Emotional Intelligence and Workplace Performance (Two Very Different Things)

Sheryl, a 30-something production manager in a small printing company, was telling me about a problem employee. “He’s disorganized,” she said, and he has no emotional intelligence at all.”

Huh? She explained it to me this way: “Kenny isn’t reliable about coming to work on time. He gets angry with me if I mention that to him, or if I point out that he made a mistake in a customer’s printing job and has to re-do part of it. He needs more emotional control so he can improve his performance.”

Sheryl had obviously done an Emotional Intelligence training program recently. We waded into a discussion about it, and she insisted that Kenny’s performance problems were due to a failure to manage his emotions.

Emotional intelligence has two sides: first, being able to read other people’s emotional responses, and second, knowing – and perhaps controlling – our own emotional responses. If we are good at those things, does it mean we will have higher workplace performance?

Perhaps, if I have a job that involves sales, or providing personal services such as counselling. Then it would be valuable to “read” how others are reacting and what they are feeling, and maybe steer the conversation in a way that would help the other person see some value in what I’m offering. (Note: this could be seen either as manipulation or as motivation.)  But if I’m a computer programmer or an air-conditioning technician, my work is applied more to things than to people. You want your AC to work efficiently, and I probably don’t have to be an expert at reading facial expressions or body language: just fix the thing.  Still, whatever kind of work we do, it surely helps to recognize our own emotional responses to people, things, and situations. When we experience fear, anger, or resentment, for example, we may not be acting rationally, but instead, reacting emotionally. That’s not usually a reliable way to interact with others.

Knowing ourselves allows us to be more in charge of our lives and our communications. Does Kenny know where his own emotional “hot buttons” are? Losing his temper, for example, could compromise his critical thinking and take a conversation – or, in this case, a relationship – in a negative direction.

But even if self-awareness and maintaining good manners makes workplace interactions more positive, it does not necessarily improve performance. Workplace performance is more about fulfilling agreements to produce and/or deliver something than it is about managing emotions. OK, being a jackass makes a workplace less pleasant, but Sheryl has said that Kenny’s performance issues are:

  • Being late to work; and
  • Making mistakes on customer printing jobs.

I questioned whether emotional intelligence was the only way to help with that. Sheryl said she would have a conversation with Kenny and explain what performance she wanted in those two areas. She was also going to ask him to come to her office and talk with her, instead of the fly-by, in-the-hallway conversations she’d had before. And she was going to start the meeting by telling him they needed to make a couple of agreements, and that she wanted his input on how to do that.

I saw Sheryl the next week, after she had talked with Kenny. “He was a different person in my office,” she said. “He seemed pleasant and interested in working with me. And we did find a way to phrase the agreements for being on time to work and making fewer mistakes on print jobs. It’s simple: if he’s going to be late, he will text me and let me know. And if he doesn’t understand the print job specifications, he’s going to ask me about what it means.”

Kenny had been afraid to tell her he was responsible for taking his little sister to school on the days his mother was working the early shift at the hospital. And he had been afraid to ask for help when the print job instructions were not clear to him.

Sheryl said, “Emotional intelligence training might have helped with the situation. But knowing how to make performance agreements with my staff has definitely helped me be a better manager.” Three cheers for that!

Even if We Aren’t “Managers”, Most of Us Need to Manage THIS

Chuck, a maintenance guy, did some work for us the other day and we got talking about how he scheduled his job appointments. Since he was both friendly and skilled at his work, he had a few spare minutes to let me know the secrets of managing a contractor’s calendar. “It’s all about how I keep my job plans in existence,” he said. “Not just the jobs, but also the supplies I need for each one, and checking that my equipment is ready and working. I look at my schedule every evening so I know what to pack up for the next day.”

This reminded me of a question Jeffrey (my professor-emeritus-husband) gives to his MBA students:  “When you are asked to do something – or tell someone you will do something – how do you record it so you don’t forget it?”  We don’t always think of these things as “making promises”, but that’s what they are – and we need to keep track of them somewhere.

Chuck and I talked about keeping promises, agreements, and plans “in existence“, and came up with a list of ways to do it.  I added a few other thoughts from those MBA students too – here is the result:

  1. Write your promise on your schedule. This is really obvious, and probably the best thing to do, but many people don’t use their schedule as a living document in that way. If you promise to research a product, or write up a survey analysis for a colleague, where do you put that task on your calendar? Just writing it into a blank space on Tuesday afternoon and hoping it works out is not always reliable.
  2. Schedule a time to schedule your promises. Another way to use your calendar to increase your reliability is by scheduling a regular time – every day or every few days – to look at your “To-Be-Scheduled” items (see items #3, #4, and #5, listed below this one). Say, at 4:15 every afternoon, you have on your calendar that you’ll check all your (#3) temporary holding places, (#4) delegations, and (#5) the back seat. That’s when you collect all your promises into one place, then put the time(s) you’re going to do the work of fulfilling them on your calendar.
  3. Put your promise in a temporary holding place. Putting an agreement to do something into a queue for later scheduling can prevent us from feeling guilty about postponing the scheduling task. Sometimes that works well, sometimes not. In order of decreasing reliability:
    1. A To-Do List. This is a useful catch-all, sometimes called a “Do-Due List” to remind us to include a due-date on every action item. NOTE: It says, “A To-Do List”, not multiple ones – using multiples decreases reliability.
    2. Pieces of paper. A favorite is writing something on a Post-It note (I love those things!) and sticking it to your computer, file cabinet, refrigerator, or bathroom mirror. But other candidates include writing on the backs of envelopes or on napkins, and one person even mentioned a “rolodex” (does Staples still sell those things?).
    3. Emails or voicemails to yourself. Your email in-box or phone can serve as a holding bin, a form of reminder for things to do. (Recommended: keep an eye on how many are in there!)
    4. A display on the wall. Bulletin boards can be a great way to keep things visible. They can also get messy.
    5. File folders, physical or electronic. Your office filing system or computer can also provide a holding bin for things to do. (I suspect that’s what’s really inside most computers!)
    6. Stacks of stuff, set out where you can see them. Piles of project resources on your bookshelf. Magazines and articles on a side table. Folders of things-to-do propped up against a lamp. These can get Ugh-Ugly and contribute to a sense of overwhelm.
    7. A collection of two or more of the above. If you have multiple Do-Lists; Post-Its on your desk, phone, and computer; more than 25 emails in your in-box; a bulletin board with layers of notes, cards, and papers… well, you get the idea. The problem : You’re not always going to deliver on the most important ones, and you might not even know which ones are the most important.
  4. Delegate your promise. This can be risky, as different people have different habits for reliable completion. But there are several ways to delegate your promises. In decreasing reliability:
    1. Assign a secretary or staff assistant to perform the tasks(s) and/or bring the item to a meeting for discussion and resolution.
    2. Send a memo, email, or leave a voicemail telling someone what action or result you want from them.
    3. Tell someone to remind you about doing that thing, or calling that person.
  5. Throw it in the back seat. This is how to put a “promise” – or something that you and somebody else agreed would be a good idea – into a quiet resting place if you know you’re not likely to get to it in this lifetime:
    1. Put it into a file folder or a notebook, which you then put back in the file cabinet or on a shelf.
    2. Trust that you’ll bump into that person in the hall or at a meeting, and will take a more structured action at that time.
    3. Trust it to memory.

Of course, if you don’t rely on a calendar to help you schedule your days, weeks, and months as a way to help yourself reliably fulfill your promises, then none of this is useful (in which case, I offer my apologies for the time it took you to read the above).

But if you’re interested in a reputation as someone who can be counted on, maybe this gives you some ideas to update your “existence system”. I hereby promise to keep my Do-Due List up to date with a thorough weekly review plus a rendezvous with my calendar.

Is Management a Soft Skill?

Beth, the head of Human Resources in a law firm, was talking with me about the problem of management in an organization full of lawyers. She rolled her eyes, not wanting to criticize her attorney co-workers.

“They know the law”, Beth said, “but do they know how to be a manager?”

Good question. This is where the conversation could shift to comparing hard and soft skills. Hard skills are the job-specific skills. If you are an attorney – or a financial analyst, IT specialist, physician or astronaut, you have “hard skills” in your field of expertise.

Soft skills are the people-relationship skills. This is where the social-psychology perspective comes in. “Emotional intelligence” is a favorite description, but “soft skills” usually includes communication skills, leadership skills, and teamwork skills.

So, what happens when an attorney is named the head of a department? Or when a financial analyst or nuclear physicist is promoted to a management position? Is managing a hard skill or a soft skill? Will sending an attorney to a 2-day program on emotional intelligence make her a better manager?

Let’s say that management, as a job function overseeing a team or group, involves three basic activities:

  1. Establishing clear goals and objectives, including specific measurable results and timelines;
  2. Establishing clear agreements to identify Who will produce and/or deliver What, and by When; and
  3. Holding regular team meetings to review the status of all goal-relevant agreements, and to update the objectives and agreements as needed to improve goal performance (also known as “course-correction”).

Sounds simple, right? Goals + agreements for actions and results + status review-and-update meetings. The only catch is that the manager has to keep track of that information, and many managers aren’t very good at that. Furthermore, they may think they shouldn’t have to do it: after all, people are self-generating, aren’t they? No, they aren’t. So, what’s required of a manager is:

  • The ability to have conversations that produce understandable goals and objectives, measures, and schedules;
  • The ability to support people in making requests and promises that establish agreements for productive goal-relevant relationships, both with team members and with others; and
  • The ability to facilitate a team or group discussion about which agreements are either complete or on schedule, and which ones are in trouble – and then to identify ways to close any gaps between planned and actual goal performance.

If we could give Beth’s attorneys an injection of “emotional intelligence” (motivation, empathy, social skills, etc.), would they know how to keep track of people’s agreements to produce on-time results, for different – and sometimes multiple – objectives? Would they know how to clarify the status at every team meeting, and how to engage people in developing course-correction solutions?

Soft skills are important, but management takes more than “people skills”. It’s about the nuts and bolts of steering a group of people – who are doing different kinds of work and communicating with other people inside and outside of the team – toward accomplishing specific objectives. Management might be a “hard” skill set of its own, that includes some valuable soft skills too.

Perhaps, if we recognized this, we would have more managers who are effective as well as emotionally intelligent.