Emotional Intelligence Training Works If You Design It Right

Over the past sixteen years, I’ve kept my eye on any studies that relate to Emotional Intelligence training results. Typically, the results are very positive. Participants have experienced improved skills in managing emotional reactiveness, increased personal productivity, improved teamwork, reduced stress and more. A recent study involving Nurse Managers (Nursing Administration Quarterly, 35(3): 270-276) did not reveal very positive results. As I examined the study design, I found several factors that led to these disappointing results.

The following background provides some insight into the study design. During the six-month period of the program the number of volunteer participants dwindled to just less than half of the original number. In a work/life balance survey, approximately 90% of the volunteer nurse managers reported the physical problems they felt were due, in some part, to overwork. An Emotional Intelligence assessment was used to measure the nurse managers’ pre and post-study Emotional Intelligence. This particular EI assessment presents pictures of people’s faces to the participants and asks them to select the emotions expressed from a list of choices.

The program’s activities included informational meetings on a monthly basis and peer coaching sessions weekly. For the peer coaching sessions, the participants were asked to follow guidelines that encouraged “thinking out loud,” listening (paying close attention) and reflecting on what the coaching partner was expressing. At the beginning of the program, participants identified a couple of emotional skills they wanted to enhance as a result of participating in the study.

Results were inconclusive at the end of the six month period. While the nurse manager participants felt they were better managers with improved Emotional Intelligence skills, the EI assessment scores were lower and a greater percentage (95%) of the group reported physical problems, including hypertension, inability to concentrate, mental restlessness and headaches.

Given the numerous studies indicating very positive results for programs aimed at increasing Emotional Intelligence skills, these disparate results indicate the need for further examination of the make-up of the program. The following provides insight into the cause of the program’s negative results and suggestions for improving the outcome.

As we examine the study’s design, there seems to be a few implied assumptions. The first is that an individual’s ability to identify the emotions depicted in a picture will improve if you pair people up in a weekly coaching discussion and the pair talk about whatever comes to mind. (Let’s not even touch upon the assumption of the test itself that you can measure EI skills by having people correctly identify expressions in pictures.) The second implied assumption is that the group informational sessions and weekly peer coaching sessions will reduce physical symptoms.

The place to begin is to look at the EI competencies. While there are a number of models, I focus on a model that includes five EI competencies, some of which are intra-personal (within the individual) and others that are inter-personal (between individuals). To build EI skill, one must first develop strength in the intra-personal competencies such as Emotional Self-Awareness, Self-Management and Self-Motivation. With a strong foundation in these competencies, one can then grow the inter-personal competencies of Empathy and Nurturing Relationships. In other words, with solid skills in the intra-personal competencies such as managing one’s own emotions, one can more easily manage inter-personal situations. As it relates to the study, the focus seems to have been on the inter-personal skill of Empathy, a part of which is recognizing emotions in others, listening for the meaning in words and conversations and not judging.

From a training perspective, following sound design practices would increase the likelihood of positive results. The first step is to determine what the training will help participants be able to do better. These becomes the learning objectives. As an example, you may want participants to be able to look at a picture and identify the emotions a person is expressing, or name the emotions he/she is experiencing in any given moment, or be able to change negative feelings into positive emotions. Once learning objectives are established, you can develop training where participants learn information, techniques or processes that help them accomplish the learning objectives. Participants should then have the opportunity to apply what was learned through guided practice which includes feedback. Then appropriate evaluation should be used to determine training effectiveness.

Now when we look at the Nurse Manager study, we don’t see any evidence that the participants learned any techniques or processes to help them “recognize other people’s emotions from facial expressions in pictures” during the informational sessions. If indeed they did not receive this kind of training, then the decline in the EI assessment scores is not a surprise. Perhaps a more important point is that the EI assessment itself is not very close to real life: the context for the facial expression provides additional information enabling people to better gauge the emotion.

In addition there was no indication that the peer coaching sessions offered any training to help the nurse managers identify emotions in others. Scores might have improved if this kind of training had been included during these sessions. However, the study did not indicate that this kind of training was provided for either the coaching or informational sessions.

Peer coaching sessions can be helpful if a guided process is used. Participants should be encouraged to identify and share use of the EI techniques they learned, what made their use successful/unsuccessful, suggestions for improvement, etc. The study itself supported this concept in that the nurse managers indicated that a more structured peer coaching process would have been beneficial.

I cannot highlight enough that building solid inter-personal EI competencies requires that an individual first develops sound intra-personal competencies. To recognize other’s emotions, one must first be able to recognize and manage his or her own emotions. The study does not indicate that such an approach was followed. When this kind of method has been followed, participants have experienced very positive results both personally and professionally, including improvements of physical problems related to overwork such as reduction in stress, reduced sleeplessness, fewer headaches, reduced hypertension, and more.