Emotional intelligence and employee engagement

By Mike Cook
For the Bellingham Business Journal

If I address a room full of today’s business owners or HR Directors and ask the question, “How many of you are having trouble finding good people to hire these days?”, virtually every person in the room will raise their hand. And these people are not wrong. Finding people who are a good fit for the demands of the current economy is no easy task.

When you get into further discussions with employers you find that they often have a hard time explaining what the mean by “good people.” As often as not I have found that the issue being addressed is not skill-based, rather it is a question of readiness to address the “maturity” issues employees face in the current economy.

Employees, and their managers will not be unable able to engage with their work at the levels needed today for sustained periods until the issue of emotional intelligence is addressed as a key strategic educational issue around the country.

In virtually every management development program I have created or delivered in the past 20 years the point has been made that the greatest challenge facing owner/managers today is their own limited interest in developing their own emotional intelligence or understanding of this psychological breakthrough, or these same needs among the people who report to them. This reality is either not fully understood or accepted by both employers in general as well as the HR community at large. Until this happens the challenges associated with and “immature” workforce will continue to bedevil managers and the problems created as well as their consequences will continue to grow.

It usually goes without saying but bears repeating here that business in general and certainly the experience of being at work must be considered a “contact sport.”  As our economy has evolved over the last 25 years with the relentless focus on doing more with less, meaning people, the amount of contact has by necessity increased dramatically. My experience strongly suggests that the majority of people currently in our American workforce, never mind new employees, are not adequately prepared to participate in a game that requires significant personal initiative and interpersonal skill. For that matter it is probably safe to say that just as many employers are not ready to participate with a highly socially intelligent workforce.

Evolution may be a catch-all phrase when talking about how the economy has “morphed” over the years but one feature is worth considering; the process generally happens outside of our standard measurements of time and so changes often go unnoticed for extended periods. Management in the American workplace is now standing in front of the challenge of just such an evolutionary outcome. An immature workforce is undoubtedly an unintended yet very real consequence that has yet to be faced at any level of our society. Educationally and emotionally many, many people in the workplace today are not prepared to deal successfully with the level of interpersonal complexity they face daily.

A quick look back may serve a purpose here. The industrial economy offered the majority of people in the workforce a narrowly defined sets of tasks, high degrees of supervision and limited individual discretion.

Never mind whether this was good or bad, it was what it was and created the foundation for the standard of living we enjoy today. As the economy has proceeded along its path and we have been brought to where we are today certain aspects of the industrial economy remain, namely the relationship of employment, however, what we need from employees has changed dramatically. Many owner/managers say they want more initiative, creativity and passion from their employees but are not able to recognize that these additives to the compliance (do as you are toldness) that was the hallmark of a prior time in the workplace are not simple snap on modules. This outcome begs for transformational education and skill building is also required.

Before patting yourself on the back because you don’t fall into the category of the emotionally underdeveloped or see what I am talking about in your employees or immediate reports, ask you self and honestly answer these questions:

  • Am I able to participate successfully in every conversational exchange without hesitation or caution?

  • Am I able to have the conversations I really need to have with my reports so I am optimizing their development as well as their productivity?

  • Do I ever see instances where my reports “hold back” with me even though I have repeatedly encouraged them to talk to me about everything?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you were being honest and the question that remains is: What is the price you are paying in terms of your own full engagement at work, your own productivity and the level of engagement and productivity of those you are charged with developing.

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