Getting Smart about Emotional Intelligence - For Your Airmen and Your Children

  • Published
  • By Col. Eric A. Nelson
  • 55th Medical Operations Squadron commander
I often find myself comparing my responsibilities as a commander to my responsibilities as a parent, and sometimes even find myself thinking of, or referring to, my Airmen to my kids. I know I'm not alone in this, and I don't mean to belittle any Airmen as childish. Rather, I see this as a natural analogy that relates more to the shared mission of both effective leaders and loving parents to strive to maximize the potential of those in their charge, and to look out for the interests of someone other than themselves.

A good commander should be interested in nurturing the career development of his or her airmen, and must occasionally enforce discipline as a means of course correction for wayward or underperforming personnel. These responsibilities are very much akin to those of parents. More and more I find myself applying lessons learned in leadership and management roles to parenting my children, and often find myself applying parenting skills to managing my organization.

This is relevant to my editorial today because it was my "parental ears" that perked up a year ago when I first heard of the concept of "emotional intelligence" and its relevance to success in life and the workplace, and the more I've contemplated the topic the more I've come to appreciate its applicability to both raising my children and to leading a squadron. Until last year I had never heard the term emotional intelligence. But then I attended a presentation by a human resources expert who asserted that high scores on tests of emotional intelligence in early childhood predicted success in the workplace better than SAT scores and IQ tests - up to 25 times better than IQ tests, in fact! That's an attention-getter for any parent who wants to set his or her children up for success, and not surprisingly the concept of emotional intelligence has been drawing increasing attention over the past two decades from human resources experts in the business community, as well. These experts have observed that how one behaves in response to events and how one interacts with people is a more important determinant of career success than IQ.

So what exactly is emotional intelligence? Although controversy swirls about how best to define and measure it, emotional intelligence is generally considered to consist of four types of abilities: emotional self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. Put another way, being emotionally intelligent means first of all that you are aware of and in touch with your emotions, you're able to manage them (rather than be ruled by them), you're aware of the dynamics of relationships and interactions with other people, and you're able to work constructively with others in service to a group. Some have defined it as a type of social intelligence, as opposed to the raw intellectual ability measured by IQ tests. Although perhaps an oversimplified example, playing well in the sandbox with others might be considered an early indicator of emotional intelligence in children - it's about how well a child manages his own emotions and those of other children.

Think about who the best leaders have been in your career experience. I'm guessing that being the smartest person in the room isn't necessarily atop your list of good leadership credentials. You more likely have valued traits or abilities such as the way the leader demonstrates care for his/her Airmen or colleagues (i.e. empathy); the fact that the leader is a good "people person"; that he or she displays a positive, optimistic outlook; and that the leader was capable of motivating you. These are manifestations of a strong emotional intelligence.

Figuring out how to define emotional intelligence and measure it has been a topic of hot debate among researchers in the field, with some advocates perceiving emotional intelligence as an ability that can be measured and improved, and others arguing that it's a personality trait that cannot be objectively measured and that resists attempts at change. While the researchers debate this, it seems prudent for the supervisor (or parent) to consider emotional intelligence something worth at least an attempt at cultivation, given its apparent significance as a marker of one's future success.

In the field of medical education, emotional intelligence is increasingly viewed as a surrogate marker for the elusive concept of "professionalism." The theory is that physicians with strong emotional intelligence skills might be perceived by their patients as better doctors, capable of cultivating more effective doctor-patient therapeutic relationships and leading more effective health care teams. Medical residency training programs are therefore beginning to focus on approaches to developing emotional intelligence as part of their curricula.

The importance of emotional intelligence in predicting workplace success suggests that we ought to be devoting more effort to assessment and cultivation of emotional intelligence in our Airmen. Many in the human resources field believe that emotional intelligence can indeed be taught, but assert that coaching strategies have proven more successful than traditional didactic methods. "Coaching" is described as the use of nonjudgmental and impartial feedback to improve performance, which is something Air Force supervisors should be engaging in regularly. In addition to discussing job performance and career mentoring at your next feedback session, consider focusing some of your efforts on discussing issues specifically related to emotional intelligence. Does the Airman accept criticism well, and if not, how can he/she work on improving that? Does the Airman manage interpersonal conflict constructively? Does the Airman demonstrate maturity in accepting accountability, or does he/she "pass the buck"? Is the Airman a good listener? Does he or she demonstrate empathy toward his or her colleagues? I'm sure many of you already touch on these concepts when you deliver feedback, but perhaps you've never considered it part of a conscious strategy aimed at improving your Airman's emotional intelligence. And perhaps discussing with your Airman the concept of emotional intelligence and its relevance to career success will help focus him or her on what you're trying to achieve - you're looking out for their best interests in coaching them on the path to career success. Achieving self-awareness is the first step towards accomplishing change and self-improvement. Helping your Airman recognize areas for improvement in his or her emotional intelligence abilities may nudge the Airman along the path to becoming a better leader, or at least a better team player.

There are other benefits to developing one's emotional intelligence abilities. In addition to a positive correlation with workplace performance, high levels of emotional intelligence have also been correlated with job satisfaction, reduced burnout and better retention, which are certainly areas of major interest to your U.S. Air Force. And measurements of emotional intelligence also correlate with improved wellness, coping skills, stress management abilities and resilience. The latter of course is the latest Air Force "buzz word" for supervisors. My wife and I have long referred to helping our children develop "shock absorbers for life." Cultivating emotional intelligence is one way of accomplishing that.

Although more detailed explanation is beyond the scope of this discussion, to improve your own emotional intelligence, or assist your Airmen or children to do so, there are five key skills to focus on: (1) learn how to quickly manage and reduce your stress, (2) improve your awareness of and self-management of emotions, (3) develop skill in connecting with others using nonverbal communication (eye contact, facial expression, tone of voice, and so on), (4) use humor to deal with challenges, and (5) learn to resolve interpersonal conflicts positively and in a constructive way. The research suggests that not only will you reap the benefits of your efforts by maximizing job performance and achieving career success, but that you (and/or your Airman) will be happier, more satisfied on the job and more resilient.

I bet it will make you a better spouse and a better parent, too.