There’s no single hack for improving your team’s collective emotional intelligence. As a manager, it’s the small habits you perform and encourage that ripple outward.
Getting smart people into your company is hard enough. Turning them all into great collaborators and risk-takers is even more difficult. Even on the most high-performing teams, coworkers don’t just openly share feedback and challenge each others’ ideas all on their own–managers need to create a culture that encourages this. And that usually requires building your team’s collective emotional intelligence. Here are a few straightforward (and entirely low-tech ways) to get started.
1. BEGIN ON DAY ONE
A team’s work culture determines the parameters within which everybody on it interacts–what’s acceptable, expected, and imaginable. But that culture can subtly change depending on the team’s composition. When someone leaves or somebody new gets hired, you’ve got to reset those parameters to make sure everybody is still operating according to the values and ideals you’d like them to.
So as a manager, make it explicit to every new hire–from their first day in the office–that they should feel free to challenge ideas at all levels. In fact, emphasize that that’s what’s expected of them. Scott Kelly, chief human resource officer of Hitachi Data Systems, says that “from day one on the job, new employees are not just encouraged but expected to be self-starters with a solution-oriented mindset.”
Sure, just about every job listing includes high-flying language like that, but very few managers actually follow through by reiterating this crucial expectation once they fill those open positions.
2. INVITE YOUR TEAM TO CHALLENGE YOU
The freedom to question the status quo and bring up new ideas can make the way for building interpersonal connections that every emotionally intelligent person needs. But it has to start at the top. Not only do team members need to feel comfortable interacting with each other, but they need to share that same level of trust with their leaders.
That’s why managers have to model the behavior they’re trying to promote. If your employees notice you hesitate to share your own opinions or see you flinch when they question your approach, they won’t be willing to take the risk of doing so. You need to actively seek out perspectives that differ from yours, then act on them (rather than just paying lip service). This will let everyone know that it’s okay to challenge you and each other.
3. TURN REGULAR FEEDBACK INTO A HABIT
One of the best ways to encourage emotional intelligence on your whole team is to lower the stakes of giving and receiving performance feedback. The more you trade notes on how things are and share challenging ideas, the less defensive you’re all likely to get around criticism. The feedback that’s reserved for meetings or for other occasions just for that purpose sends the message that constructive critique isn’t the norm for your team.
So commit to doing it regularly and continuously, during one-on-one meetings and other informal opportunities around the workplace. When feedback and ideas are bounced around frequently and openly, it gives people the confidence to share, challenge, and speak out. Soon they’ll just come to see it as just the way things are done around here.
4. REWARD INITIATIVE, NOT JUST WINS
One of the easiest ways to keep your team members feeling isolated and emotionally closed off to one another is to create a sense of fear around taking risks and failing. You might not think you’re doing that as a manager, but this type of culture can creep in unwittingly if you aren’t careful. You run this risk anytime your team members make a gamble and fail, and then pay some sort of penalty as a result–or even just perceive themselves to.
So it never hurts to err in the opposite direction. Heap praise and appreciation for people who give their best effort. Anyone on your team who tries something new deserves acknowledgment, even if things don’t wind up going as well as expected. Instead of wallowing in failure, the most emotionally intelligent teams know how to scrutinize it for lessons that can help them succeed next time. But this, too, takes practice and has to start from the top. Rewarding initiative rather than successes gives people the green light to take risks they’d otherwise feel too vulnerable to try.
5. SHARE OWNERSHIP OF OUTCOMES (GOOD, BAD, AND MIDDLING)
Finally, cultivating your whole team’s emotional intelligence requires accountability. You need everyone to take ownership and credit when things go well, but you also need them to take responsibility when things go awry. The old, top-down management model never left much room for this degree of accountability. When things went wrong, the boss who’d given the orders was ultimate to blame for the whole team’s missteps.
But as hierarchies flatten and the interpersonal skills among all contributors become more decisive, a much more distributed sense of ownership is no longer optional. As a leader, you can encourage that by openly and publicly sharing credit for decisions that worked well and acknowledging your role when things go off the rails. Taking responsibility from the top down can encourage everyone on your team to do the same.
Developing an open, safe, trusting workplace where everyone feels free to challenge and share their ideas depends on a high degree of emotional intelligence on all sides. Without it, your team members won’t be self-aware enough to know how they come across to others. They won’t be able to empathize or listen to each other, or find ways to improve their skills individually or as a group. But for managers, changing that starts by adopting a few good habits, then modeling them continuously for their teams. Stick with it, and you’ll have a powerful group of collaborators who know how to pull together as a unit, even when the going gets tough.