Ben Palmer is one of the foremost experts in the field of emotional intelligence. With a background in psychology, he has developed a skill set focused primarily on the way awareness of our own emotional state and the emotional state of others can help us to be happier and more productive in the workplace.
He is employed by some of the world’s leading organisations to provide training and assistance to management and staff, with the goal of improving emotional intelligence on both the organisational and interpersonal level.
Does it work? Hell yeah, it does. Ben says we can be better leaders, make better decisions, enjoy our relationships more, improve our physical wellbeing and generally live balanced lives – simply by being aware of how we feel.
After all, no matter how clear-headed, rational and analytical we believe we are, there’s no avoiding our emotions or the emotions of the people around us. The best practice, according to the expert, is to lean into those feelings, become more aware of our emotional states and ultimately gain a deeper understanding of what drives us to behave and think the way we do.
What is emotional intelligence and how does it differ from other kinds of intelligence like your IQ?
Emotional intelligence is about a set of skills to do with how well you understand and identify and manage emotions within yourself and within others. And they’re particularly important because the way we feel influences three fundamental aspects of ourselves. Firstly, the way we feel influences our thoughts and the decisions that we make. And we see emotions influencing decisions at the moment in the community around toilet paper and soap and all sorts of things.
The way we feel also influences our behaviour. If you think about it, our emotions show up in our tone of voice, in our facial expressions, in our body language. Because of this, they’re fundamental to how we connect, communicate and collaborate with each other. And finally, the way you feel influences the way you perform. People in organisations who feel valued, cared for, consulted, informed, understood often outperform workplaces where people feel worried, concerned, stressed and uncared for.
How does a large organisation like BHP or Amazon show employees that they are cared for and valued? What are some of the techniques and methods that they can employ?
In my world, we talk about the organisation itself and the mindsets and leadership behaviours. On the organisation itself, the things that make people feel valued and cared for and so on are things like flexible working practices, diversity policies that actually mean something and are put into place. Being able to go and take your son to the doctor when you need to. That flexibility and diversity along with other things that organisations put in place to help look after the physical health of their employees, things like gyms and good food to eat.
It’s also about the leadership behaviours in your organisation and how they’re demonstrated at a macro-level. It might be asking for your opinion on a decision that you’re about to make. It might be saying good morning to you in the morning. It might be acknowledging the way things are impacting how we feel. Right now, I think good leaders, for example, will be getting their staff together and just checking in and saying, “Hey, are you okay?” They’re the micro-leadership behaviours related to emotional intelligence that lead to people feeling valued and cared for.
Do you think businesses will be more or less interested in emotional intelligence training during, and in the aftermath of, the COVID-19 crisis?
I think there’ll be an upturn. We’re a little bit privileged to be working in a space at the moment because organisations are reaching out wanting to boost the psychological resilience of their people. And emotional intelligence is one of those things that relates to how well we manage stress, how we manage anxiety and fear that’s created by the uncertainty of the virus.
What are the benefits of being emotionally intelligent?
Number one, you make better decisions in life because you’re aware of the way you feel and how your feelings can bias the decisions that you make. So, at a real macro-level, you might not toot someone in the traffic, even though you might really feel like doing it because you know that you’re about to roll up to the next traffic lights and it could be either a really embarrassing situation or one that’s dangerous to your physical health.
Second, it makes a difference to the way you behave. And if you’re self-aware and aware of the way others feel you can become more connected and have better quality relationships with others.
The quality of our relationships is very predictive of our mortality. Being lonely is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. You are 50 per cent more likely to die prematurely from loneliness than many other things related to your physical health. The way you feel, and your emotional intelligence is really beneficial because it’s helping you in those two very important parts of life. Making great decisions. Having great relationships.
Being ‘emotional’ is often regarded as a negative trait. The opposite of rational and clear-headed. Why do you think this is?
There was a mindset in business, 30 or 40 years ago, that we should leave our emotions with the raincoat in the locker on the way into work and pick them up on the way out.
Then there is a paradox: stopping and thinking about emotions in decision-making helps you make good decisions. But being emotional in decision-making will lead to poor decisions.
We often hear, “Cool, crisp, clear thinking should not be sullied by emotion,” and that’s very true. Equally as true is, we should stop and think about the way we feel because if we don’t, we’ll make bad decisions. Like we’re seeing in the community at the moment, panic buying toilet paper. It’s really creating large difficulties right across the community and wasn’t necessary.
Another thing I’ve found is emotionally intelligent people pick up on what’s appropriate for the context. They might be emotional at work, but they’ll be effectively emotional at work. If you’re a grumpy Gus who’s just moping around creating misery for everyone, that’s not what we want in workplaces and that’s not what emotional intelligence is either. Emotional intelligence really, by definition, is being intelligent about the way we feel and using our emotions to intelligently make decisions and behave.
What does an emotionally unintelligent person look like? How do they behave in the workplace or in personal relations?
David Brent in the BBC mockumentary, The Office, personifies what emotionally unintelligent behaviour looks like in the office. John McEnroe personified what it looked like on the tennis court. He would like to have us believe that he was more deliberate about it, but I don’t buy that for a second.
In the workplace, unemotionally intelligent leaders blame others. They often use emotions to create fear. They might say something they’re grateful for that no-one really connects with. They’re disconnected, if you like, from the way staff are feeling on the ground, and how their own actions are contributing to that.
David Brent in the BBC mockumentary, the office personifies what emotionally unintelligent behaviour looks like in the office.
How does a person go from being emotionally unintelligent to emotionally intelligent?
First, a 360 feedback assessment where you’re getting feedback anonymously from some peers that work around you, from your manager, from your direct reports, is fundamental to the beginning of that journey. Like David Brent, if you take 100 people randomly off the street and ask them, “How emotionally intelligent do you think you are?” Most of them will say, “A bit above average.” It’s actually a quite well-known, established psychological phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger effect. People significantly overrate how emotionally intelligent they are. And, actually, some people who are very emotionally intelligent underrate it in themselves.
In terms of developing emotional intelligence, an assessment’s really critical to help ground people and help someone like David Brent understand they’re very disconnected from the way people feel. When it’s in black and white, when it’s in
a report, when it’s on paper, that’s very confronting for some people but very necessary in getting them to stop and take a good look in the mirror.
Then from there, you have to start teaching people simple behaviours to help them be more emotionally intelligent. So, at the beginning of a meeting, for example, just go around and check in with people and say, “How are you feeling? What’s something great that’s happened to you this week and what’s something that’s worrying you?”
Are there gender differences that you’ve seen in the quality or frequency of emotional intelligence?
Women do tend to be more emotionally intelligent. Particularly in the self-awareness and empathy-awareness of others domain.
And why do you think that is?
I don’t know with any scientific proof but I think it has to do with women’s capacity to raise children. Maybe there’s something in-built in the biology of women that makes them better at receiving and understanding emotions in others. I think also, that it’s not just that. Women, generally, over the ages, perhaps less so now – I think we’re getting better balance with this – but certainly in our very recent history, have been more socialised to carry out that kind of aspect in the family, in the community, and in life in general.
How do you test emotional intelligence?
One is through written tests that are like IQ tests. They give you insight into degrees of actual emotional intelligence. The underlying level of ability. The second way is to test it through personality. I don’t like that particular way. They ask questions like, “Do you prefer to talk freely about the way you feel at parties? Do you feel you manage your emotions effectively?” I think the best way to measure it is through behaviour, and that’s the approach we take. So, we look at whether you actually demonstrate emotionally intelligent behaviour. Do you ask others how they feel? Can you make others feel appreciated when necessary? Do you anticipate people’s reactions to things?
Can we get three quick tips that people can use to become more emotionally aware and intelligent?
Yes, absolutely. The first, I would say is to stop and reflect on the way you feel often and detecting that with others and be more mindful and conscious of the way you feel.
The second titbit I have for people is to engage in mindfulness meditation. I think that’s an excellent way of putting a distance between your emotions and the reactions you have to them. What mindfulness does is just help you make better choices around your feelings.
And the third tip that I would have would be on the management of our emotions, particularly for what’s going on now with COVID-19.
Engage in things that make you feel different emotions. And it doesn’t just have to be positive. I think it’s good in life to experience emotions because they help you reflect and think about your life. For example, this might sound ridiculous to you, but I love watching America’s Got Talent because it moves me. I’m progressive in my politics. I love listening to Alan Jones in the car on the way to work in the morning because he frustrates me. And I like the experience of those emotions and using them as a way of reflecting and thinking about my own values and beliefs and how I’m coming across to people.
I talk about the good, the bad and the ugly, and how necessary it is not to avoid negative emotions, but to lean into them, and to experience them in safe ways and safe formats, but also to make sure you’ve got balance in life.
How can people learn more about emotional intelligence?
There is so much information on the internet in general and on our website, genosinternational.com. And if you’d really like to experience something, at the moment, we’ve got a series of free webinars coming up on how to measure your psychological resilience and how to understand your emotions more in the COVID-19 environment. And our website is a great resource. We’ve also got a YouTube channel, and that’s probably the best place for people to go just to start learning more about our particular approach to it.