Emotional Intelligence and Project Management

Most project managers have read, at one point of another, that Emotional Intelligence (EI) is considered a key factor for the success of a project. In this post I start by considering what Emotional Intelligence is and what it brings to project management. Secondly, I will reflect on the dramatic changes brought about by COVID-19 to working conditions and its impact on project management. Finally, I look at how project managers can use EI as a tool to increase satisfaction and resilience within a team, at times of upheaval and uncertainty such as those experienced during COVID-19.

What Do Ancient Greek Philosophers Have To Do With Emotional Intelligence?

The idea that emotional intelligence exists has always been difficult to accept. To start, ancient Greeks philosophers such as Aristotle considered emotions unpredictable, therefore incompatible with rational thinking; an unequivocal expression of true intelligence. Furthermore, rationality was almost exclusively a male quality. Women were emotional! One does not need to be highly intelligent to see in Aristotle’s thinking the beginning of gender stereotyping.

Does Emotional Intelligence Actually Exist?

The Greeks theory that intelligence was synonymous with logical rationale remained unchallenged for nearly two millennia. It is not until 1983 that psychologist H. Gardner revolutionised the traditional concept of intelligence when he defined seven forms of intelligence, including “intrapersonal intelligence” which later was used by other theorists to develop the concept of emotional intelligence, among them Daniel Goleman, one of the first psychologists to bring the concept of EI to the public.

Although interest in research and knowledge about emotional intelligence has experienced tremendous growth there remains no single definition that satisfies all scholars. To make matters worse, not all theorists are convinced of the legitimacy of its existence. Difficulties with finding a definition that satisfy all scholars stem from the fact that some consider it an ability that helps to generate and understand emotions of great importance for social functioning whilst others theorise that emotional intelligence is a set of personality traits that explain why some people succeed. For this latter group, the emphasis is in understanding and acquiring the psychological attributes and competences that people who are emotionality intelligent display. At a more mundane level, research on emotional intelligence is the basis of many self-help books about how to become a good leader or a millionaire. The message behind this literature is that a lot of what we learn comes from watching other people fail or copying their behaviour when they succeed.

How Did Emotional Intelligence Become Integrated Into Project Management?

In organisations, leadership matters. It is not surprising that emotional intelligence arrived in project management through studies of different styles of leadership that theorised that skilful managers capable of inspiring their work force with commitment displayed many traits and abilities associated with high levels of emotional intelligence. Since then, emotional intelligence has been considered a desirable attribute for any project leader. The reason being that researchers found that it predisposes managers to use a range of supportive behaviours to get things done (such as delegating, clarifying, asking for input and mentoring); behaviours that contribute not only to increase job satisfaction among workers but more importantly to increase leaders’ effectiveness within their organisations.

What Does Emotional Intelligence Add to Project Management?

The importance of emotional intelligence to project management lies in that in contrast to traditional management where the leader gives directives, sets timelines and priorities and rewards the workforce accordingly, a management style that uses and understands workers’ emotions make them feel valued, which in turn facilitates alignment with the organisation goals. There is recognition that this type of leadership style defined by Burns as “transformational” helps leaders to deal with issues of for example, increased diversity and heterogeneous workforce to name a couple.

“Transformational” management is heavily influenced by external factors such as the type of organisation, its goals and objectives. Drawing from my experience I think the transformational leadership is well suited for civil society organisations concerned with the greater good of society and where workers and volunteers personally identify with the mission of the organisation. I believe that in this setting, project leaders do not have to choose between one or the other as they move along a fluid continuum which allows them to benefit from both management styles. Often the project leader will rely heavily on the traditional management style to deliver expected outcomes quickly and effectively whilst praising and inspiring the workforce to remain focussed on the organisation’s mission.

Challenges Project Management Faces Today

The shift from office to working from home is considered one of the ways in which COVID-19 has changed the working conditions of millions of office workers. The practice has introduced uncertainty for many workers; for example, my house is very noisy, will I be able to adjust? Although many industries do not foresee working from home becoming a long-term option, to me the process of successfully leading a team working from home to achieve its goals in a timely fashion requires a good dose of emotional intelligence. But how do project managers learn to build rapport when face-to-face contact is not possible? And what about emotions; can project managers use virtual team conferences to enthuse and inspire workers who lack perseverance in the face of setbacks due to changes in the industry, office closures etc?

Tips on How to Respond to the Challenge of Managing a Remote Team

Expanding our understanding of our own emotions and that of others is the basis for empathy. Without empathy we will not be able to give workers the feeling that they are understood by management and that we are capable of visualising needs and expectations arising as a result of working from home.

Another key word is flexibility and by that, I mean being willing to accept that working outside the traditional 9 to 5 working hours is a way of showing empathy, for example to women who continue to juggle office work with the majority of childcare and housework. Independently of the worker’s gender, moving video-calls from morning to the evening when the children are already in bed can be less stressful for parents. A simple gesture that conveys both, appreciation for the fact that s/he has transformed her living room into an office and recognition for the untold sacrifices our colleague has made in order to work from home. The key concept here is empathy, which is the basis for rapport.

A lesson the pandemic is teaching us is to value small things associated with the traditional office environment. Keeping moral high among workers working from home is a challenge. Without a doubt business phone calls are not the ideal medium for building close relationships as they focus on specific work issues. Work calls are not social calls nor about gossip and yet managers need to find ways to encourage workers to confide about their feelings or any difficulties arising as a result of working from home which impacts on his/her performance.

Giving workers this emotional space is not easy. It requires not only building rapport but willingness to develop personal connexions. It also demands that project managers feel comfortable using soft skills such as offering emotional support to those whose productivity is affected as a result of struggling with social isolation.

In my experience finding a way to end the call with casual remarks about something trivial for example a TV shows can, with time and patience, prepare the ground to those occasions when we are ready to start sharing feelings and experiences. Although phone calls are not a substitute for office gossip or casual comments embedded in the office buzz, nevertheless they should be considered as a route to develop new opportunities to show that we value the contributions that each worker brings to the team.

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