In November 1989, Trinidad and Tobago, my beautiful homeland, was vying for its first appearance at the World Cup. It would have been a monumental achievement. At the time it felt like every one of our 1.2 million citizens, including scores of other nationals around the world, had paused their lives to root for the Strike Squad. All the players on the team were stars, and they were incredibly talented. But before that moment, they had never played as a team, so they didn’t know how to play well together. They lost the game by one goal—now referred to as the “shot heard around the world.”
What was true for the Strike Squad is true for any group—whether in sports or on the hospital floor—trying to achieve a shared goal. A collection of stars does not make an exceptional team. Exceptional teams are made of people who understand how to work well together, which requires a skill all hospital leaders can cultivate in their teams: emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence underpins collaboration, communication, and the interpersonal skills that make a team highly effective, agile and productive in any hospital environment.
The key to exceptional team
Most people are familiar with the concept of “functional work.” Functional work is the technical tasks that must be completed to move an idea, process or solution to fruition. These tasks are best executed by specialists, experts and practitioners—the things people go to school to learn. Because the tasks are so specialized, functional work is more tangible. You can monitor it, you can measure it, you can track it. When it comes to hiring, managers can assess whether candidates possess the qualifications needed for the functional dimensions of a role.
People are less familiar with another type of work: emotional. This is the work the teams must do to come together to accomplish a goal: relationship building, effective communication, teamwork, collaboration, proactive conflict resolution, managing stakeholders and self-awareness. Think about this as the “work around the work.” Your professional life is a circle within a circle. The core is the technical work that must be done, and everything else is emotional work, which requires emotional intelligence.
Trust, camaraderie, healthy debate, respect and understanding can create an unshakable foundation of teamwork and collaboration.
But emotional intelligence is often pushed to the wayside. It is harder to understand, assess and measure than functional work, which is tangible, time-bound and finite. However, emotional intelligence is a key factor of success when a team must work together to achieve a common goal—because trust, camaraderie, healthy debate, respect and understanding can create an unshakable foundation of teamwork and collaboration.
The term emotional intelligence was coined by Daniel Goleman, a psychologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, to establish the importance of this skill to leadership. According to Oxford’s English Dictionary, emotional intelligence is the capacity to be aware of, control and express one’s emotions and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.
Basically, it’s the art of being human. In this day and age, it’s easy to forget that behind the work are actual humans. And in health care, in an era of burnout and turnover, this is the moment to bring the humanity back to work.
Why emotional intelligence matters
In a work environment with low emotional intelligence, the negative downstream effects are significant. It eventually leads to a lack of trust, and people begin to assume bad intent. People start to feel their opinions and thoughts aren’t valued. Because there is no care, respect or empathy, words go in one ear and out the other. On top of that, low levels of emotional intelligence creates poor communication. Important information is withheld in conversations and decision-making. Things begin to feel opaque. People hear about a decision, but they have no insight into who was at the table for that decision or why it’s happening. Crucial details are missing that could aid in the team’s thinking and discussions. Team members don’t know anything about the ideas because they aren’t feeling safe enough to share them. This all stems from the lack of trust.
If teams lack trust and have poor communication, what naturally results? Lower performance—everything from projects not being completed on time to initiatives not launching as planned. If a team doesn’t have that foundation of trust and communication, then morale begins to wane. There are lower levels of commitment to the task at hand. Work becomes an enormous chore, and people start to quit.
However, there are steps organizations can take to build emotional intelligence with teams. Benefits include:
Faster decision-making. Building trust and credibility clears a space for quicker decisions because disagreements and lack of trust slow things down.
Ability to quickly pivot. In the absence of trust and empathy, people have a hard time with change. But once colleagues understand each other and teams have established that common north-star goal, it’s easier for people to mobilize and move.
Higher productivity and morale. Emotional intelligence leads to fewer people saying, “It’s not worth it, I don’t have to deal with this pain, stress and burnout.”
Cultivating emotionally intelligent teams
When hiring someone, don’t rely on resumes. Although they provide a good sense of whether the person can do the job, they do not convey a person’s level of emotional intelligence. Use behavioral questions during screenings. Introduce complicated situations that involve other people, partners or stakeholders and ask, “What would you do?” The answers to these questions can be revelatory, and a good way to suss out emotional intelligence.
Here’s a sample question: You’ve been told by leadership that you need to cut several weeks out of your timeline to launch the first version of a solution. It’s much earlier than planned. You know that this will mean sacrificing some really important early phases of debate, assessment and research to get critical feedback. Given the risk, how might you approach your next steps?
In addition to assessing candidates during the hiring process, emotional intelligence must also be cultivated within teams. One way to do this is to model the behavior. Approach conversations from a place of curiosity, which displays humility, empathy and trust. Training is also crucial. Consider using an executive coach to lead an off-site gathering. Leveraging a third party removes pressure from team leaders and provides expertise that can lend more credibility to the process.
And don’t forget to set expectations. For example, Netflix circulates a culture memo, which lays out operating principles and core values. It also makes clear what behavior will not be tolerated. Often, incentivizing employees means giving a raise or a promotion. But incentives can also come from who is let go, who does not get promoted. That says very clearly there’s certain behavior that will not be tolerated.
Measure and maintain
The best way to measure your progress in emotional intelligence is through an anonymous survey. Start with a pre-measurement survey. Transform the traits of emotional intelligence into questions: On a scale from one to five, how well do you think our team is performing in humility? How trustworthy do you think your coworkers are? Then send the same set of questions months later for post-measurement. If you were getting averages of, say, 50% agreement across all these dimensions, meaningful improvement would look like 75%.
After teams have gained the skills, they’ll require maintenance to keep their emotional intelligence sharp. Build processes inside the day-to-day job that help people stay on track, such as a team charter or working agreement document. Add the charter to the top of all meeting agendas, so it stays front-and-center. During performance reviews, evaluate people on the “what” and the “how.” Were objectives achieved? Base the “how” on the dimensions the team decided were important. In addition, talk with people to ask how their peers are doing. Someone could claim to be a wonderful person at work, but then you talk to peers and they say, “Well, actually this person is a little dismissive or there’s constantly a condescending tone.”
At the center of everything
Across many industries, emotional intelligence is not a celebrated skill, but that is changing. It is even emerging as a priority at organizations like Google. It presents a huge opportunity, but it requires leaders to put in the work to help their teams develop and maintain the skills they need. At the end of the day, an exceptional team is made of stars who understand, more than anything else, how to work together because they’ve put emotional intelligence at the center of the field.
7 traits of an emotionally intelligent leader
Here are the traits indicative of emotional intelligence.
- Self-awareness. Understanding your abilities. What are you good at and what can you improve?
- Empathy. The ability to imagine what someone else may be feeling.
- Humility. The recognition that you can always improve in another area.
- Growth mindset. Combining self-awareness and humility into a desire to grow.
- Relationship building. The ability within your working environment to establish trust and credibility and develop long-term relationships.
- Effective communication. The ability to express ideas clearly and provocatively and promote the timely, ongoing flow of useful information.
- Personal influence. Being able to understand people’s communication styles and preferences so that you can adjust your approach.