How to Survive in a Workplace Causing Low Emotional Intelligence

In our world of ‘do-more-with-less’, where financial pressures abound and constant change is the new certainty, it may be no surprise that low levels of emotional intelligence amongst employees is on the rise. Every year, Genos International measures thousands of individuals’ emotional intelligence. More specifically, we measure how often people demonstrate emotionally intelligent workplace behaviour. What our findings have been showing, in our assessment data and the applied work we do, is a significant rise in the number of people who demonstrate low levels of emotional intelligence. And when you think about the typical work environment, it’s not hard to work out what’s driving it.

Many decades of organisational research has shown that longer work hours, constant change and uncertainty result in elevated stress levels and a greater daily experience of negative emotions. This, in turn, causes our thinking to be narrowed, our perspective to be limited and a greater preponderance of reactionary behaviour. We become more easily defensive or aggressive in our responses, more problem-focused and we more readily forget the bigger picture. Important social interactions that maintain relationships and keep us connected (like a regular one-on-one or coffee with a colleague) get pushed aside and it’s easy to forget how important these interactions are. While we witness it happening all the time, we don’t like to think it’s happening to us. But it most likely is, just unconsciously, and in the long term it is detrimental to your well-being and health.

Prolonged stress (stress that lasts for a few or more months) has a lasting, negative impact on the brain. It reduces the effectiveness of neurons in the hippocampus (an area of the brain primarily associated with reasoning and memory); it can damage neuronal dendrites, reducing the brain’s capacity to effectively communicate within; and stress generally dampens good decision-making, strategy and problem solving. Stress is indeed a significant threat to your enjoyment and performance at work. So how do you survive in an environment like today’s typical workplace and keep your emotional intelligence up? Here are a few techniques often employed by emotionally intelligent people.

1. Sleep more, eat better and exercise.

The more work we have, the less time we have to fully take care of ourselves, compounding the effects of stress and pressure. I don’t know about you, but if I’m not mindful, my exercise will slip. I’ll stay up working and eat more pizza and chips when work demands are high. It is counter-productive and the quality of our work reduces. The body of evidence linking diet, exercise and sleep to our mental well-being, productivity and health is growing at a rapid pace. It’s one of the most obvious, yet under-utilised strategies for increasing your resilience and maintaining your emotional intelligence.

2. Adopt a mindfulness meditation practice.

Mindfulness is the intentional, accepting and non-judgemental focus of one's attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment. It is a skill that can be learned by way of meditational practices, and the benefits of doing it are becoming well documented. I like to think of it as the practice of not thinking, of stilling and resting the mind (something that can only be good for us in our world of ‘do-more-with-less’, where minds can be constantly racing). Research has shown that positive changes in brain functioning and immune response occurs after only 8 weeks of practice. How might a 10, 20 or 30 minute daily brain-rest benefit you?

3. Enhance your emotional self-awareness.

We are not conscious of the way we feel most the time. In fact, research has indicated that we are not conscious of the way we feel about 85% of the time. This does not mean, however, that emotions (particularly negative ones) are not subtlety yet strongly influencing our thoughts, decisions and behaviours. For example, consider the fact that only 15% of men are over 6-feet tall, yet 60% of male CEOs are over 6-feet tall. One way of becoming more aware of the daily feelings you are having is to take 60 seconds out at the end of each day to reflect on the feelings you have felt. A feelings word list (often available by doing a search on Google) will assist in this exercise. Write the feelings down and tally up how many positive and negative emotions you can recall feeling. Awareness is the first step in taking action. If you find you are regularly experiencing more negative than positive emotions, you can be sure that you are demonstrating poor emotional intelligence. Consider taking some of the other actions mentioned in this article to boost the number of positive emotions you experience and your emotional intelligence.

4. Change environments and patterns.

To combat afternoon slumps in enthusiasm and focus, take a walk during the lunch hour. A study published in the January 2015 edition of the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports finds that even gentle lunchtime strolls can perceptibly — and immediately — buoy people’s moods and ability to handle stress at work. For optimal effect, a walk can be combined with a mindfulness practice. Similarly, changing patterns can help uphold moods and productivity. If you have not tried limiting call and email times, this would be a good place to start. I have found putting my phone in ‘airplane’ mode for the first 3 hours of being home helps me stay connected and focused on my children. Similarly, only answering emails during the last hour of my day helps me stay productive and less stressed. Collectively, these can significantly elevate general mood and how well you demonstrate emotional intelligence at work.

5. Limit caffeine.

Caffeine triggers the release of adrenaline, which is a neurotransmitter also known to cause the “fight or flight” response. It puts your brain and body into an aroused state of stress and increases the likelihood that you will act in a fashion that is not considered emotionally intelligent. When combined with other stress factors in today’s work environment, the combined effects can push us near the edge.

6. Find a colleague or peer coach.

‘A problem shared is a problem halved’ actually has a scientific basis. Discussing how we feel with others is a thinking-oriented activity that activates the prefrontal cortex, reducing the effects of negative emotions on it. This outlet can supply us with new perspectives and different feelings about issues. In addition, others often see a solution that we can’t because they are not as emotionally invested in the situation. The trick to getting the most out of this strategy is to do it regularly and often (e.g. every two weeks), both generally and in times of need. Look for someone who has good empathy but sees the world quite differently from you. This person is most likely to give you other perspectives to contemplate and utilise.

7. Set personal goals.

There are many benefits to setting goals and implementing actions to achieve them. Achieving meaningful things we set out to do creates positive emotions and can help give us clearer focus, make better use of our time, speed up decision-making, and help us communicate with others about what we need and want. Increases in these areas ultimately help us demonstrate better emotional intelligence and achieve greater balance in our lives.

In summary, the techniques described above are not hard to do, but they do require self-discipline. Subtle benefits are often felt immediately and in the longer term you will become more positive, productive and a better colleague to work with. The plasticity of the brain allows it to mould and change as you practise new behaviours, and these techniques should essentially boost your emotional intelligence, particularly your ability to effectively regulate and manage emotions within yourself.



Dr. Ben Palmer, BAppSci (Hons) PhD, CEO

View posts by Dr. Ben Palmer, BAppSci (Hons) PhD, CEO
Ben has a background in psychology having a finished a PhD at Swinburne University in Melbourne Australia where he developed the first Australian model and measure of emotional intelligence. He has an extensive publication list in the area, has been invited to contribute chapters to books and guest edit special issues of journals on the topic. Together with Swinburne University’s commercialization arm Ben founded Genos International in 2002 to bring his model and measure of emotional intelligence to the market. The first major customer of Genos was ANZ Bank where Ben and the Genos team worked together with McKinsey & Company on transforming the culture of the organisation to be more customer centric. The Genos model and measure of emotional intelligence was used as one of the mediums for this transformation that resulted in the Bank doubling its share price in 18 months and winning Bank of the Year 8 times in a row. Genos, and the model and measure of emotional intelligence that forms its core business, is now a national and Australian export success story. Genos has operations in Australia and Europe and distribution partners servicing clients in the USA, India, China, South Africa, South East Asia and New Zealand.
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