Emotional Intelligence

by Andy Smith

Developing EI in teams

A true team is more than just the sum of the individuals making it up. At its best, a team can make ‘smarter’ decisions than its brightest member. This synergy is broken when there is an atmosphere of mistrust, blame or disrespect – in other words, a lack of emotional intelligence.

The competency areas of emotional intelligence for teams are the same as for individuals: a foundation of self-awareness, an ability to self-manage emotions (including motivation) within the team, empathy for other perspectives within and beyond the organisation, and the ability to handle relationships with other teams and individuals. The dynamics are different because the team is a collective entity.

Developing team self-awareness

Every team – in fact every group of people, whether it’s a school class, an army platoon or a board of directors – has a set of ‘norms’. These include rules about how to behave and interact, and assumptions about what is right and what we can expect to happen in any particular situation.

The rules may either be explicitly defined, perhaps in a written code of conduct, or implicit. Team members may not even be aware at a conscious level of what the norms are, but they are always operating.

Have you ever joined a new team or started your new job and found that you have unwittingly transgressed some unwritten rule or been told ‘that’s not the way we do things around here’? This is an example of norms in action; people who have been there for a while automatically adapt to the group worldview until it becomes a seamless part of their internal map of reality.

The essential first step to a more functional and emotionally intelligent team is to acknowledge reality. Where the norms of the team are preventing effective working together, someone – and it can be any team member, not just the team leader – needs to point this out.

Case study

The project that nearly didn’t happen

The project manager of a ‘virtual team’ of academics and medical researchers was finding it very difficult to pin team members down to actually completing their allocated tasks. She described her role as being like ‘herding cats’.

Even though completing the project successfully would bring substantial professional benefits to each team member, they would report that they had ‘not got round to’ doing their task, apologising for ‘being disorganised’.

There was a general feeling of frustration with other team members at the lack of progress, but no-one was expressing this to the individuals with whom they were frustrated. Team members were politely pretending to each other that everything was OK, through fear of confrontation or of hurting other people’s feelings.

The project manager described herself as feeling ‘resistant at some level’ to defining a more detailed project plan, with the result that no-one really saw how their contribution fitted in with achieving the overall objective.

On closer questioning, it emerged that each individual – consciously or unconsciously – resisted the idea of (as they saw it) outside control, and had been avoiding being ‘pinned down’ to specifics.

Two actions brought the project out of the doldrums. Firstly, the project manager acknowledged the reality of the team’s unspoken norms, and acknowledged how her behaviour had been contributing to the problem. This enabled her to get clearer about what she personally could do to improve things.

Secondly, she created a detailed project plan, showing tasks, responsibilities and dependencies. This enabled everyone to understand what their areas of responsibility were and how their contribution was important to the bigger picture.

Having a clearer representation of the task enabled the team to become more ‘task-focused’ and less worried about hurting each other’s feelings. Team members could now frame progress monitoring and task completion as being more about achieving a common aim and less about the imposition of ‘authority’.

Developing emotional self-management in a team

The norms of a team are what determine whether it functions as more than the sum of its parts, or dissolves into squabbles and backbiting. These norms or rules need to cover how team members should behave when problems arise, as well as at times when things are going well.

As with individuals, self-awareness is the foundation of the other EI competencies in teams. How well does the behaviour of your team in practice live up to the principles and values it espouses in theory?

How would your team handle the following situations:

  • a clash of personalities between two vital team members
  • a disagreement about the direction the team should take to achieve an outcome
  • an unexpected budget cut of 25 per cent?

Rules of conduct in a synergistic and self-aware team might include:

  • expressing and working through concerns openly
  • listening to and questioning other team members with respect
  • making sure every voice is listened to before taking a decision
  • agreeing it’s OK to admit mistakes and to ask questions when something is not clearly understood.

Leading a team

The Emotional Intelligence of the team leader is the major influence on the emotional climate of the team, for at least two reasons.

Emotional resonance

In any group, the leader is the one who tends to set the emotional tone. Particularly in unexpected or crisis situations, people look to the leader to see what the appropriate emotional reaction is.

If the team leader is prone to outbursts of anger, these will be seen as acceptable and become more prevalent among other team members. Anyone who is concerned about the lack of self-management skills in their team needs first to lead by example.

Behavioural reinforcement

Any behaviour will tend to occur more frequently if it is reinforced or rewarded with attention from others, particularly the group leader. If a team leader professes to support openness and respect, but in practice tolerates or even rewards backstabbing or bullying (by, for example, appearing to enjoy ‘jokes’ which are actually put-downs), team members are going to believe the actions rather then the words, and the backstabber or bully will be encouraged to do more of the same behaviour.

Although, by virtue of their position, the team leader will be the biggest influence on the emotional climate of the team (other things being equal), each team member also inevitably influences the others.

This is especially true when the team leader is absent or is so undemonstrative or hesitant that there are no strong emotional cues to follow. When the unexpected happens or in times of uncertainty, when people are not sure which (if any) behavioural norms apply, they will tend to become ‘bystanders’ until they get some cues as to what behaviour is appropriate from the people around them. In these conditions, any team member who takes action, or demonstrates some emotion, will most likely be followed by the other team members. So whatever your position in the team, your behaviour makes a difference to everyone else in it. It’s worth asking yourself:

  • How emotionally intelligent is the behaviour I am promoting by example?
  • How emotionally intelligent is the behaviour that I (consciously or unconsciously) am reinforcing?

Emotionally intelligent meetings

Robert Cooper, co-author of Executive EQ, recommends that each participant ‘checks in’ at the start of a meeting by rating their levels of energy and focus on a scale from 0-10. Where the team culture would make it difficult to do this explicitly, you can make your own assessment of each person’s energy levels and emotional state.

Cooper and Sawaf also recommend building understanding in team meetings by using empathic questioning.

If someone expresses strong views without any clear rationale for them, you can ask: ‘I would like to understand more about this. What specifically leads you to feel that...?’

If you sense animosity, you can ask: ‘I’m picking up that there are some strong feelings about this. [Give a specific example of what they said and what you had the impression they were feeling.] If that is true, would you please help me to understand what it was that triggered that feeling for you?’

If someone goes off at a tangent, you can ask: ‘Would you please help me understand how this connects with the purpose of the meeting?’

The overall structure of Cooper and Sawaf’s questions, which of course have to be delivered with rapport, consists of four elements:

  • Softeners, acknowledging that you have heard their position and/or that you are not claiming that your interpretation is the correct one: ‘You may be right, but...’ or ‘If I understand you correctly...’
  • A specific example of what they said and your interpretation of the emotion that this appeared to convey
  • A statement of (or reference to) your own response, usually framed as curiosity: ‘Would you please help me understand...?’
  • A question to uncover more about the person’s viewpoint: ‘Please tell me more’ or ‘What matters most to you about this?’

Additional softeners (often small ones, such as the word ‘please’) can be used before or as part of the question).

Used in this way, empathic questioning will help team members to understand each other’s points of view, saving a lot of time and energy which might otherwise be wasted on conflict or misunderstanding, and contributing to better decision-making.