Understanding emotional intelligence in the workplace: it’s not what you think

The value of emotional intelligence in the workplace is being promoted more than ever. Laura Rees, assistant professor of organizational behaviour at Smith School of Business, shares her key findings from her research on emotional intelligence and tips for navigating emotions at work. 

 

We’ve all heard about emotional intelligence, the ability to be aware of, manage, and express emotions — without sharing too much. Emotional intelligence is a hot topic around the water cooler these days. But there’s confusion. What does “emotional intelligence” actually mean? And how much emotion should you show at work?

When someone tells you to “manage your emotions,” what they’re really saying is suppress them. But is that always the right approach? Laura Rees, assistant professor of organizational behaviour at Smith School of Business, says no.

Laura studies emotions in the workplace. She believes feelings like anger, frustration and sadness are important and shouldn’t be overlooked. Emotions have enormous power to shape how people make decisions, she says. “It’s much better to understand them than to ignore them.” 

At BCG after university, Laura often worked with companies undergoing big changes – from disruptive strategy shifts to mergers and layoffs. Staff were naturally affected. Some got emotional, others hid their feelings. Laura began poring over psychology books to understand what was going on.

“I wanted to know more about the emotional side of humans,” she recalls. “I thought, why not understand it and leverage it?”   

Fast-forward to today, and Laura has a PhD in management and teaches negotiations, organizational behaviour, and leadership to Commerce and Masters students at Smith. Her research into emotional intelligence demonstrates the power of human expression. Among her findings:

 

Anger isn’t always negative — in fact, it can improve the outcome of a negotiation. 

While we may think anger is problematic and best left out of negotiations, Laura’s research shows that having the emotional intelligence to recognize anger in the person across the table can actually work to your advantage. 

“If someone acts angry during a negotiation, you’ll want to use this cue to ask questions and gain diagnostic information,” she says. “In some cases, anger can create value if you can use it to understand why a person is upset.”

On the other hand, countering anger with anger can often lead to more trouble. Instead, use the gathered information to ensure your side doesn’t lose out during negotiations. “Don’t let their anger result in you giving away what’s rightfully yours,” Laura says. 

 

We should all strive for ambivalence in making decisions. 

Ambivalence is defined as “the state of having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone.” When people are ambivalent, we assume they’re wishy-washy or indecisive. Yet, ambivalence is a powerful tool. Fostering ambivalence offers us the opportunity to make a more thoughtful decision—and to change our mind.

 “Ambivalence fascinates me because it can have surprisingly beneficial effects, including making you a better decision-maker,” Laura says. In class, she teaches her students to understand the benefits of keeping an open mind.

 

Emotions not only have a place in the boardroom, they are a key ingredient to a healthy workplace. 

Suppressing emotions isn’t just bad for you psychologically, it’s bad for you physically. Some neuroscience research suggests that if the parts of the brain that process emotions get damaged, the brain’s cognitive abilities are weakened as well. “While some workplaces tend to encourage suppression, it’s much more dangerous to not recognize how your emotions are affecting you,” Laura says. 

Oh, and don’t believe it when someone tells you that emotions and business shouldn’t mix. Our greatest success can come when we learn to recognize, express, and use our emotions. “Don’t judge emotions as bad or good,” Laura advises, “just learn to leverage their benefits and mitigate their downsides most effectively.”

Meet Neha Khera: From Waterloo to Silicon Valley — how she became a Partner at one of the most active venture capitalist firms in the world

Neha Khera is a Partner with 500 Startups, a Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm that is one of the most active in the world. Based in Toronto, Neha leads the firm’s investments in early-stage startups across Canada. She has been immersed in the technology industry throughout her career, starting off as a software programmer at a startup and making her way to leading tech innovation at one of Canada’s top banks. Prior to 500 Startups, Neha was with the MaRS IAF where she invested in and managed a portfolio of early-stage startups. Neha is a strong supporter of women in technology, having launched and run Girls in Tech Toronto and a TEDx Women conference for a number of years. Neha obtained an Electrical Engineering degree from the University of Waterloo and an MBA from the Richard Ivey School of Business.

My first job ever was… a cashier at Sobey’s. I loved handling money! And would mentally race the cash register to calculate the amount of change due. Too bad transactions are largely digital now. We had to memorize over a hundred codes for the various fruits/vegetables. Somehow my memory has decided to retain this knowledge. 4011 for bananas anyone? 

I decided to work in the tech industry because… it is fast-paced and ever-evolving, and no two days look the same. I’ve never set long term goals for myself career-wise, other than to do cool things in tech. That mantra has gotten me to where I am today, and I’m excited as to what new opportunities will unfold in this industry.

One misconception people have about venture capitalists is…that we have a crystal ball and can accurately predict a good business idea from bad. I always remind entrepreneurs that a VC declining to invest in their business has little to no correlation to the success of it! 

My proudest accomplishment is… doing articles like this. Or when a young girl asks me for advice on pursuing STEM or being a venture capitalist. I’m honoured to be a role model for others knowing how hard it was for myself not having a female role model when deciding to pursue Engineering.

My boldest move to date was… convincing a startup to hire me as a software developer when I was 20 years old and had zero prior coding experience. The only reason the firm invited me to interview is that they were curious as to why I had applied.

I surprise people when I tell them… I don’t use social media. I made a conscious effort to get off it as I found it was affecting my well-being. It’s been proven that social media sites today are negatively impacting our mental health, and yet it’s such a prevalent force in our society. I worry constantly about the next generation of kids.

My best advice to young girls thinking about a career in STEM is… you won’t regret it! At the root of STEM education is learning how to problem-solve, and this skill will carry you through any number of careers you wish to pursue within the wide landscape which encompasses STEM. I started my career in software development, then went on to work in hardware design, transportation, telecommunications, and banking before finally landing in venture capital.

 

“I’m honoured to be a role model for others knowing how hard it was for myself not having a female role model when deciding to pursue Engineering.”

 

My best advice from a mentor was… “Don’t focus so much on networking. Find two or three people that truly believe in you and focus on nurturing those relationships, as they will be the ones to open doors and go to bat for you throughout your entire career”.

I would tell my 20-year old self... to make smarter decisions with my money! It’s a shame our education system doesn’t teach kids about financial literacy. Perhaps I’ve found my next idea to invest in.

My biggest setback was… when my previous venture capital fund unexpectedly shut down due to unforeseen circumstances. We had spent a year fundraising, all to have it fall by the wayside.

I overcame it byI wouldn’t say I overcame it, but I dealt with it. And it left me with thicker skin. Failure is an option for me now because I know it will only make me stronger. 

If I had an extra hour in the day, I would… workout, then read. Two things I love but always get bumped when there just isn’t enough time.

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… That I used to be a dragon boater! 

I stay inspired by… doing my job! There is so much inspiration to be had a venture capitalist. You hear about people’s big ideas and dreams on a daily basis. You follow along in their journey to success or sometimes failure, and get the chance to analyze everything that went right or should have been done differently. And you’re constantly thinking about how the world works, and what could be done differently to make things better.

The future excites me becausethe next generation cares less about material possessions, and more about the environment. They want to create businesses through a diversified lens and in a sustainable way. We seem to have taught them all the right values and empowered them with technological advances to see things through. I do believe the world will see its best self yet, although I often wonder what are we doing today that people 50 years from now will look back and shake their heads at? 

My next step is… exposing my kids to the world of tech!