Improving the Emotional Intelligence of Teams

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Much has been written about the importance of emotional intelligence, or EQ, over the past couple of decades. It’s been shown to relate to better performance across industries and occupations, ranging from sales to leadership, and has even helped people improve their physical health.

While this is nice to know, what is important for most of us is that EQ skills can be learned and developed through awareness and targeted practice. Though much of the focus of EQ has been on individuals, the collective EQ of teams is also critical. Teams play a central role in most people’s work lives. In most organizations, decisions are not made by individuals but by teams of people working together to solve problems. Success is achieved through teams, not by individuals working alone. Just as an individual’s EQ can be developed, so can a team’s.

And while research has documented the positives of EQ, the existing EQ paradigms suffered from two limitations. First, they focused much of their effort on emotional awareness, which many people found too soft, not to mention difficult to put into practice in a meaningful way. Second, they emphasized such a broad number of abilities that many people felt overwhelmed and powerless to change. In short, it was hard to know what to do and where to begin.

Decades of EQ study has led to an evolved model that emphasizes behaviors— the outward actions that others notice and respond to and which create objective, measurable benefits. Emphasizing a manageable set of behavioral skills gives teams early successes, which fosters development of additional skills. There is now a distinction between emotional intelligence, which is primarily emotional self-awareness and recognition of others’ emotions, and behavioral intelligence, which represents skills that directly influence others, affecting both individual and team effectiveness. Emotional intelligence is internal—it happens inside people’s brains—while behavioral intelligence is external; it is what people can see and respond to. Interestingly, teams that practice behavioral intelligence will notice that it affects the team’s collective emotional intelligence, enabling the team to be more aware of their behaviors and to manage themselves more effectively.

Anatomy of a low-EQ Team
It’s often been said that a team is only as effective as its smartest member. But like many old adages, this is simply not true. The reality is that teams with high engagement and equal participation by all members develop better solutions than teams that are dominated by one person (no matter how smart) or a small sub-group of members. And participation of multiple members is more important than any individual member’s intelligence. Consider the many companies that have failed or made poor decisions while under the influence of a dominant individual or small group of likeminded executives (think Ford and its Edsel failure, Polaroid, and News of the World).

In a similar way, a team’s EQ is more than just the sum of the individual members’ EQ, though the behavior of leaders plays a pivotal role for establishing a team’s EQ. This is because leaders set the stage for team behavior. The ways in which the leader treats others, approaches problems, and manages everyday activities becomes the model that the rest of the team follows, and this is a main reason why some teams are more effective than others. An ineffective team has definite hallmarks: meetings are a colossal waste of time; decisions, if they’re even made, are ineffective; and members gossip and form cliques against one another. Such teams lack fundamental EQ skills that can help them succeed. Over time, they have developed behavioral routines that are counter to effective teamwork. In teams such as this, poor communication, ineffective decision-making, and wasted effort are the expectation.

A team like the one described has fallen victim to the power of its own bad habits. All teams have a set of norms that they operate within, whether deliberately or not. Norms are patterns of behavior that develop over time as a team goes about its business. For example, a team might allow individuals to regularly disrupt team meetings and verbally criticize other members’ ideas. Or, team meetings are dominated by a small group of individuals who spend most of the time bickering amongst themselves instead of solving problems. The issues affect not only the team itself but its ability to work cross-functionally with other teams. This behavior has become the norm for this team; it leads to team members feeling personally degraded and fearful of participating meaningfully in the group, and to a team that does not meet commitments to its own members, let alone meet the overall goals of the organization.

The mew normal
So how can teams enhance their collective EQ? A team like the one described needs to change its habits and create new norms. Typically, the team leader is vital in making this happen, but others can also affect team EQ. The team needs to conduct a formal reality check and confront its patterns of behavior. As a group, they need to honestly reflect on their strengths, weaknesses, and habits, and decide which ones are working and which are not. Dysfunctional habits need to be replaced by behaviors that lead to greater team effectiveness, which over time will become new norms that improve team EQ.

One simple yet powerful change occurs by creating process norms that set expectations for individual behavior. For example, establishing an expectation that every team member provides input during meetings can help prevent the most aggressive individuals from dominating conversations. Likewise, ensuring that members’ ideas are listened to without premature evaluation or criticism not only makes it safe for people to contribute to the group, but also leads to greater innovation and ability to proactively solve problems. The leader models this behavior and facilitates the new norms by soliciting each team member’s input and ensuring that he is heard.

Developing new norms around a specific and limited number of behaviors can have a significant influence on team EQ. The key behaviors related to EQ are listed below. The changes described are related to the behavioral intelligence skills of self-control, building relationships, and influence. By changing norms around these behaviors, the team will be more effective in predictable ways. It will generate better solutions, it will be more expedient, and it will meet its commitments to other teams in the organization.

Behavioral Intelligence Skills

  • Self-control
  • Stress Management
  • Conscientiousness
  • Optimism
  • Building Relationships
  • Influencing Others
  • Motivating Others
  • Flexibility
  • Innovativeness

When establishing team norms, it is critical that the leader model the new behavior and practice it consistently. People pay more attention to the leader than they do to others. In many ways, the leader sets the tone for the team. By role-modeling effective behavioral intelligence, a set of expectations will be set for others to follow, and new team norms will be established. This can be challenging when altering established patterns of behavior. The leader needs to show the courage to confront individuals who break the team’s norms, as well as forcing the team to evaluate itself and its habits. Inevitably this will lead to greater team self-awareness and ability for the team to manage itself.

As new team habits and behaviors are established and become norms, the collective EQ of the team will increase. Because changing behaviors also changes attitudes. For example, increasing the team’s self-control and relationship management will, over time, enhance each team member’s ability to listen carefully and without judgment to what others are saying, and to empathize with others by taking their perspectives into account. This does not mean that team members will always agree with one another. On the contrary, discussing disagreements in an open way is an indicator of a team with high EQ. Having empathy simply means understanding different perspectives and taking this understanding into account.

Team EQ can be enhanced through honest and deliberate analysis of a team’s habits, and through practicing new behaviors that develop more effective team norms. Over time, not only will these new norms lead to better outcomes and a more engaging work environment for team members, but they will increase the emotional self-awareness of the team and its ability to manage itself. Teams that have achieved a high degree of collective EQ become truly effective and productive entities that help organizations achieve their business goals.

About Casey Mulqueen 1 Article
Casey Mulqueen, Ph.D. is the Director of Research & Product Development at The TRACOM Group, based in Centennial, Colorado. He is a writer who has authored a variety of materials including books, book chapters, and peer-reviewed journal articles. Casey has an M.S. in clinical psychology and a Ph.D. in industrial/organizational psychology.

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