By Phil Slade, as featured in the latest edition of the QAASP March Journal.
We all know of the importance of emotional intelligence (EI) in this post-Newtonian, digitally powered age. However, all too often EI is seen as simply expressing feelings, rather than understanding and managing emotion in yourself and others. Emotionally intelligent people focus as much on social dynamics and psychological health as they do on things and outcomes. Nowadays people can no longer hide behind technical expertise as a cover for being inept at soft skills.
Managing the modern workforce requires a more complex approach than historical leadership practices. Keeping abreast of things like culture, engagement and mental health and wellbeing, as well as more traditional performance goals have become critical to thriving in this brave new world. The problem is that EI skills are difficult to track and measure, and are rarely able to be reduced to a single number or chart in any practical sense.
When looking at your physical health, there is a point where things like obesity, blood pressure and flexibility are good to keep an eye on, but you’re not likely to win any sporting competition if your strategy is simply focused around avoiding negative health indicators. In order to thrive, you need to focus on becoming better, more physically fit, and you don’t need data to tell you that a good diet and exercise are going to be beneficial.
The same goes for building emotional intelligence. Avoiding negative mental health outcomes is a good thing to do, but there are some simple practices that ensure you and your team will be more successful, and better able to navigate the human complexity that is faced by the modern educator.
A modern healthy and successful organisation requires a more emotionally intelligent approach. Below are our top five emotionally intelligent things that you can do to set yourself, and your team, up for success.
1. Find novel ways to celebrate success
More than tokenistic awards ceremonies or mentions at staff meetings, a more meaningful feeling of success comes when key goals are achieved that the group cares about. Celebrating these successes in a way that signals just how important the achievement is can be just as important as the achievement itself. The most effective celebrations are highly social, sizably relative to the significance of the success, unexpected, and fun (which is usually a mix of psychological safety and excitement).
Continuing to talk about past big successes is a type of celebration that is also be very powerful. Stories of success help to create strong narratives that direct future behaviour. If you don’t help craft the narrative, often negative stories will take hold and work like a culture poison. Narratives are created over water cooler conversations, casual moments, and funny side comments or anecdotes. Always have a few stories ready that you can easily retell that highlight pride or which evidence why your team is a cut above the rest. This type of celebration is often overlooked, but very powerful.
2. Use a collaborative approach to create clear objectives and key results (OKRs)
Learning to trust others is hard. The emotionally intelligent approach is to realise that you didn’t hire the best people to tell them what to do, you hired the best people to tell you what they should do. This requires trust and management of the anxiety monster that can keep you up at night. It requires a light handed but diligent approach, and the ability to influence rather than dictate. To do this you need to be clear on a few objectives (O) that really matter to you, and the key results (KRs) that will indicate you’re on track. This helps focus everyone on what actually matters and creates simplicity in the midst of complexity. In John Doerr’s book, Measure What Matters, he outlines the major differences between KPIs (which are suffocating) and OKRs (which are motivating).
OKRs are never used as an individual performance measure or linked to incentive or punishment schemes.
People should help define their own OKRs that from their perspective will contribute directly to achieving the organisational objectives.
OKRs should be transparent, so the team can support those that need help.
3. Listen to the frontline to search for new ideas, innovative solutions, and key challenges.
Innovation rarely comes from middle management. Your frontline staff have their ear to the ground and can sense shifting attitudes and expectations long before the people they report to can. Be on the lookout and ask for ways to solve problems or achieve goals within current constraints. Be hungry and curious to learn from the frontline - there is gold in the mountains. The collective genius will always win over individual brilliance, no matter how smart.
4. Don’t fear change.
Status quo bias is one of the strongest, most ingrained and hardest of all cognitive biases to counteract. The status quo basically says, “We survived this long doing what we’ve always done, even if it’s not the best way it’s the way we know, so let’s just keep doing that.” Basically, unless something is really, really obviously broken then we’re unlikely to fix it. The underlying emotions here are frustration and fear. Frustration because a moment ago there was something that was a learnt behaviour that I didn’t have to think about, that I now have to address. It may be a better way of doing it, but now I have to give some of my cognitive capacity to learning something new, and that is frustrating.
Fear because changing to something less known is considered by the brain to be potentially threatening. Your current practices might be archaic, but at least you know where the danger is and how to mitigate it. When considering something new, even if it’s better, the fear of the unknown causes pause. What if it’s worse? What if I can’t see some hidden danger? It feels more prudent, safer, more intelligent to stay with what you know. The emotionally intelligent leader recognises the frustration and fear and knows how to put these aside when assessing what needs to change or how things might improve. Doing a regular ‘Stop, Start, Stoke’ exercise can be helpful for your team to embed a culture of change without fear, which asks the following questions:
STOP. What are the things that are distracting, or are taking too much of our resources relative to results?
START. What are the things we need to start doing that directly contribute to helping us achieve our strategic outcomes?
STOKE. What are the things we need to do more of, that will have an exponential impact on the whole organisation?
5. Create a training regime to build EI muscles.
Mental plasticity is one of the most fascinating neurological discoveries of modern times. Our brain is not as hard-wired as previously thought but has the capability to rewire and reform neural connections. Emotional intelligence is a capability, a skill, that is linked to memory, emotion, cognition and some interesting neurons called mirror neurons. Understanding and managing this complex interconnection of neural functions takes time and effort. At first, it can be painful, kind of like the first few months of starting a new physical exercise routine, but eventually, it gets easier as your emotional muscles strengthen and grow. Below is a list of popular exercises that can be a starting point for you individually, as well as some exercises to help build emotional intelligence capability within a group.
Keep a Daily Journal. If you have trouble starting from a blank page, there is a great 10 minute journal that you can find at www.decida.co that helps ask the right questions to stimulate your thoughts.
Expand your emotional lexicon. Language is a powerful conceptual vessel that enables learning and forges new neural pathways. When someone asks you how are you, avoid “good”, “tired” or “fine”, or even the all-encompassing emotions of angry, sad, anxious, happy, scared or excited (which usually require an inconvenient follow-up question to explore why). If angry are you irritated, upset, frustrated or furious? If you are happy are you peaceful, optimistic, courageous or ecstatic?. Simply by doing this you are better articulating your emotional state, which helps you better manage it. Pick a few new words each week and weave them into your daily interactions. It’s a small thing that can make a huge difference.
Practice switching, and regulating emotion. A mental switch is a simple mental tool to manage emotion. When you are not in an emotional moment, visualise the moment that often triggers you to ‘flip your lid’ and practice using your switch. It might be taking three deep breaths or having a short break, thinking of what someone you admire would do in this situation, or even asking yourself whether you are going to care about this so much in the future. Whatever switch works for you, visualise and practice it when you are calm, so that it becomes automatic behaviour when you feel your emotions starting to kick up.
Mindfulness activities. Mindfulness apps are good, as are stretching activities like Yoga or Pilates – which have the added benefit of being good for your physical health as well!
Implement an emotional check-in for any significant meeting or workshop. Two questions that everyone answers around the room prior to kicking things off.
How are you feeling about the discussion we are about to have?
What do you look forward to feeling like at the end of the meeting/workshop?
With practice, a well run check-in is very quick. It releases the cognitive energy that is being used by people to suppress fear, anxiety or frustration (some studies indicate a 50% increase in cognitive capacity simply by labelling emotion) and helps reframe any negative emotion in the room toward a more positive end state.
Practice the art of the Oxford conversation. Being able to externalise a controversial topic and have a constructive discussion on difficult issues is hard, but an incredibly powerful skill if your team can learn it. Often controversial topics are debated like a court of law, where people need to take a side to argue to see who wins. This forces people into defensive positions and rarely gets a good outcome. The Oxford conversation is talking about a controversial topic at arms length, where you can progress your views without necessarily knowing what each other’s personal stance is. Practice these conflict laden conversations without using “I believe” or “I think” or “you’re saying” but rather “it’s interesting that…”, or “an alternative view might be…”, or “There are some people that think…”. This de-personalises the conversation and builds respect.
Hold retrospectives. Being able to reflect as a group without it turning into a moaning session takes emotional intelligence. A good retro aligns the team to your vision and goals, keeps staff informed, and raises awareness of what good or bad objectives should be. It:
Is focussed and specific eg., on team goals, a recent project, improving performance, a specific curriculum objective or reviewing processes
Answers three questions:
What blockers or challenges did we successfully overcome?
What blockers or challenges could we handle better?
How can we handle things better next time?
Is action oriented (at the end of the session there should be a clear list of assigned actions).
Being an emotionally intelligent leader, and building an emotionally intelligent team is not easy, but the positive impact on culture, staff retention, motivation and engagement make it well worth the effort. I trust that some of the above tips resonate with you, and help bring success in 2022 for you and your team.