Why emotional intelligence matters

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why emotional intelligence matters
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No matter how academically clever and technically competent you might be, your success as a practice leader ultimately depends on how emotionally intelligent you are. By Janet Stone

There has been a revived understanding in recent years of the importance of emotional intelligence (EI) in the workplace, also known as emotional quotient (EQ). Honing your emotional intelligence can improve your working life, reduce stress and help you retain loyal and experienced staff in a competitive market as well as optimise your relationships with clients and colleagues.

Veterinary practices are typically small businesses, with 32 per cent of practices having three vets or less and 33 per cent of practices staffed with seven or fewer vets. Being emotionally intelligent in a small team where emotions can run high is important to ensure effective working relationships and a thriving business.

What is EI?

The term ‘emotional intelligence’ was coined by researchers John Mayer and Peter Salovey in 1990 who defined it as ‘the ability to perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, to understand emotions and emotional meanings, and to reflectively regulate emotions so as to promote both better emotion and thought’. 

The heart of emotional intelligence is self-awareness and awareness of others, says Associate Professor Melinda Bell, Small Animal Primary Care clinician, educator and researcher, Murdoch University. “It is the capacity to be able to recognise responses in yourself and in others to situations, and to respond appropriately to those to promote effective relationships.”

“It’s important to understand the triggers of your emotions in order to be able to manage them appropriately,” adds Dr Olivia Oginska, EQ & wellbeing coach, Human-Savvy. “What is the programming in your brain that contributes to those emotions? “It’s also our ability to investigate the emotions of other people in order to understand what ignites them. And then we can use that information to successfully navigate our personal and professional life.”

The term EI was popularised by American psychologist and author Daniel Goleman who identified four categories of emotional competence that sit within emotional intelligence. These are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. 

Leading with EI

Emotional intelligence is now understood to be a vital leadership skill. ‘EI is the rudder for feeling, thinking, learning, problem-solving, and decision-making’ stated Athanasios S. Drigas and Chara Papoutsi in their 2018 research paper ‘A New Layered Model on Emotional Intelligence’. 

“Being in a team and recognising the impact of the emotional challenges that a job in a vet practice brings to people and how that is likely to impact them is an important capability,” says A/Prof Bell. “Being able to respond and support your team members as well as manage your own stress levels and maintain your composure is really important. 

It starts with self-awareness because if you don’t know what is triggering you then when you interact with other people, someone will accidentally trigger you and you have absolutely no idea why that’s happening.

Dr Olivia Oginska, EQ & wellbeing coach, Human-Savvy

“Understanding and empathy are the super skills that I think are exceptionally important, with reflective practice being the hallmark of a really effective veterinarian,” she adds.

“The key that unlocks effective teamwork is putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes by thinking, ‘How would I be feeling if I was that person? How would I be responding?’ And rather than reacting to their responses, using empathy to observe and understand where they’re coming from.”

EI in a small team

Good communication and conflict resolution skills supported by emotional intelligence are key when working in a small veterinary team where staff work closely with each other, explains Dr Oginska. “Building psychological safety in the workplace is really important. If we feel understood, supported, valued, and able to make mistakes, we take risks and can therefore grow and learn professionally.”

Not only is emotional intelligence a critical skill for leaders, it’s also important for all team members, from new graduates to reception staff. Everyone needs to understand each other’s viewpoint as varying priorities may cause conflict within a practice, says A/Prof Bell. “For example, someone might think that the boss is all about the financial viability of the business rather than a desire to care for animals. All staff need to be able to empathise with various motivators and appreciate each other’s point of view in order to build collaborative working relationships.” 

The first step at honing your emotional intelligence is developing emotional self-awareness—understanding what ignites an emotional reaction in us, says Dr Oginska. “It starts with self-awareness because if you don’t know what is triggering you then when you interact with other people, someone will accidentally trigger you and you have absolutely no idea why that’s happening.”

EI in practice

Emotional intelligence and good teamwork are essential for business success, believes A/Prof Bell. “If you have a business where there is no effective teamwork and unhappy staff leave, then you’ve got to recruit someone else, get them integrated into the team and teach them your ways—and that’s a very time-consuming and costly thing to do.”

“For a happy and loyal team everyone needs to be going to work feeling that they are appreciated, knowing that they are valued, knowing that you as an individual are respected and that your work is respected.”

Autonomy is essential in enjoying your work, A/Prof Bell continues. “To have some level of self-determination that you can make some decisions, you can contribute and that you feel that you are valued is pivotal to workplace satisfaction.

“A highly functioning team works really effectively together, understands each other and their strengths and weaknesses. If you have a team that is really effective, then it’s only going to be effective because there is good emotional intelligence among the members in the team.”

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