4 December 2019

Emotional Intelligence: Much more than just your feelings

by Kevin Tan Tee Liang

Today’s generation of graduates will enter into the workforce knowing their first official employment has a diminished stranglehold over their future. Undoubtedly, a well-designed business degree should prepare students for its intended profession. However, higher education institutions are also well aware of the responsibility to equip students with suitable, transferrable skills that enables graduates to be adaptive and flexible in preparing for a lifetime of changing careers

Commonly known as soft skills, the top rated few are usually communication skills, critical thinking and problem solving abilities. In addition to cognitive and technical abilities, these are precisely the skills heavily sought after by employers. If some were honest, they might even admit to preferring applicants with these abilities over the traditional academic excellence.

Though one graduate to another may possess varying skill proficiencies, mastery of these hardly guarantees success. If neither grades nor abilities determine results, then what does? Seasoned practitioners would confidently point toward wisdom, born out of experience. A supposed secret ingredient many fresh graduates lack.

Whilst wisdom may be true and invaluable, we know all too well however that experience alone is unreliable to determine maturity. We have come across cases of those ‘well beyond their age’ and that of ‘old dogs not learning new tricks’ to know that age does not represent progress.

Amongst all of these uncertainties however, lies something each and every one of us already possesses. Our emotions.

It is the one commonality that gives you joy and sorrow, taste of sweetness and bitterness, fuels your strength and despair. Lest we forget, the very skills we are urged to sharpen to overcome life’s obstacles more often than not (if not always), involve people. Dealing with emotions are in truth both inevitable and eventual.

Nevertheless, this is not new. Many proclaim the importance of emotional intelligence (EQ), though very few truly understand what it is in essence and the importance of its development.  To aptly illustrate this, a recent forum was organised to discuss key career skills. Emotional intelligence, listed as it was, received hardly a mention.

Its description of ‘having the heart in what we do’ paled in comparison to the other better understood and measurable attributes. It is such over-simplification that conveniently leads us to further gross misrepresentations.

This misconception remains a factor why women today continue having to battle perceptions that they are less suited for leadership responsibilities. Life in upper management filled with tough decisions are a man’s world it seems, particularly when hard decisions can be made with emotional detachment.

At best, that is the classic corporate leadership for you, claiming to be attentive and caring for employees one day before being ruthless another. At worst, look up what makes a psychopath.

In short, EQ is neither being devoid of emotions nor giving it full control of your actions. Refrain from the nonchalant depictions by commercial writers that would associate it with anything and everything, just to sell a book. Being emotionally intelligent is not about opting for it over cognitive intelligence (IQ) but rather, acknowledging that they should work in tandem.

For a precise and concise representation of what EQ really is, scientific research has narrowed it down to one’s ability to recognise and manage the emotions of one’s self and that of others. Simply put – self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy and assertiveness. How this transpires as wisdom to accompany an individual’s skillsets is by complimenting their ability with applicability or suitability.

Being a proficient speaker and problem-solver does not necessary entail that one should immediately propose a multitude of solutions. It may instead be favourable to comprehend the emotions entangled within the issue or persons involved and determine that lending an ear, is the wiser communication response.

EQ equips us with a heightened sense of engagement for our interactions with others, allowing us to form better informed judgments and the appropriate actions. Assessing the emotional reactions of our counterparts can assist in acknowledging the fine line between inquisitive and interrogative questioning. Differentiating from personal to professional accepted behaviours.

Business students at Swinburne are made aware of the importance of these highly sought after employability skills. Through a series of self-assessments and reflective exercises, they are gradually exposed to the importance of emotional intelligence in managing both their personal branding and future careers. Accepting the emotions in our lives allows us to progressively embrace trials, errors and failures for critical yet continuous development.

To illustrate and summarise this, a group activity we often run, is a post-plane crash survival scenario in an unknown freezing wilderness location. Couple of the items in their possession, amongst others, are a map and a compass. Some students with the know-how to utilise these will usually decide to take off to seek help, armed with a tool for self-defence and some provisions.

Those without the navigation skills are disadvantaged, so usually just tag along. Everyone usually ends up having a laugh listening to the different decisions opted by various groups.

However, the students eventually realise what the few key takeaway lessons are. These decisions were made without having to experience the emotions and harsh realities the actual scenario would pose. Reacting and problem-solving without the influence of fear, panic, self-doubt, anger and despair is easy, but often unrealistic and impractical.

A less obvious but bigger lesson is to never let our skills and abilities cloud our judgment. Crash victims actually have a higher chance of surviving by staying put and waiting for a search and rescue team to come to their aid. It is often the lack of trust and faith in the emotional bond with others that leave us vulnerable.

In a people-driven business world, it is crucial to be aware that we are rarely alone when faced with struggles. When (not if) that day comes, our emotional connections will be our true strength and wisdom.

Kevin Tan Tee Liang is an accounting lecturer from the Faculty of Business, Design and Arts at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He can be reached via email at ktan@swinburne.edu.my.