Sharpen Your EQ to Build a Stronger Team

There are many things that can hurt a team, but near the top of the list is a bull in a china shop.

2016 survey by the corporate training company VitalSmarts found that 83 percent of people had either witnessed or themselves made a catastrophic comment in their workplace that damaged a career, reputation or business results. Harsh feedback, office gossip, off-color topics or frustrated rants are all telltale signs of low emotional intelligence—also known as emotional quotient (EQ).

Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, had a category of managers who achieved results but didn’t live the values—a nicer way to call out a bull breaking all the plates. Nobody wants to work on a team with the bull. As teams continue to function as the basic building blocks within organizations and the pace of change increases, employees need to feel safe enough to take risks and fail.

The ability to build deep connections is a key factor that makes or breaks team performance. Connection develops when team members listen well, resolve issues positively and build trust and commitment within the team. Individuals with high EQ build strong, connected teams—and strong, connected teams go on to deliver exceptional results.

EQ Is Not Just a Touchy-Feely Soft Skill

Many people mistakenly equate emotional intelligence with “being nice” or “getting in touch with your sensitive side.” The psychologist Daniel Goleman, one of the most prolific writers on the subject of EQ and mindfulness, defines EQ as “the capacity to recognize our own feelings and those of others, to manage our emotions, and to interact effectively with others.” He breaks down EQ into four competencies buckets: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management.

Simply put, you have to know what’s going on with your own emotions, be able to keep them in check and maintain a positive outlook. You also need to sense the emotions of others and build strong connections with people. If you think about the difference between your best and worst team experiences, undoubtedly you’ll get a clear picture of that one person. The one who couldn’t manage their emotions, likely wasn’t aware and could barely interact—let alone effectively manage conflict.

As much as we want to think work is all logic, emotions play a big part—especially when we’re facing change or dealing with conflict. The way team members handle the tension is where connections are strengthened or severed. And it’s not just about feelings. High EQ is the foundation upon which great teams are built.

Higher EQ Results in Higher Achievement

Decades of research proves that higher EQ translates into better performance (and, in the right roles, higher pay). Research at RallyBright indicates that fewer than 45 percent of teams are able to productively surface and resolve conflict. It’s impossible to resolve conflict if a team is sidestepping EQ landmines left and right and no one feels safe.

Research reveals (download) that keeping emotions within a team positive leads to more resilient, resourceful and socially connected people functioning at optimal levels. They may call them soft skills, but they lead to hard results.

Three Keys to Ramp Up Your EQ

EQ has never been a subject taught widely in schools. Kindergarten curricula might come closest, but there are few college seminars on self-awareness or relationship management. Maybe you never learned the basics at home, or maybe you’ve even had a few situations in your career where you found yourself banging around the china shop. By focusing on a few key suggestions, you can sharpen your emotional intelligence.

1. Get aware

Emotional Intelligence starts with understanding your moods and emotions. There’s a slight gap between stimulus and response where, if you are aware, you have the opportunity to choose your response so it aligns with your values, team norms and organizational expectations. Catastrophic comments that destroy careers are born in the animal brain. They happen in that instant when you aren’t aware of what’s going on inside.

To get aware, it helps to think like a Jedi—to “search your feelings.” Step away from a heated moment and notice the physical signs. Are you clenching your jaw? Is there a tightness in your stomach? Then see if you can label the specific corresponding emotion (try to go beyond mad, sad or glad.) It helps to use Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions to build your vocabulary and target what you feel.

Use mindfulness meditation to clear a cluttered mind and give you some space to think. Go see a mental health professional if you feel there are personal issues creeping into work behavior. Take a 360 assessment or ask for some feedback to get help from others to increase your self-awareness.

2. Get your ears (and eyes) on

Listening skills are the cornerstone of good communication. But it’s not just about using rephrasing tricks or not looking at your phone while someone’s talking. To really build strong connections, you need to listen on three levels. These three levels are the foundation of the Co-Active coaching process, the coaching model of the Coaches Training Institute.

  • Level one is everyday listening. You hear the basics of what’s being said while thinking about getting a coffee or the next thing you want to say.
  • Level two is when you are fully locked in to what the other person is saying. You’re nodding along and engaging completely.
  • Level three is where the EQ competency of social awareness is critical. This level increases the focus from what the other person is saying to all the other inputs. These include body language, tone, hesitations, eye contact and all the other subtext to the conversation.

Pick up on the words, focus on the other person and zoom out to catch the subtle nuances of how they communicate. That’s when you know you have your ears on.

3. Get it on the table

Working in teams is challenging and the tension between individual and group needs is always present. Things can heat up, people react and team members break established group norms. This is all part of the teaming process. An emotionally intelligent group (download) has the capabilities to recognize growing tension and works to resolve the issues. They get the real issues on the table. In fact, the really great teams—the resilient teams—proactively conduct periodic health checks to specifically process emotions and address issues impacting team performance.

Connections strengthen when someone is brave enough to bring up the touchy subjects.  This is at the core of conflict management. Someone has to take the first step. The collective EQ of the team grows when they take the initiative to discuss emotional issues. As a result, the team members’ commitment to one other, and their connection, grows.

By doing the hard work of soft skills, you’ll strengthen your EQ muscles. This will build stronger connections within your team, harness the potential of its every member and increase your impact on the organization.

Mike Sweeney is a career coach, leadership development speaker, and humorist who specializes in helping clients, teams, and organizations manage transitions faster and with a purpose. He holds an MA in Organizational Psychology from William James College and a BA from Duke University.