Wondering how you can put emotional intelligence to work for you? It’s a phrase we hear thrown around a lot. But what is it? And why should we care?
I first heard the term emotional intelligence linked to work in a coaching class. The teacher assigned us Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Quite honestly, I thought it sounded like so many other “I have the answer for you” type books – none of which ever seem to really have THE answer.
Emotional intelligence at work?
It seemed like an oxymoron to me – especially considering the workplaces I had seen! What exactly did the academic-sounding phrase emotional intelligence have to do with the very real world of work?
But as I began reading, I realized Goleman was talking about mostly common sense ideas — something we need a lot more of at work. Basically, emotional intelligence is about understanding our emotions (and emotions of those around us). And learning to manage the way we handle them, in the workplace as well as in the rest of our lives.
Why emotional intelligence matters
When it comes to that oh-so-elusive concept of workplace happiness, we too easily (and all too often) get in our own way. And 9 times out of 10, it’s probably something related to emotional intelligence.
Feelings are great and in no way am I suggesting we try to stifle them or push them deep down where they can fester. (Nothing worse than festering emotions.) But how you manage your emotions at work – feelings like anger, jealousy, feeling slighted, feeling misunderstood, feeling under-appreciated, resentment, hopelessness, insecurity, fear, anxiety, feeling isolated, feeling powerless, etc. – can make all the difference to your career and daily worklife.
Now we all feel at least some of these feelings (emotions) at one time or another. But the real trick is … how do you handle your own reactions in the workplace? What can you do to consciously and intentionally manage those feelings so the real you can shine through?
And how can any of us achieve true emotional literacy in our work-life when so many things we feel are triggered by old hurts and experiences?
Using emotional intelligence at work
The questions above are easier asked than answered. And I’m certainly not going to be able to cover ALL that in just a few paragraphs. Nor do I, a mere mortal, have all the answers. But since sometimes just a few new ideas can spark remarkable change, here are a few tips you might want to consider:
1. Don’t give up your power!
Each and every one of us feels powerless at some time or another. And all too often such feelings arise in the workplace. It’s really important for you to know you are not alone in this.
But you also have choices — even if your choice is to stay and do what’s being asked of you for whatever reason. As long as it’s legal of course. Even if it means being nice to a boss you who drives you crazy. Or being pleasant to a co-worker you think is an idiot. Or staying in a job you don’t love.
Sometimes there are good reasons to do so. And sometimes not. But it’s no small thing for you to recognize you’re making the choice – consciously and intentionally. You gain nothing from feeling as if you’re a victim of your circumstances.
This may seem like a small point. But if we realize we are choosing to do something — even staying in a job we don’t love == we release some of the powerlessness of feeling trapped.
When you feel trapped, your power shrinks … as does your ability to see solutions right before your eyes. So even if you’re staying in a job because your family depends on you to bring home that paycheck, give yourself credit for making that choice — and for the strength it takes to do just that.
Rather than feeling like a victim, you can start to think about ways to use your power to get yourself into a better situation, either with your current company (there are often ways we don’t see) or elsewhere. But you won’t get anywhere if you feel powerless to affect your own fate!
2. Build strong relationships at work.
One of the most important things you can do – something that can shape your entire work experience and career – is to start to build a strong support network from the first day you begin a job. Slowly, over time, these alliances (kind of like on the TV show Survivor, but I hope less nefarious), will be there to help you move ahead, and also when you need support accomplishing every day assignments.
A good tip is to see everyone as someone you can build a work relationship with – and that includes administrative help. In fact, in particular administrative help. Need to get in to see someone whose calendar is full? Who do you think can help you get there?
Now some people will resist your attempts based on their own agendas or views of the world. Don’t let that bother you. Focus on those relationships you can build by being helpful and supportive (and creative and capable of course) as you get chances to work together.
Most importantly, base the relationships on positive actions and not office gossip or complaints. Over time the reputation and relationships you build help you. And you never know which of those people might get you jobs in the future. Plus, it just makes your work environment a lot more enjoyable!
3. Your attitude at work.
Speaking of enjoyable … you add so much to your own work experience. If you come in with a sour attitude or always see THEM as wrong and you as right, you are the one who loses out. I remember a woman I worked with – an admin – who is extremely bright and talented.
But she spent each day feeling slighted (oh those feelings) and telling people off. And then she was angry when people didn’t want to work with her or she got passed over for promotions.
Attitude is a matter of perspective and perspective matters. If you hear the story from that admin, you’d get a woeful tale of all kinds of hurts and slights. But a good tool for your work belt is telling a story from someone else’s eyes – a powerful way to reframe what’s happening, so you can start to see ways you might change your own game plan.
Hint: It’s not always THEM, and even if it is, the power to change is still mostly in your hands.
4. When emotions hold you prisoner.
Sometimes, for whatever reason, you find yourself getting caught up in a rush of anger or frustration. In one of my first jobs, I found out a co-worker I trusted was working to undermine me; and soon our boss was giving him all the good assignments. I was so mad, instead of working smart, I just sat around complaining and feeling upset with everyone.
Meanwhile, there were other people I could have built alliances with and there were things I could have done to improve my own standing. But I let my anger cloud my vision. I don’t recommend it as a career plan.
At times like these, remember your power to choose and help change things for yourself. And also remember that letting your emotions control you takes the control out of your hands. (Also be aware of things you might have done or be doing to set yourself up as a target.
In my case, I let my co-worker build the relationship with my boss – “handle things” as he assured me – since I wasn’t crazy about my boss and I shared that with my co-worker. Two bad moves on my part.)
5. Beware the blame game.
The blame game is when you point your finger at everyone and everything except yourself, blaming the world for your misfortunes. This is simply spinning your wheels. As I’ve mentioned before, when you get caught up in emotions or useless behaviors, you lose precious time and perspective that could be helping you create a more enjoyable experience for yourself in this job and in future jobs.
Now it’s important to vent at times and to both acknowledge and discuss your feelings (preferably to a friend or therapist), but if your days are filled with blame and venting at the workplace, you’re only setting yourself up for more dissatisfaction.
People react to who they see and not who you really might be – or what you could offer them if you could only step past those wheel-spinning behaviors. Basically, what they see is what (the impression) they get.
6. Being right just doesn’t matter.
“Of course it does!” I hear one or two of you shouting at the screen. Oh, sure it feels great. But if you spend your day being caught up in being right – and making sure everyone knows you are – you’re focusing on the wrong things and you’ll only wind up diverting yourself from getting ahead. More time spinning your wheels.
To revert to my grade school years … nobody likes a smartypants! In the workplace actions speak louder than words. Prove your worth not by being right all the time but by being someone who helps things get done and problems solved.
Down the road, people will see you know what you’re doing. You don’t have to be right in every case to be extremely effective and appreciated. (I’m still working on that one myself.)
7. Seeing possibility.
When we get our heads out of seeing the anger and hurt and all that is missing in our work lives, we open up to seeing what might turn into real opportunity. Possibility is all around us if we just learn how to look for it.
I wrote a post about something I call job morphing that includes some of my own experiences where seeing possibility turned into real opportunity for me. In case you’re curious about some ways I’ve used job morphing in my own life and some job morphing tips:
Part of the secret is to stop focusing on all you don’t have and all you aren’t getting. Look instead for what you can achieve and how you can do this with grace and compassion. You carry emotional intelligence within you at all times. See if you can find some ways to draw on its power starting today!
[Post updated in 2021]
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