Q&A: 'Emotional intelligence helps us engage the new generation of workers’

13 Apr 2017 By Emily Burt

Psychologist Dr Martyn Newman talks the business case for EQ, exercising the mind like a muscle and Donald Trump’s manipulation skills

Emotional intelligence is one of the trendiest concepts in modern business – but what are the practical benefits of building it into company culture? Ahead of the EQ Summit in May, Dr Martyn Newman spoke to People Management about the value of emotional intelligence in business, and why Donald Trump’s leadership model is ultimately unsustainable.

How is the culture of emotional intelligence shaping the corporate world?

In the western world, and particularly in the world of business, people tend to insist on the separation of knowing and feeling, but in fact the two are intimately linked. Today, experts are exploring the building blocks and the elements of emotional intelligence, and exploring how they can help us solve problems, particularly in business.

This is relevant because the challenges of growing a business today are changing dramatically, as a new generation employees, who want to work for companies they feel able to identify with and share in their values, enter the workforce. The ability to be emotionally intelligent is one of the skills that will increasingly enable us to engage this generation of young people in the workplace.

What is the business case for embracing emotional intelligence?

Businesses depend on the people who work for them to be highly engaged, to be able to adapt quickly to internal and external changes, and to show fresh thinking and come up with new ideas. The set of skills we need to meet these needs are rooted in our emotional and social behaviours – and studies also show that, as you grow a culture of emotional intelligence in your organisation, levels of absenteeism drop, and engagement levels increase.

Although many organisations have been slow to pick up on emotional intelligence, there’s a compelling commercial case for why these skills are a worthy investment. We’ve seen organisations such as Sky Media embracing emotional intelligence as a very practical frame of reference in growing a culture of engagement and collaboration right across their business, and other companies such as Argos and Network Rail working emotional intelligence into their culture. There are great signs that businesses are recognising the value of these skills and putting them into practice.

The election of Donald Trump appears to suggest we haven't had our fill of command and control leaders – or is Trump secretly quite emotionally intelligent?

When you talk about emotions, a lot of people tend to imagine unstable elements that they prefer to avoid. But the most important part of emotional intelligence is that second half: intelligence. Emotional intelligence is not about giving vent to feelings, it’s not about impulsivity, or a disregard for rationality and intellect. People like Donald Trump have brilliantly exploited the capacity to tap into feelings of disempowerment, disenfranchisement and alienation from a generational segment of society that feels excluded from having an influence and making a contribution. He’s masterful at the manipulation of people – but those sorts of leaders tend to have a short-term influence. Inevitably they will disappoint, and fail to solve the frustrations that got them into power.

Is it possible for a person to become too emotionally intelligent, and start to take on emotional stresses – particularly for workers in people-focused professions such as HR?

We’ve just completed a global study of 8,000 people in 11 regions around the world, particularly focusing on people whose roles have become increasingly centred around emotional labour; in other words, whose roles have shifted from technical responsibilities to engaging people and solving issues to do with people, and managing their own reactivity to those environments and those people. We found that people who score highly on emotional intelligence manage these jobs much more effectively than people with limited emotional intelligence resources.

The second thing we found is that the practice of mindfulness has drawn our attention to a cognitive ability to almost go inside the mind – that there is a relationship between mind and body that can be controlled. As people cultivate this ability to manage their attention and emotions, they develop a greater capacity to manage stress and manage the flow of attention. Mindfulness and emotional intelligence work hand in hand, because the foundation of emotional intelligence is self-awareness. The big challenge for leaders today is how to manage that, because those who have cultivated emotional intelligence have a much greater capacity to direct the attention of others towards constructively tackling the innovation challenges of the modern workplace.

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