If you keep up on articles and business sites you’ll see things pop-up perennially about how it is the single most important ability you’ll have, or how every effective leader has tremendous EI, or an article titled “ten things to do to improve your emotional intelligence”.
I think it can be hard to see how this matters in the real world because we wrap all of this up in a sterile, academic term, “emotional intelligence”, which covers a lot of ground.
If we were just talking casually we might include a lot of things under this umbrella, such as empathy, self-awareness, self-management, compassion for self and others, the ability to encourage, to exert self-control in difficult times, and possibly even demonstrate gratitude.
Some people also call this “adulting”.
I learned an EI-related lesson which I’ve had a hard time putting into words, but here it is:
What I mean by that is that you can control what you say, and what you do. You can’t control anything else, about anyone else. You can influence others through your behavior, but that isn’t control.
To bring the best of yourself to the table, you need to understand why you say what you say, and why you do what you do. That understanding of self is a form of EI.
I had an episode with a colleague of mine lately that I realized is a good example of several moments of EI in the workplace. I’m going to relate it to you here. As you read this, note that my “EI comments” are in italics, and presented for your consideration.
My good friend Tracy, and her no-good, very-bad day at work.
Tracy is a friend I used to work with “back in the day”. Currently, she was a senior project manager at a software company, and had been there for about 5 years. When last I’d heard, she loved her job and found it very satisfying.
We meet for a bite now and then and catch up on work, life, and you know, everything. It had been a while since we last met!
Last Tuesday was one of those times, and I had been looking forward to it since we had set it up a couple of weeks before. I arrived at our favorite eatery a few minutes early and sat down facing the door so I wouldn’t miss her.
Tracy swept in like a stormcloud and landed hard into the chair opposite me.
“You will not believe what has been going on the last couple of months.” she started right in.
“We had a reorg about 8 weeks ago. Nothing I’m doing is the same. Oh, I’m still a senior project manager – I’m not losing my job or anything. However, I have a new boss, new team, different responsibilities…and even more, everything I have done up to now is somehow wrong.”
“You know how I used to be the senior PM? I worked with the COE [center of excellence] to onboard new folks, orient them to our processes, get them started & then help keep things running smoothly? No more. That responsibility is now with a new manager.”
“That seems strange.”
“Yeah, to me too. But, that’s how leadership wants it. I think the words ‘shake things up’ were used. Nothing specific, no criticism was implied. I’m not demoted or my pay cut or anything like that. In fact our VP made a small mention of ‘we appreciate how far you’ve taken this already’…and then the work was given to someone else.”
>>Tracy clearly knows she is angry and hurt. She feels let down. She is acknowledging her feelings and also that she has not been actually financially or physically harmed. She is showing understanding that, so far, this change should not be interpreted as personal criticism of her performance. The situation genuinely may be “not about her”.
“So what are you doing?”
“Well, I’m assigned to project work now. I’m the project manager for the Merlot project. It’s important, and it has a lot of chaos from a few directions. It can benefit from my help, you know how I’ve handled that kind of situation before. But...frankly...working on the COE is what I loved doing.”
“Yes! You’ve always loved bringing new folks in, onboarding newbies, and that COE has been your baby for a long time. Most of the PMO loved the work you did there, you told me all about it.”
“Right! Everyone in management felt the changes we had implemented made the work smoother, more effective, even faster. I hate losing it. But it gets worse.”
“I’ve been told to stop supporting the new folks, the junior ones. I am to direct them to the new COE owner, and stay out of it unless that manager asks for my help.”
I was really, really floored. Tracy had been commended for her work with junior professionals. She loved that kind of work.
“Tracy, I’m so sorry. This sounds really unfair.”
“It feels that way. I don’t get it, but I also don’t want to be ‘that resisting person’, like my way is the only way. The person they’ve given the work to – James - has new ideas, and just like mine were, they could be new and helpful to others as well. I don’t want to be resistive – or be perceived as sabotaging or fighting the organization! So, I’m just trying to roll with it. I have to tell you, it’s been about 8 weeks, and it’s hard. I have had to turn away people I used to support, direct them to James, and not give them advice. My boss has told me that this is James’ work, and I have to keep out of it unless he asks for my involvement.”
>>Tracy has identified that her feelings about work are really negative, right now. She acknowledges that her actions will be evaluated by others and she has to separate her feelings from her actions. Not doing so could come back to her and impact her job, and/or career.
“So…how are you?”
Tracy paused, looking for words.
“I’ve been trying to figure that out!” she took a deep breath, held it a moment, and exhaled. “Hurt? Almost wounded a little. I have to admit I’m a little lost…I go to work, I have a bunch of strictly project-related stuff to do. I do it, get the work done, involve the right people but….”
“I’m just kind-of turning the crank, you know?” she said, gesturing grasping a handle and turning a gear. “It’s project work. I’ve done it before, I’m good at it. It gets done. It has value, there’s nothing wrong with it. I just…don’t care about it. I’ve climbed this hill before, you know? Run complex projects, difficult work, groundbreaking stuff, like when we worked together. The COE work is something I loved doing. I’d built up to it for a long time. I felt I’d earned it and I’d been validated that I was doing it well. Now, with it taken away…well, this is a job I’ve done before. Literally been there, done that, got the ‘project-launch-tee-shirt’.”
I actually knew the one she was talking about: they did give out tee-shirts at the end. It was a hard project, people kept them. They were a nice cotton, too.
“You sound really down.”
“I am! I used to love my work – you know, like you talk about people doing – and now…to go from that, to a ‘demotion in place’, just doing things I’ve done a ton of times before. I’m disengaged, I get my work done in about half my day, and all the things I could take on from there I don’t because I’ve been told to let James do them. I’m not going to go around and just “create work” for the sake of it!”
>>Tracy acknowledges feelings of loss and disengagement. She doesn’t want this to cause her to unconsciously act out badly. She wants to avoid appearing like she’s (1) not following instructions or (2) making up things to look busy. She is managing her behaviors in the light of her difficult feelings. She is avoiding creating negative perceptions of herself by others.
“Are they trying to make you quit?”
“I’m a little bored…but no, I just think right now I’m in that rough spot where I have enough spare time to be bored…but not enough to take on another project in any meaningful way. If I did, my main one would suffer. Normally I’d think about what I could do with the COE, or help our newest PM’s…but like I said…”
>>Tracy has some worries about being bored, and knows this is a hot-button issue for her personally. She is avoiding letting those feelings drive her to actions which will not help her.
“Yeah, if you do that, you could be perceived as trying to undermine James.”
“Yes. I offered to help, but he has let me know, politely, that he’ll call me if he needs me. Whatever!” She threw her hands up, and exhaled again. “I’m just remembering things change. I have to let this run its course, float down the river with it, and see where it goes. Again, it’s not like the paycheck stopped clearing, and I’m not throwing out five years with this company over a @#$%# re-org!”
>>Demonstrating very active self-management, understanding that this situation could change in the future, and not sacrificing her long-term investment over short-term frustration.
We shared a smile, and I said “Yeah, sometimes adulting is really annoying.”
“I know! Right?!?!”
What did Tracy demonstrate about using emotional intelligence to self-manage?
Tracy just had a project where she had invested years, very personally and importantly, taken away from her. It put her in a difficult position - one where if she handled it badly, she might limit her career options with this company!
Tracy demonstrated a very strong level of emotional intelligence:
- Able to name her feelings. (Sad, angry, hurt, mistreated.)
- Able to accurately assert why she feels the way she feels. (No longer working in “passion”, loss of COE and mentoring responsibilities.)
- Able to appropriately separate her actions from her feelings, when needed. (Did not act out at others due to her own feelings; did not sacrifice her 5-year investment over this change.)
- Able to self-soothe and keep perspective. (Sought help from others, understands this may not actually be personally about her or her performance, exerting her own patience to see what changes next.)
Much of our conversation today has been about how Tracy managed herself through trouble. Next time, we’ll pick up with Tracy a few weeks later and have a conversation about how another aspect of Emotional Intelligence is the ability to guide and manage your own growth and development.
In the meantime, ask yourself these questions as a learning experience. I encourage you to write some notes about your answers, and then review them with a trusted friend or professional mentor.
- What do I do when I’m hurt?
- What are my reactions - good and bad - when I’m under stress?
- What causes me to experience stress? Are there any consistent patterns I can identify?
- How good am I at deferring action so I am not overly reactive? So that I avoid acting against my own interests?
- Do I have an accurate picture of how other people perceive me?
- Do I know what motivates me at work, and what I am passionate about?