Emotional Intelligence Matters

Walking through Atlanta’s Little Five Points neighborhood is a Saturday ritual for me. From Moreland Avenue, I find my usual table in the corner of Sevananda Natural Foods Market and observe the steady flow of eclectic patrons pouring into the iconic store. I’ve been visiting Sevananda since the early 90’s and the experience has always been the same. Every staff member greets me as if they have known me for years. Like Apple and Starbucks, Sevananda has mastered the art of emotional intelligence in a truly organic way to make customers feel welcomed and appreciated. Success isn’t solely about pricing, products and promotions. It also depends on people skills and positive interactions. Hiring and retaining staff with high levels of emotional intelligence and maturity is critical to the success of any business or brand.

Barack Obama was a master of demonstrating emotional intelligence. As president, he understood the impact of small gestures in conveying humility and empathy. Several years ago I read about the handwritten notes then President Obama would write to people thanking them for their letters and encouragement. What a great way to connect with people and show them that their voices matters. In seeing the dedication of my faculty and staff, I’ve taken it upon myself to borrow this approach, making more time this year to write personal, handwritten acknowledgements of their outstanding efforts to create an amazing learning environment for our kids. Taking the time to handwrite these notes is a pause in my day to focus on the positive efforts of my team. Helping others to see that their efforts haven’t gone unnoticed is one way of conveying empathy and strengthening collective commitment to a common cause. As an elementary administrator, I can recall a school secretary at Larchmont Elementary in Tacoma, WA who radiated positivity and demonstrated a high degree of emotional intelligence in her role. Mrs. Artero greeted every customer as if they’d been childhood friends. In every problem she saw a solution and worked to show compassion about a sick or injured child or a death in a family. She set the tone for all of the interactions in the school because hers was the first interaction. Never did we receive a complaint about her customer service because she understood that her role was not to win arguments, but to win over customers. She understood the cardinal rule of interactions: first impressions matter more than any others.

A Kase Study

He was 9 years old and it was his first year at our school. I’d heard his name mentioned several times as “one to watch” in 4th grade. “Kase”. I kept hearing this name and seeing this name on discipline referrals. It was a Friday afternoon and I saw a commotion in the cafeteria. I approached 5 students and asked, “What’s going on?”. Everyone got silent. One laughed. I asked, “What’s your name?” He said, “Kase”. Ah…it was my first encounter with the new scholar. He continued laughing. I asked him to come with me. He refused. I asked him to come with me two more times. He refused. Finally, I told him that refusing to do what an adult asks is not acceptable. He could either come with me or end up with a more severe consequence for non-compliance. Once in my office I began explaining to Kase that I’ve been hearing his name and reading the discipline referrals about his behavior in class. I explained that I was going to call his mother and we would have to discuss next steps. I immediately called his mom and she said that she would be at the school in ten minutes. It seemed more like five minutes and she was in my office with her hands in his chest saying “What is this about? Huh?” She asked him to wait outside as we talked. Tearfully, she went on to explain how she’d endured years of domestic violence and that Kase had been a witness to much of it at the hands of his father. She shared experiences of living out of her car, losing everything, and rebuilding over time. She talked about how she prayed that he could attend a school like ours and what this meant to her and to him. She shared that he had expressed feeling rage and having nightmares. I suggested that she look into family counseling as a way to confront the many emotions swirling within her and within Kase. Our task as a school is to identify families and students like Kase who need support and connect them with resources to address the mental health issues that impede learning and healing. The obsession with test scores and school ratings misses this key factor that determines student and school success.

Looming Storm Clouds

The “Kase’s” of the world eventually become adults. Is there someone on your job who is constantly in conflict with people? Is there a customer who visits your business and always has a complaint about the service? You ask yourself, “Why do they continue to return to an establishment where they can’t seem to find anything that meets their standards of excellence?” Why do they continue to do a job that they obviously loathe? Working in public education brings me in contact with many interesting personalities. I find that many of the people I encounter who seem to have chaotic lives lack emotional intelligence. The spiral of conflict is not isolated to their workplace. It is pervasive like a cancer in every aspect of their lives. The last year is a graveyard of their burned relationships and interactions. Wherever they go, storm clouds seem to loom overhead, pulling innocent bystanders into the perpetual storms that follow these unfortunate souls. Some roles, where interactions with the public are paramount for the successful branding of the company, require even higher levels of emotional intelligence. So what is it?

Emotional Intelligence Defined

Emotional intelligence includes self-awareness, managing emotions, showing empathy, and learning the arts of cooperation. I’ve witnessed firsthand members of my team who have mastered the art of cooperation and customer service. It seems innate to them because they truly understand and love interacting with people. Mrs. Crowe-Harris is an example of an educator who just gets it when it comes to interacting with the public. By day she is a highly regarded classroom teacher whose reputation is such that parents request and demand that their children be placed in her classroom based on the accounts of other parents. In the afternoon, she transitions to the role of the director of our after school program. With finesse, she changes from the role of the classroom teacher to a teacher leader managing customer service, payroll, payments, and parent concerns. She is able to navigate the emotional gauntlet of showing empathy, holding people accountable, and not taking things personally. From my office I can hear her skillfully deescalating a potential problem by saying, “Ok Mom, here is what happened…Now, this is what we are going to do because we have made it very clear to him what the expectation is…” Parents can’t help but respect that level of emotional fortitude and empathy.

In my most recent book, The Mountain Principles, I wrote about my experience at the barbershop Groomzmen on Euclid Avenue in Atlanta. The way the barbers connect with their customers is essential to their business model. The conversation, the attention to detail, and the willingness to invest time into building trust matter in successful businesses.

What is it about people like Mrs. Artero, Mrs. Crowe-Harris and the barbers at Groomzmen that sets them apart from others who lack emotional intelligence? They understand that people are coming from a wide range of emotional perspectives. Customers want to be made to feel welcomed and understood. Customers want to interact with people who possess the emotional maturity to know that every comment or action is not a personal attack. Employees with emotional intelligence understand how to balance holding others and themselves accountable. They are able to convey empathy because being emotionally intelligent human being means putting your own ego aside most of the time. On the other hand, people who lack emotional intelligence seem to find fault with everyone else. When communication goes haywire, it’s always someone else’s fault. Even when they receive the same feedback from family, friends, and supervisor, they are unable to take any ownership of the issue.

This summer, all of the principals in our district attended a Summer Leadership Retreat where the focus was on Mental Health Awareness. The sessions all centered around the mental health issues that permeate urban communities. There is so much trauma that funnels into the doors of urban schools on Monday mornings.

  • A mother shares that her son never gets to spend time with his father. The father makes promises and never keeps them. At school the boy acts out his aggression on his classmates and his teacher.
  • A staff member gets little attention from her spouse and arrives at work displaying attention-seeking behaviors to any males who pass her by: teachers, parents, and visitors.
  • A teacher feels unfulfilled in her role as a classroom teacher. Her passions lie elsewhere. When confronted with feedback on her mediocre efforts in the classroom she lashes out and becomes defensive and unprofessional.

Cowardly Aggression

As a principal, the challenge that presents itself in the course of a school day is to maintain a focus on instruction. In recent years, managing the emotional struggles of adults has become a more pressing matter to preserve a positive school culture in a world where drama and controversy seem to be the focal point of entertainment outlets. This trauma stems from issues of abandonment, witnessing physical and emotional abuse, and lack of self-esteem and self-determination. If one feels powerless in society they may adopt a defensive perspective about all interactions, even when there is no attack to defend against. Perpetual conflict with others may stem from a lack of self-esteem and self-confidence. In an effort to refine our school’s approach to customer service, I sent out a survey to parents about ways we might improve customer service. For the first few days, great responses were rolling in with very constructive feedback about where we might improve. Then, after a few days, the commentary devolved into profanity laced ramblings about isolated events and personal misgivings about specific people. I closed the survey because the platform was becoming a sounding board for the emotionally immature. It’s unfortunate that even when given an opportunity to add value to our institutions, actions suggesting a lack of emotional intelligence undermine authentic dialogue. Somewhere along the way we’ve lost our respect for civil and productive dialogue. I believe that the anonymity of email and message boards has fueled a cowardly aggression where people say things that they know are out of bounds in these electronic spaces because they lack the emotional intelligence to provide constructive solutions to the problems they encounter in life. Removing the stigma around mental health in the African-American community is a step forward. These actions are cries for help from our community.

The book “Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ” by Daniel Goleman explains the roots of the development of our emotional intelligence. He writes, “By fourth and fifth grade, as peer relationships take on an immense importance in their lives, they get lessons that help their friendships work better: empathy, impulse control, and anger management.” As a father of a 6th grader, I’m constantly watching and observing how she handles relationships with her peers, responds to disagreements, and manages friendships. How can I be a better father in the area of supporting her emotional intelligence. Ongoing conversations about how to handle conflict are taking place in our household. Most importantly, she is observing how my wife and I work through problems, reach compromises, and move forward after disagreements.

I.Q. matters.

Black Lives Matter.

But Emotional Intelligence matters too!

(*This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, Principals Don’t Walk on Water)

Soundtrack: Show Me That You Love by Common

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