Why emotional intelligence is a superpower in the workplace

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Article by Freya Robertson, Executive Assistant to the CEO at Progeny

As an Executive Assistant (EA) operating in a fast paced, high-pressured environment, you learn lots of things about people and emotions.

However, one characteristic that I believe the most effective operators at all levels share is that they are people-orientated and masters of interpersonal relationships.  

This may seem like a natural and inimitable gift but what is termed as ‘emotional intelligence’ is actually a superpower we can develop and is something that I believe is important to everyone, no matter what stage of their career.

So, what exactly is emotional intelligence and what are some of the benefits it can bring to our working lives?

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognise, understand and channel your own emotions, and those of others around you, in differing environments and situations, to be able to solve problems, make decisions and communicate effectively.

Scientific journalist, author and psychologist, Daniel Goleman, popularised the concept of emotional intelligence, (otherwise known as emotional quotient or EQ), in his book What Makes A Leader? He identified five key components that make up emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills, with the underlying philosophy being that to bring out the best in others and lead to the best outcomes, you need to be able to bring out the best in yourself.

Not just for leaders

Whilst high EQ is important for leaders as Goleman identified, in terms of motivating and driving a team, it is hugely useful at any level. As an Executive Assistant or PA for example, you often act as an extension of your leader and as a result, you are one of the closest people to how they are truly feeling. This is where self-awareness and regulation come into play. Being aware of your own emotions and understanding your leader’s at the same time means you can identify the best way to communicate with them to deliver an outcome, when to leave them alone, when they need advice/a trusted confidant, or you to step in and support without them having to say it. Emotions are what makes us all human but being able to understand and recognise our own reactions, triggers, and pressure points, as well as those of the people around us, allows us to be able to adapt for the benefit of both ourselves and others.

The power of empathy

Another of Goleman’s key components is empathy. Empathy enables you to identify with and understand the viewpoints, wants, and needs of those around you. Empathetic people make great managers, leaders, and assistants because they pick up on the emotions of others and relate to them, meaning they can see problems from different perspectives and make objective decisions.

Whilst empathy starts developing in childhood, we can nurture its growth throughout our lives and use it as a hugely positive force, in both our personal and work lives. Highly empathetic people have an insatiable curiosity about others and are willing to challenge their own preconceptions and prejudices by searching for what they share with people. Sometimes it is not just a matter of simply listening. Becoming an empathetic conversationalist depends on your willingness to share stories about your own experiences and vulnerabilities in an attempt to relate to others. That’s why it’s usually much easier to take advice from someone who doesn’t just tell you what to do but also shares a story about having been in a similar situation and what they learned from it.

I find it useful to ask open questions, not only of the CEO I support, but other senior leaders and individuals in the business to encourage conversation and the sharing of experiences. Focus on bringing a couple of thoughtful questions to conversations you have with clients or colleagues. Not only does this convey genuine interest but you are much more likely to learn something of value.

A constructive approach to conflict

Conflict and disagreements in the workplace are unavoidable but emotional intelligence plays a key part in resolving disputes in healthy and constructive ways.

Practicing self-regulation helps to give people the ability to stay calm and in control in difficult situations. This is highly valued in the workplace and the more we can keep our emotions channelled in the right direction, the more we are likely to achieve a professional goal and maintain good professional relationships. The act of self-regulation allows time to process and reflect. It allows us to contextualize feelings, behaviours, reactions and thoughts and to manage their impact.

A good strategy here is to stop and allow time to reflect before reaction.  This is termed ‘cognitive reframing’ and can be used to improve self-regulation abilities. This involves reinterpreting a situation to change your emotional response to it. So, if a colleague is short with you in a meeting, for example, rather than thinking that this reflected something about you, such as “my colleague doesn’t respect me,” you might instead think, “my colleague seems to be under stress at the moment.” This reinterpretation encourages a difference response and gives you the opportunity to offer your colleague support.

In summary, having strong emotional intelligence skills enables you and those around you to thrive, become more effective and reach your full potential. It is a superpower that everyone, at any point in their career, can work on. Not everyone wants to lead a company, but everyone wants to feel valued within their role and nurturing a higher EQ is a pathway to connecting with people on a deeper and more meaningful level.

About the author

Freya RobertsonFreya Robertson is a highly driven, results orientated Executive Assistant with a wide breadth of experience, ranging from working for smaller, boutique businesses to large corporates, including Grant Thornton and John Lewis.

Skilled at building relationships with all stakeholders and with a high degree of emotional intelligence, she works to support an entrepreneurial, high-performing individual, acting as their trusted confidante and offering leadership business support. This has enabled her to gain experience supporting large acquisitions, private equity buy out deals and organisational restructures.

In Freya’s spare time, she enjoys keeping active, including tackling both the London Marathon in aid of the Motor Neurones Association and the Great North Run. She lives with her partner in Harrogate and often socialises with friends and family in the surrounding area.

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