Making Emotional Intelligence Work

July 1, 1999
Training employees on the topic of emotional intelligence isn’t the same as plopping people down in front of computer screens and teaching them how to use, say, Microsoft Office 2000 . Teaching someone to be emotionally competent can be a long process, taking weeks of time, hours of practice and lots of patience and coaching. It’s an endeavor that invades personal territory while improving professional performance. In short, it’s an adventure into both the heart and the mind. Many organizations that take the plunge experience many positive benefits, for employees and for their organizations.

EI training is an emerging trend.
Emotional intelligence training is just now blipping on the training radar screen. "It’s so small that we’re not really picking it up," says Laurie Bassi, vice president of research and enterprise solutions at the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), based in Alexandria, Virginia. So far, training that’s specifically pegged as "emotional intelligence" hasn’t emerged as a category, although aspects of soft-skills training, such as interpersonal communications, have been on the training agenda for years.

Yet Bassi sees it as a growing category. Daniel Goleman, the EI guru and author of Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (Bantam Books, 1995) and Working with Emotional Intelligence (Bantam Books, 1998), spoke at ASTD’s recent conference in Atlanta, Georgia.

Although there’s growing interest in the topic, corporate trainers, in general, aren’t pouncing on emotional-intelligence training over other skill areas. "What people are saying and what they’re actually doing are two different things," notes Bassi. "If you ask HR people, they’ll say, ‘These skills are more necessary than ever. We give them high priority.’" Yet, from ASTD’s measurements on what training activities companies are spending the most money on, it’s primarily technical and computer-related skills. "That may be because the demands for computer literacy and skills are even more overwhelming right now," adds Bassi.

According to The Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations—which was founded in 1996 in conjunction with Goleman and the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey—there are thousands of consultants and HR professionals who are engaged in efforts to promote social and emotional competencies in employees.

The mission of the Consortium, whose members are from such organizations as American Express Financial Advisors, Johnson & Johnson and Egon Zehnder International, is to aid the advancement of research and practice related to emotional intelligence in organizations. Its mandate is to study all that is known about EI in the workplace, including identifying ways in which EI may traditionally have been taught as soft skills, but can now be identified under other rubrics, such as management and executive development, stress management and diversity courses.

The Consortium has identified 14 empirically supported models of best practice for developing emotional intelligence in the workplace. The Consortium also has developed a set of practice guidelines for organizations that want to excel in this area. (Find these models and guidelines at the Consortium’s Web site at The guidelines are based on an exhaustive review of the research on training and development in organizations, behavior change, and social and emotional learning.

Different than other types of training.
Although emotional intelligence training comprises the best of any other good training program, there are important differences. This material isn’t touchy-feely, EST-like fluff. Social and emotional learning is different from cognitive and technical learning, and it requires a different approach to training and development. Developing emotional competence requires learners to unlearn old habits of thought, feeling and action that are deeply ingrained and learn new ones. Such a process takes motivation, effort, time, support and sustained practice.

"It’s fundamentally about behavior change," says Kate Cannon, president of Kate Cannon & Associates, Inc., based in Minneapolis. It’s similar to other kinds of soft-skills training, but it’s very different from technical training.

And in EI training, it’s often good to give learners time during the training for a fair amount of personal time. "This kind of training is often new to them, so it’s important for them to have moments of down time not only when they learn, but when they’re able to reflect on what they’re learning and what the impact is on them," says Cannon. "Some people may think that’s a waste of time." But she explains that because it’s important for people to absorb this material and get to points of mastery with it, it can take longer for people to "get it" than other types of training. Even when people may understand the material cognitively, it can take some time for them to be able to internalize it and change their behavior.

Basic elements of good EI training.
According to The Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations, the optimal process for developing EI in organizations is by following these four steps: 1) preparing for change, 2) training, 3) transfer and maintenance and 4) evaluating change.

A good training program on this topic should have all the elements of a good adult-learning program, such as appealing to different learning styles. A typical program might incorporate visual, sensory, auditory and interactive elements—such as role playing and group discussion.

When Cannon trains a group in EI, she sticks to three basic elements: theory, practice and application. That means she provides the background on what EI is and why it’s important in the workplace, she teaches skills people can use to become more emotionally intelligent, and finally, she helps people apply those tools to their own situations and needs. Training sessions on emotional intelligence can range from a few hours to one day sessions, and up to five days, spread out over several weeks.

Much of emotional-competence training centers around giving people techniques to deal with emotions in the workplace, especially negative ones. "Emotions are quick things," says Byron Stock, president of Byron Stock and Associates in St. Joseph, Michigan. Stock describes himself as a "recovering engineer" who’s been in the training arena for 15 years, and three years exclusively training people in emotional intelligence. "You have to give people techniques that help people deal with emotions quickly and easily." For instance, in some of his training sessions, he teaches people a skill called "Freeze Frame" (Freeze Frame is a registered trademark of the Institute of HeartMath). It’s a five-step process that, once mastered, can help people deal with stress and anxiety in a matter of a few seconds. The skill, in a nutshell, goes like this: 1) Recognize the stressful feeling and FREEZE FRAME(R) it! Take a time out. 2) Make a sincere effort to shift your focus away from the racing mind or disturbed emotions to the area around your heart. Pretend you're breathing through your heart to help focus your energy in this area. Keep your focus there for 10 seconds or more. 3) Recall a positive, fun feeling or positive time you've had and attempt to reexperience it. 4) Using your intuition, common sense, and sincerity, ask your heart what would be a more efficient response to the situation, one that will minimize future stress? 5) Listen to what your heart says in answer to your question.

Practicing this skill can help people not only become more focused, it also helps change their physiological responses to stress, such as lowering blood pressure and slowing down heart rate. In the workplace, this type of technique can help people move from being constantly anxious to feeling more in control, more creative and less judgmental of co-workers and bosses. Productivity often goes up in people who’ve taken EI training, and people tend to enjoy themselves and others at work more.

Small-group training works best.
Emotional intelligence training works best in small groups; usually 15 to 25 people is optimal. As with other training that only needs cerebral or intellectual involvement, EI training thrives on group interaction that can only come with a smaller group. Although such training isn’t intended to be team building, that’s often one important outcome. Team building is especially powerful in groups of employees who work together closely, as opposed to groups of people from the same company who don’t know each other. "In my experience, the very best impact is when you have an intact group," says Cannon, "because when people don’t know each other, you don’t have quite the same level of trust where people really jump in and participate."

Practice, practice, practice.
It’s important for students to practice what they learn during sessions, between sessions and after the formal training is over.

Assignments between sessions reinforce the training so students continue building their skills. For example, a typical assignment might be for employees to practice the skill of self-disclosure—which is talking about yourself to develop or sustain a relationship, especially a business relationship.

A manager from one of Cannon’s classes practiced this skill during a performance review at which he had to give feedback to a direct report about developing a particular area that the employee was unhappy about. Through self-disclosure, the manager talked about how at one point in his career, he also got feedback he wasn’t happy with, but that he trusted his boss’s judgment and took the advice to heart. Later, he began to develop in the area his boss had suggested, and it was exactly the area he needed to get his career moving. The self-disclosure technique was useful because he wasn’t telling the employee how to think or feel, but through his own story, communicated what the successful outcome was for him.

Between sessions, Stock typically calls his students to check on how they’re doing. People tend to practice what they’ve just learned more if they know someone’s checking up on them. But also, Stock feels that this material hits people at a more personal level than most organizational training, and often requires a higher degree of personal contact to reinforce the training. People often have questions about how to incorporate the material into their work lives. They also typically need someone who cares about their progress. Having an EI coach helps that process along.

"These skills aren’t learned instantly," says Bassi. "They take time. And they need reinforcement."

Training with impact.
Emotional intelligence training often has dramatic effects. Stock says that before training one management group at a large telecommunications company, as a group, they rated themselves 45 percent on a "stress" scale. After the training, that rate plummeted to 39 percent. Because the rating was on a normative scale, these results are more like a 20 to 25 percent drop. "People generally feel more peaceful, have less sleeplessness, have fewer headaches and feel more empowered," says Stock.

Companies that care about their employees often position this type of training as an employee benefit or perk. Many HR staffs realize that their organizations are placing ever-increasing demands on their workers. This is a way for companies to give employees a coping mechanism.

The training also has prompted many employees to make other positive changes in their health, such as eating better and exercising more. Many workers see a positive impact on their careers—especially those who weren’t able to deal well with other people before the training. Employees report feeling more in control on the job dealing with their own emotional reactions to events and people, and say they’re able to handle stress better.

On the company-impact side, organizations can experience lower health-care expenditures and lower turnover. Although EI can be viewed as soft skills, it can translate into some hard results, such as sales people who can create better and more trusting relationships with clients, customer-care representatives who can more effectively handle angry customers, and engineers who can deal not only with the technical aspects of their jobs, but also interact sensibly with co-workers.

Empathy, flexibility and self-confidence might not seem like they’re skills that would help a company improve the bottom line, but many organizations are finding that these are the things that build and sustain competitive advantage.

Advice when looking for EI training.
As with buying the services of any trainer, make sure you exercise the same caution when looking for a trainer to teach emotional intelligence. Does the trainer have the proper credentials? Can he or she demonstrate results? "I don’t think this should be treated any differently than any other purchase of skills," says Bassi of ASTD. "Except the track record may be harder for a trainer to establish because it’s a hot topic." Few trainers have a long history of experience in this area.

In addition, make sure that you or the trainer measures the effects of the training. ASTD surveyed 35 highly regarded "benchmark" companies in October 1997, and found that of the 27 companies that said they tried to promote emotional competence through training and development, more than two-thirds made no attempt to evaluate the effect of these efforts. Yet, according to the Consortium, EI training can be, and is being, measured effectively. The Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations estimates that between $5.6 16.8 million are being wasted each year on programs that don’t follow their established guidelines for implementation. Employers who offer or require EI training should attempt to measure its effectiveness as with any other type of training.

Workforce, July 1999, Vol. 78, No. 7, pp. 68-71. The Freeze Frame (R) technique is from the book "From Chaos to Coherence" by Doc Childre and Bruce Cryer (Butterworth Heinemann 1999.