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Karen Liebenguth


Executive and Leadership Coach & Workplace Wellbeing & Conflict Resolution

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The challenge of middle management – the role of emotional intelligence and self-compassion

How improving emotional intelligence can help create harmony in the workplace.

It’s well known that conflict in the workplace happens most often between the people who work most closely together; staff and their line manger.

Indeed, poor relationships with a line manager are often cited as one of the main reasons for job dissatisfaction and for leaving the job.

So how can we turn this statistic around? 

Middle management – the bedrock of a company

Middle managers represent a keystone in a company. They sit between the top and bottom of an organisation, a challenging position to be in as middle managers frequently get caught between conflicting demands and priorities from above and from the team they manage below.

In addition, middle managers often work in silos and feel isolated from one another when they would benefit from working together to coordinate processes and to support each other.

The higher the position of those considered star performers, the greater their level of emotional intelligence.

What’s more, the ‘middle manager’ not only has to be an expert in their field but they must also get on with everybody in their workplace and in particular with their team members, bringing out the best in each. As we all know, teams lie at the heart of an organisation and without well-functioning teams, no work gets done, no product is produced.

Intellect versus emotional intelligence

In reality, middle managers get recruited because of their particular expertise rather than their level of people skills and ‘emotional intelligence’, a term coined by psychologist David Goleman, whose book of the same name, published in 1996, was an instant bestseller and continues to be a standard text. 

To be emotionally intelligent, Goleman proposes that we have to learn and develop four core skills. These can be learned by anyone:

  1. To be self-aware - the ability to read our own emotions such as feeling anxious, angry, grumpy etc. and recognise their impact while using our intuition to guide decisions.
  2. To be able to self-manage which involves controlling our emotions and impulses (reacting versus responding) and adapting to changing circumstances.
  3. To be socially aware - the ability to sense, understand and react to others’ emotions.
  4. To be able to manage relationships - the ability to inspire, influence and develop while managing conflict and communicating compassionately.

Just how important are emotional intelligence capabilities in the workplace?

To find out how much emotional intelligence capabilities contributed to people’s performance and effectiveness in the workplace, Goleman and colleagues carried out research across more than 500 competence models across corporate companies in the US. To do this they grouped capabilities into three categories:

  • Technical skills such as accounting and business planning
  • Cognitive abilities such as strategic and analytical thinking 
  • Emotional intelligence traits such as self-awareness and relationship skills

The results of this research were remarkable. Goleman and colleagues found that the higher the position of those considered star performers within a company, the greater their level of emotional intelligence.

When the comparison matched star performers against average performers in senior leadership positions, around 85% of the difference in their profiles was attributable to emotional intelligence skills rather than to purely cognitive abilities such as technical or strategic expertise.

We need to be in a kind relationship with ourselves, as it’s not easy to connect with others if we are our own worst enemy.

It is not only at senior management levels within an organisation that emotional intelligence skills make a difference at work, however.

In a cross-sectional survey, Li-Chuan Chu of the School of Health Policy and Management, Chung Shan Medical University, Taiwan, examined 351 full time working adults employed by public and private enterprises in Taiwan.

A total of 60% of these occupied non-management positions, while 40% were managers. What they had in common was that all of them practiced mindfulness and meditation although they had different levels of mindfulness experience.

They found that those with greater and regular mindfulness practice and meditation experience demonstrated higher emotional intelligence skills, less perceived stress and less negative mental health than those who had lower levels of mindfulness practice and mediation experience.

The role of empathy and self-compassion

These studies show how crucial it is to put great emphasis on equipping staff members at all levels - and particularly middle managers because they are the ‘human connectors’ within organisations - with emotional intelligence skills.

The neural pathways in our brain can ‘mirror’ the behaviour of others – giving us the ability to empathise with others when we see people in distress or conversely, when we see someone experiencing a moment of happiness.

We can literally feel what they are feeling – although usually to a lesser extent – in our own bodies; this is because the networks in our brain that light up when we perform an action also light up when we see someone perform the same action. This gives us the capacity to sense and to simulate within our own experience other people’s actions, emotions.

However, in order to effectively connect with others, we also need to be self-aware and able to access our own thoughts and feelings. Most importantly, we need to be in a kind relationship with ourselves, as it’s not easy to connect with others if we are our own worst enemy, if we hate or dislike our own thoughts or feelings.

Kristin Neff, who specialises in the study and research of self-compassion at the University of Texas, Austin, suggests that harsh self-criticism can be countered by the cultivation of self-compassion. Kristin Neff cites three main components to self-compassion:

  1. Self-kindness – being kind and understanding towards yourself when you experience pain or failure rather than being harshly self-critical.
  2. Common humanity – seeing your experiences as part of the larger human experience, i.e. others feel like this too, rather your experience making you feel separated and isolated from others.
  3. Mindfulness – the ability to hold painful thoughts and feelings in balanced awareness; i.e. experiencing and seeing them for what they are rather than over-identifying with them.

Tips to increase your emotional intelligence

  • Pause and check-in with yourself several times a day and become aware of your thoughts and feelings. This increases your awareness of how you habitually think, feel and behave.
  • Catch yourself when you are about to react to someone or a situation at work. Pause, take three deeper breaths and use the gap to make a wiser choice of what you say or do next.
  • Practice empathy. Notice and mindfully attend to the behaviour, stance, gestures and actions of your team members and colleagues. This will give you vital clues of how to respond and communicate with understanding and compassion.
  • Make time for your team members and listen attentively to what’s going on for them. Just listening. It’s a vital ingredient to conflict resolution: when your team member feels heard and understood by you, often the conflict dissolves by itself.
  • Practice self-compassion daily. Start by listening to this short audio guided self-compassion exercises by Kristin Neff.
  • Attend a mindfulness course or get buy-in to bring a mindfulness practice into your workplace. Mindfulness practice is an effective means to develop emotional intelligence as it significantly enhances your capacity for self-awareness, empathy, rapport and connection with others.

Looking for more tips? Read How to harness emotional intelligence in a multigenerational workplace.

Author Profile Picture
Karen Liebenguth

Executive and Leadership Coach & Workplace Wellbeing & Conflict Resolution

Read more from Karen Liebenguth

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