Emotional Intelligence on Teams: Valuable Lessons for Promoting  More Empathetic and Successful Teams

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So far in our discussion of emotional intelligence (also known as EI or EQ), we’ve focused on individuals–how emotional intelligence can be used by individuals both in their private lives and on a team setting in order to become more emotionally aware and productive.

Now it’s time to expand our view and talk about emotional intelligence on teams. How should emotional intelligence be thought about in a team environment, and what kind of structures need to be in place to create an emotionally intelligent team?

One thing that gets emphasized a lot in the literature on this topic is the importance of establishing “norms”–that is, habits that are consistently reinforced by individuals and structures. So it’s important to keep in mind that since we are talking about teams, these types of cultural and structural norms will be crucial to becoming more emotionally intelligent.

Why is emotional intelligence on teams important?

But first, it’s important to explain why emotional intelligence on teams is important at all. When we think about what makes a good team or a good team environment, many of the words we come up with––trust, motivation, a sense of fulfillment and group identity, the desire to succeed together–are emotion based. 

To establish healthy and productive teams where people want to grow and achieve together, attention has to be paid to the emotional environment of that team. Similar to emotional intelligence in general, an awareness of emotions on teams leads to more empathy and trust, and therefore allows teams to harness those emotions to productive ends.

In fact, a lot of recent research seems to show that emotionally intelligent teams have more productive and cooperative discussions, are better at de-escalating conflicts and preventing them from spilling over into interpersonal relationships, and perform better overall. 

Indeed, emotional intelligence on teams lays the groundwork for not only a more empathetic and understanding work culture, but also one that is more collaborative and engaged. Furthermore, because there is less conflict on the emotionally intelligent teams, this opens up space for better discussions, new ideas, and more creativity. 

It’s clear then, that teams that want to be effective and productive should pay more attention to emotional intelligence. But what does emotional intelligence on teams really mean?

Core attributes of emotional intelligence on teams

In an earlier blog post where we introduced you to the concept of emotional intelligence, we talked about the four main attributes that make it up, which were:

  1. Awareness of your own emotions
  2. Influence your own emotions
  3. Awareness of others’ emotions
  4. Influence others’ emotions

The same patterns of emotional intelligence flowing outward, as well as the repetition of awareness/influence are present in emotional intelligence on teams too…with a twist.

Whereas with individual emotional intelligence, there are two layers–yourself and others–with emotional intelligence on teams there are three. These are: individual team members’ emotions, the emotions of your team as a whole (the general “mood”), and the emotions of other teams or groups (i.e. “cross-boundary relationships”).

1. Awareness of individual team members’ emotions: Understanding 

Establishing emotional intelligence on teams starts with noticing and acknowledging team members’ emotions. When team members aren’t on the the same wavelength, it affects the rest of the group and can sometimes bring evreyone else down. But what do you do when you see someone who is out of sorts? Do you reach out and try to understand them, do you get angry with them for feeling the way they do, or do you ignore it?

So the first step is simply to notice the people around you. The best way to do this is by creating more spaces where people can notice each other and get a sense of how each member is feeling, such as check-ins, longer discussions, and one-one-one chats. 

This awareness should always start from a place of understanding, not of judgement or cricism. We often want to separate emotions from work, but as we saw earlier, work is intimately connected to emotions, both positive and negative ones, so understanding why someone feels the way the do rather than castigating them can lead teams to a more productive conversation about emotions and how to use them.

2. Influencing individual team members’ emotions: Managed conflict

Emotional intelligence on teams also invilves influencing the emotions of individuals. By “influencing” we mean of course influencing in a positive way. We could also say “regulating” or “managing”, but this comes off as weird in the context of coworkers’ emotions. Basically, we mean learning to positively impact how your team members feel.

Once you understand how team members are feeling, you can find ways that will allow you to impact and shape those feelings so that you can get to the bottom of the problem. The way to do that is through open, managed conflict.

Managed conflict means addressing issues but in a way that doesn’t lead to any escalation or spillover into interpersonal relationships. If two members are arguing about the best way to solve a problem, they could get so attached to their ideas that they take any criticism of their idea as criticism of themselves. In this case, a managed conflict approach would listen to both sides and find a way to compromise or merge the two ideas so that no one feels sidleined.

Given that emotions are swilring around us all the time, it’s unreasonable to ignore conflict and confrontation. But we can approach conflict in a way that is more about caring and coming to a producitve conclusion, rather than let conflicts become zero-sum games of competition and exclusion. 

3. Awareness of the team’s overall emotions: What’s in a mood?

It might seem strange at first to talk about emotions on a group-wide level, but really we can all think of times when our group, family or team have goe through the same emotions together. The most easy example to imagine is when there is a major crisis and challenge, and everyone feels stressed. Certainly in the last two years, there has been a collective sense of faigue and burnout. On a lighter note, when teams successfully achieve something, everyone feels the same wave of energy and positivty. 

When it comes to emotional intelligence on teams, we can call collective emotions “moods”. This is a good word to use because these emotions can sometimes be felt as a vague sense that something is going on. It also addresses the fact that not everyone will feel exactly the same way.

So how can we be aware of moods and address them? The way to do this is through self-evaluation and collective feedback. When the mood changes it needs to be openly confronted in order to understand what it is and why it’s there. Feedback also makes teams aware of their strengths and limitations, which gives them a better understanding of what they can actually accoplish.  

If people are feeling stressed out, you have to evaluate yourselves together and find out what is causing the stress–is it the work itself, or the structures that you have in place? If the mood is positive, discuss what the team can take away from the experience that will help them in be more positive in the future–was it the nature of the project, or the way people worked together?

Evaluating and giving open feedback are a means of establishing a system of reflection. Reflection, as we mentioned before, is crucial to understanding ourselves, growing, and improving our emotional intelligence. On teams, this type of reflection and feedback is even more important since you are dealing with multiple people, and it can lead to a greater sense of what kind of team you actually are. 

4. Influencing group emotions: The importance of norms

Understanding team moods through self-evaluation allows teams to then influence those moods, which is sort of the essential goal of emotional intelligence on teams. You want to be able to positively influence your group’s emotions so that they can be even more successful and productive, and de-escalte any interpersonal conflict that might get in the way of that.

This is where norms comes in. In order to influence team emoitons on the whole, you have to look at what kind of habits, strucutures, work styles, and cultures are in place, and whether they are creating an affirmative environment–a psychologically safe environment, a creative environment, an environment that emphasizes problem solving over competition–or not.  

The reason this has to be holisitc than simply a good leader here or a new policy there is that groups establish norms from a variety of infleunces. These influences include:

  • formal and informal leaders (more on that in an upcoming post)
  • orgazitational structure and formal culture–positional hierarchy, meeting style, performance measures, etc. 
  • informal culture–coworker relationships, peer pressure, social hierarchies, etc.
  • training and mentoring

Becuase norms are formed from multiple origin points, only a holistic view wil be able to show you how your team’s moods and emotional responses to situations are being formed. 

One important norm might be sharing feelings at all. As we mentioned earlier, many organizations don’t like to talk about or acknowledge feelings or emotions. Of course, we know now that acknowledging emotions is necessary and unavoidable, and can make team members feel more secure in their environment and therefore more motivated and successful. 

Other norms include a more collaborative office space, support for mental health issues, access to resources like mentorship opportuniities and skill development, and practicing conflict resolution. 

Team building is another norm. It’s goal it’s to raise team spirit on the whole. And teams building–whether it’s a retreat, dinner and drinks, or an outdoor scavenger hunt–works best when it becomes part of teams’ regular schedules so that they can fully take advantage of the bonding it provides.

5. Awareness of emotions from outside the team: Cross-boundary relationships 

While it’s all well and good to realize the importance of emotions on your team and learn how positively impact them, another level of emotional intelligence on teams has to do with the emotions of thos who are outside the team.

Naturally, teams have relationships with other teams, other departments, and other groups within the same organization. They also have to interact with the wider world–clients, shareholders, investors, collaborators, government instutions, etc. And so, an understanding of how to deal with other teams’ emotions is crucial.

In order to have successful and effective cross-boundary relationships that benefit all parties involved, teams should look at themselves and work outwards. They need to use the norms they establoshed within their own team to drive the empathy and understanding with thich they engage other teams.

Viewing cross-boundary relationships as relationships that require work, trust, and understanding is one step in that direction. But ultimately, teams that have successfully engaged their own emotional awareness and created environments that promote empathy, conflict resolution, and problem solving will be better at recreating those same environments with outside groups.

Conclusion

Hopefully this blog post has given you a good idea of what emotional intelligence on teams is and why it is important. Emotional intelligence on teams works on three levels that are critical for teams’ success: individual team members, the team as a whole, and the team’s relationship with other teams and groups.

We can already see the emergence of a model for emotional intelligence on teams, one that stresses awareness, feedback, conflict resolution, establishing outlets for emotions, and creating norms. In the next blog post we will delve more deeply into how to actually form an emotionally intelligent team. For now, we hope these ideas inspire you to think a little more critically about emotional intelligence on your team. 

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