Most of us have experienced incivility in the workplace. Inappropriate behavior toward coworkers typically stems from a variety of factors: increased workloads resulting in stress and fear, inflated self-importance, the desire to win at all costs, and insensitivity to the needs of others. But what it all boils down to is a lack of respect for colleagues.

Many of my executive-coaching assignments have been triggered because talented professionals simply treated their coworkers badly. The worst part is that these managers weren’t even aware of how inappropriate their actions were.

The good news is that a hopeful countertrend to incivility is emerging: the rise of an increased emphasis on emotional intelligence (EQ) in the workplace. EQ is the ability to recognize both your emotions and those of others, and to use that information as a behavioral guide.

The concept of EQ has been around for a while, but its increased value has been spurred by the new workforce, especially Millennials. Employees want to feel understood, appreciated, and respected at work. An emotionally intelligent leader will fulfill these needs. It’s no secret that organizations that foster high levels of EQ have more engaged and productive employees.

Being emotionally intelligent doesn’t imply that you’re soft; it means that you have higher levels of self-awareness and self-regulation. It also means that you have empathy and an ability to interact effectively with others.

Can EQ Be Taught?

Absolutely, but as with any skill, there must be a desire on the part of the learner. People who want to improve by replacing a bad habit with a good one are likely to have greater success in change.

The “why” that motivates such a change is an internal or intrinsic desire. When people think they have to change, the motivation is extrinsic rather than intrinsic. If your job hangs on the thread of a behavior change, you might be extrinsically driven to make the change. You’ll do it because you have to, but the impact of the change will be less effective because it will take so much more effort.

Self-awareness is the starting point for change. If you don’t possess a reasonable understanding of your behavior, it’s hard to make a change. My experience is that many badly behaving professionals aren’t conscious of their behavior because it’s so ingrained and because few people call them out on it. Even frustrated executives who are painfully aware of the repercussions of such managers aren’t as direct as they should be when delivering feedback.

A Case for Change

I worked with a client who was clueless about the degree to which his lack of emotional intelligence was contributing to his professional downfall. He was horrified to learn how his coworkers perceived him, and claimed that his manager hadn’t told him about the extent of the complaints. Upon further examination, I discovered that his manager had indeed skirted the issue because she was self-conscious and embarrassed to confront him.

After this rocky start, we made excellent progress. The client intrinsically wanted to change and was determined to reverse his behavior. We went through a self-awareness exercise where we mapped the “bad” behavior against the direct impact on his coworkers, as well as the indirect or “ripple effect” impact. The ripple effect is equally as important as the direct effect because people are usually shocked by how one cruel or insensitive remark can go far obsolete beyond the immediate recipient of the comment.

After he gained clear (and painful) cognizance of the impact of his conduct, he was highly motivated, and positive changes came relatively quickly. We worked for several months to anchor and solidify the improved behaviors. The feedback from his manager and coworkers was encouraging, and he had renewed confidence about his performance.

In today’s business world, leaders who understand the value of EQ will render obsolete badly behaving bosses. As employees continue to call for an end to incivility in the workplace, increasing EQ at all levels of leadership will become critical.

Tips to Build Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is the starting point for improving emotional intelligence, so consider the following steps:

  1. Keep notes on how you react in stressful situations at work. Review these with a trusted friend or colleague and ask for feedback.
  2. Pay attention to the impact your behavior has on others.
  3. Compare your patterns of behavior at work with those at home to determine consistency.
  4. After you have reflected on your behavior, ask your trusted friend for direct feedback and really listen.
  5. Pick one aspect to work on, and make one small change. When you’re ready, select another area and repeat.

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