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The View from Here: Emotional intelligence

Mike Gangwer Published on 10 December 2013

I have been giving some thought to a topic that is now in our lexicon: emotional intelligence. In this article I write some of my thoughts.

I will admit this topic may appear to be way off the reservation, so to speak, in a magazine that is centered upon the dairy industry. But I will make the case that emotional intelligence is indeed appropriate for all of us.

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We may define emotional intelligence as the ability to center oneself in an emotionally stable place when certain situations can cause us to lose this self-control. Every one of us has been in these situations many times.

We are challenged in a group setting, we are admonished privately, we lose something dear, we fail to achieve at our expected level and our performance is questioned by superiors or even ourselves.

This is life, and how we handle these messy parts of life is emotional intelligence. For some, this comes with age. We simply understand how to push through these situations so we can remain grounded in our core values.

We understand that what counts is not so much what other people think of us, but how we think about ourselves. In every social environment, there will be those challenging our ethos and our ability to positively interact with others.

How we handle these situations is an outer journey … the expression of calm and resolve and even a sense of decorum so that we can manage our emotions in such a way that we maintain our integrity. How we privately deal with messy situations is an inner journey.

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Every one of us has gone through multiple disappointments and failures and even situations that cause us to question our own ability, but how we work it out inwardly becomes the expression of ourselves outwardly.

I learned a lot about emotional intelligence while working overseas. I watched many people arriving from the U.S. with outstanding technical credentials. Absolutely the top people in their field. And they were integrated in our team as a subject-matter expert.

Yet a few of these folks soon became isolated and nearly could not function as part of the team. Why? They simply did not have sufficient emotional intelligence to perform as a person on a team.

Some of the challenge was certainly intrinsic to a technical field; the subject-matter expert knows he or she is an expert and that his or her body of knowledge, technically, is on par with the best anywhere.

This sense of self-importance is much more about egocentrism than it is about understanding the role of technical things as secondary to knowing how to work with people.

May I suggest, therefore, that we come back to a topic I have written about many times in this column: humility. Emotional intelligence is as much about admitting we do not know very much and that we need others to help so that the team effort comes first.

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Another way of writing this is: Emotional intelligence is as much about “it’s not about me,” as much as it is depressing the self-ego urge to know a lot and make sure everyone around us knows that.

Humility is an intrinsic trait based upon empathy and compassion. To be clear, self-confidence in supporting our ability to perform and contribute and deliver is essential, but how we choose to do this is the question.

One way to understand humility is how we talk to our colleagues. If we have to remind them that we are an expert or top in our field or able to fix almost any problem that comes our way, then we have lost our humble way.

Rather, these performance metrics ought to be obvious to our colleagues and therefore do not need to be pointed out. A professional or personal reputation is more about what we do (accomplish) and not what we say (aspiration).

The most successful people are those that are comfortable in the professional workplace with themselves as contributors and team members, and essentially, it is not about them. I often say to people that my work is about the USDA mission.

This is something we are working towards; delivering conservation on the ground and doing so with a U.S. government fiduciary oversight. Many tasks are required. Many people make up this team to complete these tasks.

And if we, as a collective team, put the mission first rather than ourselves, then we can accomplish our task and meet the mission.

While overseas working at U.S. embassies, I found the rotation rhythm of people in and out of assignments so rapid that our team was constantly changing in terms of human dynamics. Yet in most cases, the team effort of meeting the mission was a priority, and the self-achievement and personal gravitas was not.

The success was nearly always based upon people understanding emotional intelligence. The technical skills were already in place.

Examples of lives based upon humility are everywhere if we just look. We are taken with such people because it is not their own lives that are the centerpiece worth examining but what they accomplished, especially if the accomplishment helped move the bar of humanity upward and forward.

Such a way of composing a life is extraordinary if we understand emotional intelligence as the basis for this composition.

To give oneself over to the greater good, the sacrifice of the self for the human good is altruistic and thus based upon empathy and compassion. Our religions teach us this. Our philosophers teach us this. Our poets and our essayists and our writers teach us this.

Every great hero’s journey was and is built upon sacrificing oneself for the greater journey of self-enlightenment (and ultimately the greater good for the common man), and this to me means clarity in the emotional life, the inner journey, so that we lead stable and grounded lives.

I think a lot of this has to do with staying true to ourselves. That we lead and compose a life based upon authenticity. An authentic life, when examined, is the merging of both the inner and outer journey so that we can be emotionally intelligent about how we work with others.

I suggest this “being true” part of ourselves is based on humility and putting the greater good of humanity ahead of our own egoism.

I’ll admit this approach is or may be contrary to the rugged individuation of man, especially Western man, which seeks self-reliance and independence to do and be what we chose. But we can lead this kind of life if in fact we do so with clarity of our emotions.

Such clarity is built upon the progressive work towards accomplishment that is based upon a societal view. And one that is not moving us, as a human race, toward the tragedy of the commons of overt individuation at the expense of the commons.

I was profoundly changed nearly 45 years ago while reading John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress .

I believe it was my beginning into the world of understanding emotional intelligence, that we are all pilgrims and seekers, and we move forward only when we resolve to approach our lives based upon humility so that, rather than seek strict individuation, we seek to be part of the common man and not the individual man.

The topic of emotional intelligence is useful when a company or a government is making hiring decisions.

my guess is that in nearly all cases, especially in the technical fields, it is the record of technical accomplishment that is considered almost wholly, for we do not have a good method of or process for evaluating emotional intelligence.

This may become manifest during a probationary period, and if so, then great.

I ask readers of this column to only think about the gist of my premise here – that we think about the people we work with as more than just technical people or owning a certain set of skills.

These are necessary, but all things being equal, I will take the one less proficient in these skills with obvious emotional intelligence rather than the one with lots of initials past his or her name. Every time.

One final comment here. Where do we teach emotional intelligence? We do not. It is learned by reading good literature or finding a great humanities course in college or listening to our religious leaders behind the pulpit.

I am recalling many years ago while I was in Ethiopia on assignment visiting two churches. One was new, ornate, lavishly built – and as empty as could be. The other, a rock church – simply a series of rocks placed in orderly rows in a pasture.

It had been the gathering place for decades. This simple spot on the ground was more sacred to me than any other Ethiopian church. Why? Because it was not about the building or the ornateness or lavish fittings, but the mission to be and lead a humble life.

I never forgot the lesson of this place, and it is as vivid today as it was 20 years ago. This is the stuff of emotional intelligence. It is not about us. It is about something far more profound. PD

  • Mike Gangwer

  • Agricultural Scientist
  • USDA-NRCS

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