The Conversation: Navigating the Nuances of Emotional Intelligence

by Diana Drake

Ryan Jenkins, a Gen Z expert, recently called emotional intelligence the most “in-demand skill of the future.” He said, “The Industrial Revolution required muscle from its workers. The Information Age traded muscle for mental capacity, which explains the rise of “knowledge workers.” The future will require workers to be emotionally intelligent.”

With so much riding on this key skill, the sooner you can understand what it means to be emotionally intelligent, the more prepared you’ll be for workplace success.

Sigal Barsade, Wharton’s Joseph Frank Bernstein Professor of Management, has long studied and taught emotional intelligence to students and top executives. She says: “Emotional intelligence is your ability to think intelligently about emotions and to use your emotions to think intelligently.”

‘A Sea of Emotion’

We called on Maurice Schweitzer, Wharton’s Cecilia Yen Koo Professor of Operations, Information and Decisions and Professor of Management, to go a little deeper with how emotions make people better employees and business leaders.

Schweitzer’s research focuses on emotions, emotion regulation, and the negotiation process. Emotions, he says “drive so much behavior,” inspiring him to explore and write about topics like Anger and Lying, Anxiety and Advice, and how emotions Influence How Much We Trust Other People. His recent research looks at how the fear of embarrassment changes the way we act, and not in a good way. “Once we appreciate that we’re constantly experiencing emotions that drive so many behaviors, it helps us understand the world around us and certainly a lot of business concepts,” says Schweitzer, who has also taught in our Future of the Business World online course.

“Think about emotions as choices that you can make.” — Dr. Maurice Schweitzer, Wharton Professor

Emotional intelligence (also known as Emotional quotient or EQ), he says, has three main parts: the ability to recognize how you are feeling and how others are feeling; the ability to understand the triggers for those emotions in yourself and others; and the ability to change emotions, both in yourself through the choices you make, as well as by inspiring others to act a certain way (think of a great coach who leads his team to victory).

The connection between all of these is to acknowledge your emotions and the emotions of others – after all, emotion is what makes us human – and to realize your power over them. “We’re in a sea of emotion. Things are pushing us to feel one way or another constantly,” explains Schweitzer. “One thing is to recognize that the emotions shouldn’t be just pushing you around.”

As you think about becoming more emotionally intelligent, begin by looking inward, Schweitzer suggests. “Emotions change not just how you feel, but how you think and how you act. If you are happy, angry or sad, you will make different decisions,” he says. “When you’re emotionally intelligent, you first realize that you’re upset and agitated, for example. The next step is to realize what is making you agitated. Maybe it’s performing a certain task, or being with a person who is really critical, or listening to music that is changing how you’re feeling. Do a cognitive reappraisal and think about how you can change the way you feel. Then go ahead and take some action to change it. We can change our environment, we can change what we do, we can change where we go, and we can change how we think about things.”

Perspective and Empathy

Emotionally intelligent people must also learn to look outward to assess the influence that emotion is having on others, both in leadership roles and as members of teams. Picture this: You had a chance to score a goal in the big game and you missed it. Your coach pulls you aside and yells at you. In business, this might be that your boss is really upset with you because you didn’t land a big client.

Dr. Schweitzer suggests you start with these questions.

“When people express strong emotions, it’s natural for us to react,” says Schweitzer. “The emotionally intelligent reaction is to recognize it’s them, not you, and put it in perspective. [Rather than fall apart], think logically about the situation in a way that will ultimately change your emotion. Have the perspective to think that this isn’t really that big a deal and everything is going to be alright. By putting it in context, you can think about someone else’s emotional reaction and react to it differently. I feel badly they’re under so much stress to win games. Or, I wonder if there is a way to educate them or guide them to see a bigger picture and put things in a different perspective.”

An essential quality of outward emotional intelligence for business leaders is empathy. Empathy is the ability to communicate and lead by understanding others’ thoughts, views and feelings. Edward Yu, a former PwC executive, talked with Knowledge@Wharton High School a few years back about the power of empathy.

“To better understand empathy, think of the African word Sawubona, which means “I ‘see’ you,” said Yu. “When you meet somebody, you really see them — not just because you notice them, but because you respect them and understand where they come from.” The more you understand people on an emotional level, like your employees and co-workers, the more likely you will be able to draw out the best in their performance.

Tony Hayward is an example of a high-profile executive’s failure to empathize. Hayward was CEO of oil and energy company BP when the company accidentally spilled 4.9 million barrels of oil in the Gulf of Mexico during an explosion that also killed 11 people and injured 17. “When he delivered his apology, he said: ‘No one wants this over more than I do. I’d like my life back.’ He was pilloried for that,” notes Schweitzer. “It was self-focused, failing to appreciate the importance of emotions of others and those around him and how that was going to play out. He ended up losing his job.”

Whether aspiring to lead others or to be effective in any career position, success begins with your own emotional awareness. Ask questions and gather feedback from those around you, and observe how great leaders in your own life control and use their emotions.

“We can be deliberate about the kinds of experiences we seek out to improve our ability to recognize, use, and change emotions,” says Schweitzer. “Think about emotions as choices that you can make. Rather than letting the world change you, think about changing the world, whether it’s as small as changing how you’re thinking about something, going for a walk, going for a run, talking to a friend. Think about the choices you make as things that are going to change how you feel.”

Related Links

Conversation Starters

Does controlling your emotions mean not to express them? Explain.

How would you describe the power of emotions as you build your pathway to success in business and career?

What is your biggest takeaway from this article? Share in the comment section some ways you plan to develop your emotional intelligence.

7 comments on “The Conversation: Navigating the Nuances of Emotional Intelligence

  1. From this article I took away that emotional intelligence is not merely acknowledging your emotions and what resulted in you feeling that way, but changing how you feel as well.

    • Yeah, same here. I also really appreciate that the article explained that even though emotionally intelligent people employ methods of changing negative emotions into positive ones, they’re not AVOIDING or fearing emotion, but instead accepting emotion as a natural tendency in order to gain control over their own.

  2. I have never been able to control my emotions. There have been a lot of instances where my anger would get the better of me or where I would just shut my emotions off. However, the year 2020 taught me a lot of lessons and the most important one being was how to take control over my emotions. I expressed anger in the right way and at the same time, opened up about my emotions when I needed to and I have never felt better. Emotions can be a very tricky concept but the moment you learn how to deal with and control them, you can make so many changes to your life and grow to be a better person excelling in everything you involve yourself in.

  3. Attending the Business Leadership Academy program, I felt nurtured by the exposure to core psychology concepts that are critical to a company’s success. However, especially with the pandemic and reflecting on the long, tedious conversations with my parents about emotional wellbeing and life, I realized that although I was partially conscious of my actions immediately after the dialogues or, sometimes, altercations, I have yet to develop the skill to accept frank and straightforward criticisms fully.

    A concept that the professor brought up during the program was the Johari Window, where there are four “selves” that one has, including the “open self,” “hidden self,” “blind self,” and “unknown self.” More interestingly, the field of “unknown self” would most likely be the biggest out of the four. Upon this understanding, it is perplexing to attempt to comprehend what “privatized” and unexplored characteristics there could be. Are they situationally based? Do they occur frequently but often missed? Are they trivial individually but significant when amassed together? Moreover, how can one become less blind without overcoming some self-pride or conceit in the “open-self” window? And how do these different panels interact, or if they work interdependently?

    These inquiries and evaluations merely break the surface for total self-understanding, like the ocean and space, with only an insignificant proportion explored by the human species.

    • I totally agree with what Max has commented. I believe that one of the most overlooked parts of business is in the emotions we hold. Growing up, I have only, for the most part, ever heard of the phrases “leaders are confident” and “leaders are organized”. It was never so much about what they acted like in professional or normal settings, rather what they could offer when forming decisions. The ability to take on both extremes: the feeling of euphoria and backlash is crucial to the development of a brand and overall environment of a company. Afterall, followers learn from the leaders. Personally, I relate to Max, I am open to feedback, yet still expecting some sort of praise for my efforts. This in return, has made me hard headed from time to time. Though, I identify with the “unknown self” as Max had mentioned since my reactions are based on my level of stress. When times are difficult, I sometimes just discard my ideas, and follow what I believe is wrong, but convince myself it is right. I am naive and often soft because of self doubt and take “living in the moment” too literally. For example, in times of success and accomplishment, I often forget the responsibilities and promises I still must uphold. I believe this would negatively impact my ultimate success in how I would outdo myself over and over again and the ones benefiting would be everyone, but myself. To put this into application, if I was the CEO of a company and I had made a large margin of profit, I may be too quick to reward workers with raises and outsourcing certain goods. In a more practical sense, when I am arranging a hang out with friends, I often offer to pay knowing my bank account has less than 5 cents in it. Yet texting in caplocks heats up the excitement and I do lose myself in the moment. Thus, I make impulsive decisions that end up hurting myself more than anyone around me. This is an issue that I have struggled with for most of my life. To address this, however, I have limited myself with the promises I make in conversations, and often pause to reflect on my actual abilities to fulfill these empty promises before I speak or reply back. My attempt in answering Max’s question of how the different “selves” work together would be that it depends on our ability to identify who we are in differnet situations. Rather than just asking how the different “selves” are related we should consider its application to each individual. Some are a lot more self conscious with their actions, some are more self centered with their motives. It honestly depends. I believe that a driving factor of what makes an entrepreneurer successful is not solely based on the knowledge attained, but also how you combine it with the mix of emotions: confidence, doubt, happiness, ambition.

  4. In answering the first question after reading this article, I believe that “controlling your emotions” has become synonymous with not outwardly showing them or becoming emotionless. However, I believe that controlling your emotions simply means keeping your emotions in check and not let them get out of hand. If I were a CEO and
    I “controlled my emotions” by becoming emotionless, I, in that way would not be a successful leader because I would not be displaying emotional intelligence and humanity. I would instead become cold and un-relatable. Being human and having emotional intelligence means having emotions, but being able to control how much of that emotion that you outwardly express instead of blindly acting upon your emotions in an animalistic way.

    • Also, I would like to add that there are some emotions that are stronger and therefore require more “controlling” such as anger, jealousy, etc. But even then, I believe it is important to display those emotions as well in a non-destructive way to truly display humanity.

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