If you are one of the unlucky people who must deal with a clueless colleague or a brutish boss, you’re not alone. Sadly, far too many people at work lack basic emotional intelligence. They simply don’t seem to have the self-awareness and the social skills that are necessary to work in our complicated multicultural and fast-moving companies. These people make life hell for the rest of us.
What can you do to turn these folks around and make work a healthier, happier, more productive place to be? Whose job is it, anyway, to fix these people?
If one of these socially awkward or downright nasty people works directly for you, it is indeed your job to do something. They ruin work teams and destroy productivity, not to mention morale. They’re little time bombs that go off when you least expect it — sucking up your time and draining everyone’s energy. They need to change, or they need to leave.
Here’s the problem: EI is difficult to develop because it is linked to psychological development and neurological pathways created over an entire lifetime. It takes a lot of effort to change long-standing habits of human interaction — not to mention foundational competencies like self-awareness and emotional self-control. People need to be invested in changing their behavior and developing their EI, or it just doesn’t happen. What this means in practice is that you don’t have even a remote chance of changing someone’s EI unless they want to change.
Most of us assume that people will change their behavior when told to do so by a person with authority (you, the manager). For complicated change and development, however, it is clear as day that people don’t sustain change when promised incentives like good assignments or a better office. And when threatened or punished, they get downright ornery and behave really badly. Carrot and stick performance management processes and the behaviorist approach upon which they are based are deeply flawed, and yet most of us start (and end) there, even in the most innovative organizations.
What does work is a) helping people find a deep and very personal vision of their own future and b) then helping them see how their current ways of operating might need a bit of work if that future is to be realized. These are the first two steps in Richard Boyatzis’ Intentional Change theory — which we’ve been testing with leaders for years. According to Boyatzis — and backed up by our work with leaders — here’s how people really can begin and sustain change on complex abilities linked to emotional intelligence:
First, find the dream. If you’re coaching an employee, you must first help him or her discover what’s important in life. Only then can you move on to aspects of work that are important to this person. Then, help your employee craft a clear and compelling vision of a future that includes powerful and positive relationships with family, friends, and coworkers. Notice that I’m talking about coaching your employee, not managing him. There’s a big difference.
Next, find out what’s really going on: What’s the current state of this person’s emotional intelligence? Once a person has a powerful dream to draw strength from, he’s strong enough to take the heat — to find out the truth. If you are now truly coaching him, you’re trusted and he’ll listen to you. Still, that’s probably not enough. You will want to find a way to gather input from others, either through a 360-degree feedback instrument like the ESCI (Emotional and Social Competency Inventory), or a Leadership Self Study process (as described in our book, Becoming a Resonant Leader), which gives you the chance to talk directly to trusted friends about their EI and other skills.
Once you have the dream and the reality, it’s time for a gap analysis and a learning plan. Note that I did not say “performance management plan,” or even “development plan.” A learning plan is different in that it charts a direct path from the personal vision to what must be learned over time to get there — to actual skill development.
Learning goals are big. Take, for example, one executive I know. Talented though he was, he was in danger of being fired for his distinct lack of caring about the people around him. He wanted what he wanted, and watch out if you were in his way. He couldn’t seem to change until it finally dawned on him that his bulldozer style was playing out at home too, with his children. That didn’t fit at all with his dream of a happy, close-knit family, living close to one another throughout their lives. So, with a dream in hand and the ugly reality rearing its head at work and at home, he decided to work on developing empathy. As a learning goal, empathy is one of the toughest and most important competencies to develop. The capacity for emotional and cognitive empathy is laid down early in life, and then reinforced over many years. This gentleman had a good foundation for empathy in childhood, but intense schooling and a stint at an up-or-out management consulting firm drove it out of him. He needed to relearn how to read people and care about them. He was able to succeed. Yes, it took a good while, but he did it.
This sounds like a lot of hard work for your employee, and it can be. Here’s where a final important piece of the theory comes into play. They — and you — can’t do it alone. People need people — kind and supportive people — when embarking on a journey of self-development. Are you there for your employees? Do you help thme find other supporters, in addition to yourself, who will help when their confidence wanes or when they experience inevitable setbacks?
Developing one’s emotional intelligence can make the difference between success and failure in life and in work. And, if you’re the one responsible for people’s contributions to the team and your organization, you are actually on the hook to try to help those (many) people who are EI-challenged, deficient, and dangerous. It’s your job.
But what if you’re not the boss? You can still make a difference with colleagues, too. All of the same rules apply to how people change. You just need to find a different entry point. In my experience, that entry begins with you creating a safe space and establishing trust. Find something to like about these people and let them know it. Give them credit where credit is due, and then some (most of these folks are pretty insecure). Be kind. In other words, use your EI to help them get ready to work on theirs.
And finally, if none of this works, these “problem people” don’t belong on your team — or maybe even in your organization. If you’re a manager, that’s when it’s time to help them move on with dignity.