various moods and emotions. What do you do to soothe yourself and shake off rampant anxiety, gloom or irritability so that you can keep your emotional perspective? Some tips for managing your moods: use relaxation (sleep, meditation), take timeouts for yourself, use humor to relieve tension, smile and laugh more, set up an exercise routine or listen to music. If you are stressed, try pausing before you respond to what someone says -- it gives your brain extra time to choose your words. The key is to use various techniques to keep your moods under control so that they don't overwhelm you and others.
Social awareness means being able to recognize the moods of others. The focus is outward -- learning about and appreciating others. A big part of this is accurately reading others' emotions and having empathy. To be good at this you have to be able to read body language and tone of voice. To get better at this, use people's names when talking to them, practice active listening and work on reading the nonverbal gestures that people use.
Relationship management refers to interpersonal skills that are critical in organizing groups and building teams, negotiating solutions, mediating conflicts, building consensus and establishing networks. Individuals who are good at these find common ground and build rapport with others. They work to build trust. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "Approach each new person you meet in a spirit of adventure. Try to discover what he/she is thinking and feeling; to understand as far as you can the background from which he/she comes, the soil in which his/her roots have grown, the customs and beliefs and ideas which have shaped his/her thinking. If you care enough to make the effort, you can establish an understanding relationship with people who are entirely outside your own orbit."
Emotional and social intelligence are not just nice things to have -- they are critical for success, no matter what your chosen path. We all have areas to improve; what's important is that we get started on them. Perhaps then, we can reduce some of those inappropriate behaviors in the workplace.
Joyce E.A. Russell, is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.