I was recently asked by some second-year MBAs at Stanford to help them launch a peer group that would serve as a source of learning and support after graduation out in "the real world." All of the group's members had taken Interpersonal Dynamics, aka Touchy Feely, and they each brought a high level of emotional intelligence to the group as individuals, but they weren't yet an emotionally intelligent group.
Before our launch session I asked them to read my posts on Safety, Trust, Intimacy and Safety, Risk, Learning and Growth, and at the beginning of the session I conducted a short improv exercise, not only to get them thinking a little more creatively, but also (and even more importantly) to create a shared sense of fun, silliness and vulnerability--all of which was intended to heighten their emotional investment in the group experience.
During the session itself I guided them through two exercises, each with an explicit emotional focus. The first--which I learned from my esteemed colleague Inbal Demri-Shaham--involved having the group focus on one member for several minutes, during which the other members would share any positive attributions that came to mind as they reflected on this person. I took notes, creating a list of words and phrases for each person, which I emailed to the group, and then we talked about how it felt to make those comments and to receive them.
The second exercise involved having each member share a personal story with the group that brought up some feeling of embarrassment or shame. Each person had just 2 minutes to relate their story, and I asked them to focus less on the details and more on their feelings; then the group had 2 minutes to share any responses to the story. I went first, talking about my 1995 Volvo and 1) my embarrassment at having such a nerdy car, 2) my embarrassment at having such an old car, and 3) my embarrassment at my embarrassment :-)
The specific point of the former exercise was begin to accustom the group's members to expressing appreciation with each other, and the specific point of the latter was to increase their level of comfort with admitting embarrassment and shame. I see these two factors as particularly important steps in a group's development, but I could have chosen any number of exercises to achieve these goals. The overall purpose was simply to allow the group's members to have an emotional experience together, which would trigger a sense of investment in the group.
We had an intellectually stimulating experience as well. We concluded the session with an extensive discussion about various practices that would support their goals, and throughout the session we debriefed each exercise, and I talked about my reasons for selecting them. But that conversation was much more meaningful because of the emotional experiences that had preceded it--and while I couldn't have predicted precisely how the session would go, I was gratified to hear the group members express how useful it had been in helping them get started. All in all, a really fun two hours that felt like time well spent.
I relate this experience at length as a way to introduce Building the Emotional Intelligence of Groups, an article by Vanessa Druskat and Steven Wolff from the March 2001 issue of the Harvard Business Review, that strikes me as both practical and thought-provoking more than a decade later:
Study after study has shown that teams are more creative and productive when they can achieve high levels of participation, cooperation, and collaboration among members. But interactive behaviors like these aren't easy to legislate. Our work shows that three basic conditions need to be present before such behaviors can occur: mutual trust among members, a sense of group identity (a feeling among members that they belong to a unique and worthwhile group), and a sense of group efficacy (the belief that the team can perform well and that group members are more effective working together than apart)...
At the heart of these three conditions are emotions. [emphasis mine] Trust, a sense of identity, and a feeling of efficacy arise in environments where emotion is well handled, so groups stand to benefit by building their emotional intelligence. Group emotional intelligence isn't a question of dealing with a necessary evil--catching emotions as they bubble up and promptly suppressing them. Far from it. It's about bringing emotions deliberately to the surface and understanding how they affect the team's work. It's also about behaving in ways that build relationships both inside and outside the team and that strengthen the team’s ability to face challenges. [p 83]
As noted above, I've written before about my belief in the critical importance of safety, trust and intimacy as foundations for a group's ability to support learning and change, and Druskat and Wolff's research strongly confirms this perspective. Much of my work with groups at Stanford and in my consulting practice involves helping group members establish precisely the conditions highlighted by Druskat and Wolff--mutual trust, group identity and group efficacy--even when that's not the group's explicit goal. The nascent peer support group I describe above is still in the process of determining their fundamental purpose and their basic activities--and yet I fully trust that the work we did in our launch session will help them be more effective no matter what they ultimately decide to do.
It's also clear to me that groups that are able to establish these conditions not only perform more effectively but also provide their members with a greater sense of meaning and fulfillment. It's simply more intrinsically rewarding to participate in such a group--a critical factor whenever the extrinsic rewards of group participation are unclear. Finally, as a coach I deeply appreciate Druskat and Wolff's framing of emotion not as a "necessary evil" but as a fundamental component of any human system. Even through emotionally intelligent individuals and groups must work to regulate their emotions in order to express them most effectively--see below--that's not at all the same as suppressing those emotions.
Druskat and Wolff build on the work of Daniel Goleman, of course, in defining just what they mean by group emotional intelligence:
[A] team with emotionally intelligent members does not necessarily make for an emotionally intelligent group... [C]reating an upward, self-reinforcing spiral of trust, group identity, and group efficacy requires...a team atmosphere in which the norms build emotional capacity (the ability to respond constructively in emotionally uncomfortable situations) and influence emotions in constructive ways...
[In Emotional Intelligence] Goleman explains the chief characteristics of someone with high EI; he or she is aware of emotions and able to regulate them--and this awareness and regulation are directed both inward, to one’s self, and outward, to others. "Personal competence," in Goleman’s words, comes from being aware of and regulating one's own emotions. "Social competence" is awareness and regulation of others' emotions.
A group, however, must attend to yet another level of awareness and regulation. It must be mindful of the emotions of its members, its own group emotions or moods, and the emotions of other groups and individuals outside its boundaries. [emphasis mine] [p 82]
Druskat and Wolff identify an extensive set of norms that 1) create awareness of emotions and 2) help regulate emotions at the individual, group and cross-boundary levels. Laid out in a table on page 87 of the original HBR article, this list is a great resource. In addition to some basic truisms ("Take time away from group tasks to get to know one another.") it includes a number of more challenging concepts ("Assume that undesirable behavior takes place for a reason. Find out what that reason is. Ask questions and listen. Avoid negative attributions.")
The critical question that Druskat and Wolff leave unaddressed, however, is how to motivate people to actually do any of this often difficult work when the costs will be paid by individuals now (not only in the form of time and effort, but also in feelings of self-consciousness or discomfort), while any potential benefits will be enjoyed by the group later. Asking people to read an HBR article and telling them that "study after study has shown that they'll be more creative and productive" probably isn't going to cut it.
I don't mean to be flippant--it's a real dilemma that I face as an experiential educator and as a practitioner in industry. I try to leverage what I know about joyful learning to get a group pointed in a helpful direction, but ultimately the group's ability to develop the norms that support emotional intelligence is dependent on individual members' emotional investment in the group experience itself.
This process may start with some social pressure or even outright coercion--for example, strongly urging or even mandating members' attendance at group events early in its life-cycle. If those initial group experiences create a sense of emotional investment, then it becomes much easier to encourage individual members to identify and establish norms that will support the group's collective emotional intelligence. But if those initial experiences fail to trigger an emotional investment, then appeals to enhanced productivity will likely fall on deaf ears, and increased levels of social pressure or coercion will create a backlash.
I don't know what will happen to the group I describe above, but I do know that they've successfully begun the process of transforming from a collection of emotionally intelligent individuals to an emotionally intelligent group, and the feelings of trust, safety, intimacy, identify and efficacy that characterize such a group will serve as an essential foundation to help them achieve their goals.
Photo by woodleywonderworks. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.