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Emotions Matter

Emotions Matter: Emotional Intelligence is Key to Better Health, Learning and Workplaces

Imagine your ideal work atmosphere. Not the job itself, specifically, but the atmosphere in which the job exists.

What would you expect from the experience? From your co-workers? More important, what would you expect from your boss?

The answers to those questions are likely to vary depending on a number of factors, not the least of which is age. Workers who are now approaching, or surpassing, retirement age might place a high value on workplace freedom – which many of us would describe as the absence of oversight by supervisors we see as annoying or, worse, incompetent.

But times change. As do people. And the demands of jobs, as defined by those who perform them, are inexorably changing with them.

Take what a 2011 article in the Ivey Business Journal has to say about those workers who belong to what is popularly known as the millennial generation (generally thought of as those born after 1982 and before 2004).

“The millennial employee is interested in feedback on his or her performance,” wrote author Jay Gilbert. “But traditional semi-annual reviews are too infrequent for millennials. They want to know that they’ve done a good job, and they want to know now.”

Seventeen-year-old Melanie Francis fits well amid this group. Having just finished her junior year at Spokane’s Lewis and Clark High School, Francis has served as one of the student representatives to the Spokane Public Schools Board of Directors. She expects to spend her second summer this year as a volunteer at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.

Francis hopes to attend Gonzaga University one day and is actively pursuing the scholarship she’ll need to help pay her tuition. But looking to her future, Francis – whose educational interests range from business to politics and communication – thinks she knows what she wants both from a job and the persons who one day will be her employers.

“My first thought would be the way a classroom works,” Francis says. “Kind of an open environment where everyone was friendly, not competitive. I would want a boss who works well with everyone, one who gives everyone a chance to shine. Helpful, very open with critiques. ‘Oh, make sure you do this. You did this wrong.’ Whoever it is, that’s like the most helpful thing.”

Francis is hardly alone. As Gilbert points out, Francis belongs to “the largest age group to emerge since the baby boom generation.” And while, Gilbert wrote, millennials tend to be “well educated, skilled in technology, very self-confident, able to multi-task, and have plenty of energy,” they also recognize that “work/life balance is of utmost importance to them.”

Millennials realize, too, Gilbert wrote, “that their need for social interaction, immediate results in their work, and desire for speedy advancement may be seen as weaknesses by older colleagues.”

But do such needs really signify weakness? When did it become a universally admired trait to sacrifice everything from marriage and parenting to simply smelling the roses so that you can pursue a career? Work hard, yes. Do your best, of course. But seek balance, too. As the late Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas is quoted as saying, “No one on his deathbed ever said, I wish I had spent more time on my business.”

Recognizing the need for such work/life balance is one aspect of what social scientists call emotional intelligence. And emotional intelligence, which often is referred to by the simple abbreviation EI, sits at the heart of work being done by such organizations as the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, the Empowerment Initiative Research Lab and Born This Way Foundation.

Partnerships between these groups have forged a number of initiatives. Among the aims of such work are combating teen bullying, increasing acceptance of marginalized populations, and investigating through online surveys the reasons for the kinds of stress that afflict today’s youth.

Such online surveys include 2015’s Emotion Revolution (here) and the Born Brave Experience Research (see sidebar). Both projects are supported by Born This Way Foundation, a social-action organization founded in 2012 by performing artist Lady Gaga and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta.

The Emotion Revolution survey, for example, polled some 22,000 students across the country between the ages 13 to 19. That number included 514 students from Washington and Idaho. And the results were grim: Students reported feeling stressed (79.8 percent of the time), bored (69.5 percent), frustrated (65.4 percent) and nervous (59.5 percent).

In each of these categories, Washington and Idaho students exceeded the reported national averages; those feeling “stressed,” for example, surpassed the national results by several percentage points.

What, then, is emotional intelligence? And how can acknowledgment of it – by both school officials and, more important to this story, potential employers – help alleviate the stress of today’s youth, especially as they progress into the workforce?

According to Psychology Today, EI simply defined “is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others.” It involves such skills as possessing self-awareness, applying emotions to specific tasks and problem-solving, and capably applying the ability to regulate not just how you feel but the feelings of those around you.

EI, experts say, is becoming more and more important to the workplace. In their exhaustive study “What We Know About Emotional Intelligence: How It Affects Learning, Work, Relationships, and Our Mental Health,” authors Moshe Zeidner, Gerald Matthews and Richard D. Roberts state unequivocally that “work and emotions are reciprocally related.”

They emphasize that understanding how work and emotions interact is important in gauging how well certain employees can handle specific work demands. They also point out that not understanding the work-emotion interaction can exacerbate already serious problems.

“Workplace aggression and bullying, ranging from minor incivilities to sexual harassment and extreme violence, is an especially disturbing source of workplace stress,” wrote Zeidner, et al.

Unfortunately, at the time of the book’s publication in 2009, the jury was still out regarding the effectiveness of emotional intelligence in the workplace. This was, as the authors wrote, despite the fact that, “American industry spends millions of dollars each year on training programs intended to enhance social and emotional abilities.”

The good news? Effective training or no, according to the authors, research suggests that high emotional intelligence “has been linked to effective leadership, especially transformational leadership dependent on charisma and inspiration.”

Which seems only natural. Effective leaders do tend to make for effective workers.

And subsequent research has proved Zeidner and his co-authors correct. Referring to an ongoing study conducted at Harvard University, management consultant Paolo Gallo wrote in an article for the World Economic Forum that what makes people happy is not wealth, fame or power but simply “the lasting and positive relationship with the people around us, people we love and respect.”

Further, Gallo wrote, “Living in a negative or toxic relationship has deleterious effects on our health, personal happiness and life expectancy.”

Again, a good understanding of EI can make the difference in all aspects of life, but especially in the workplace.

“While at times we cannot dramatically change what happens in our offices, we can change the way we relate to it,” Gallo wrote. “Knowing that what really matter starts from the quality of the relationships we have with those around us, both in our personal and professional lives, allows us to see the people around us not as enemies or instruments to our own success, but as allies in our journey.”

One proponent of this view has Inland Northwest roots. Tim Mulligan, Chief Human Resources Officer at San Diego Zoo Global, earned his bachelor’s degree in hotel and restaurant administration from Washington State University in 1990. He earned a law degree from Gonzaga Law School in 1994.

As the author of the just-published book “Roar: How to Build a Resilient Organization the World-Famous San Diego Zoo Way” (282 pages, Highpoint Executive Publishing, $26.99), Mulligan is aware that the zoo’s overall mission – which emphasizes the fight to end extinction of species – offers a natural draw for a certain type of employee. It is the zoo’s obligation, he says, to then do what is necessary to make each individual employee feel included.

“Once on board, we work hard to make sure each and every employee knows their role in attaining our vision of ending extinction, whether they are a scientist, an animal keeper, or a food-service employee,” Mulligan says. And, he adds, “We make sure we are keeping our employees engaged and satisfied.”

This, he says, is accomplished by doing a number of employee-outreach procedures. The zoo conducts an annual online survey. It asks for “specific feedback” on potential improvements in operations. It sponsors an employee wellness program. It offers opportunities for special training and continuing education. It provides healthy food for employees in break areas.

And a recent focus, Mulligan says, has been on emphasizing the “work/life balance.”

“We do all we can to reduce the stress levels of our employees,” he says. “We do this in many ways, including providing quiet areas for breaks, encouraging time off, giving ample amounts of vacation and sick leave, encouraging mindfulness in our day-to-day routines, eliminating too many meetings, etc.”

All of this, Mulligan says, is in recognition that “emotional intelligence is one of the best predictors of success and work, and for fulfillment in life.”

Sara Mehrafshani is one of those workers who benefits from the EI-conscious philosophy under which the San Diego Zoo is run. Just 27, Mehrafshani is a 2006 graduate of Spokane’s Ferris High School. She earned a degree in communications at Washington State University in 2010.

Soon after graduating from WSU, Mehrafshani was offered a summer internship with the zoo’s public relations team.

“When my internship ended,” she says, “the zoo helped me find a permanent position in the organization that fit my interests, utilized my skills, and provided opportunities for growth.”

Today, Mehrafshani holds the title of Partnership Marketing Representative for San Diego Zoo Global. Besides appreciating the chance to pursue “creative thinking and growth,” as well as enjoying what she calls a “fun and supportive work environment with kind-hearted co-workers,” Mehrafshani likes the fact that her job offers her the prospect “to be heard.”

“Through various mediums, including conversations with managers, our HR (human resources) team, employee surveys, open forums, and our community action group, for example, we have many opportunities to ask questions and express our opinions about any concerns we have,” she says.

Mehrafshani believes that EI is “very important” in the life of an organization. And, she adds, that sense of corporate thinking fits her zoo experience perfectly.

“I have always felt comfortable and supported to voice my questions and opinions,” she says, “and it makes a huge difference to employees when we see our organization make a change in response to what we have communicated.”

So, both researchers and practitioners agree: Addressing workplace issues with a feel for emotional intelligence can, and often does, make a positive difference. This difference boasts benefits not just for the employee but for the overall business as well.

And this is especially true as the current generation of workers gradually supplants those with far different views, and expectations, regarding both the desire to feel appreciated and an insistence on maintaining a healthy balance between work and the rest of what life has to offer.

Representing one of those generations, Lewis and Clark senior-to-be Melanie Francis says, “It’s very important for us to have emotional support.”

Again, when imagining an ideal work atmosphere, such a need seems not just important.

It seems only natural.

 

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