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29. Practical applications of emotional intelligence in local government

Written by Rachel Green, Director, The Emotional Intelligence Institute, accredited user of the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso-Emotional-Intelligence Test (MSCEIT) and international leader in emotional intelligence coaching.

Paper prepared after leading a session on "Emotional intelligence in local government" at the LGPro event, Mandurah, February 2019.

Local government involves developing a positive, constructive relationship with the community it serves. This is not always easy because the community may have individual goals that are unrealistic, or may champion one cause against the overall community needs. The community may also complain loudly when things go wrong and not praise you when things go well. They may also be rude, angry and obstructionist. However, this shows how much the community runs on emotions.

The key here is that all of us are driven by emotions whether we know it or not. It is very clear from research at the University of Wollongong that emotions influence not only our behaviour but also our thoughts and memory. It also demonstrates that we may not be aware of when our emotions are influencing us, even though they are.

In contrast, I have known some people in local government who think that they don't have significant emotions and everything should be dealt with logically. This is where problems can arise.

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The problem with logic first

It is so easy for a planner, a Director or an engineer to respond to community demands, concerns and requests with logic. The same applies to everyone within local government. Local government is based on facts, policies, procedures, regulations, the local government act; these are all based on logic.

However, when logic is used to manage emotions it doesn't always work. Have you, for instance, ever won an argument with someone who is angry by using logic? It is highly unlikely that you have.

I suggest that what local government needs to be able to do is to manage the emotions of the community and that logic is not necessarily the first step in doing this.

I also suggest that when someone complains to you in local government, whether it's about a rate increase, a lack of facilities, delayed planning approvals or the neighbours causing problems; whatever their complaints are, these are based on emotion. As a rough guideline, approximately 80% of a complaint is emotion and only 20% logic. Why would you, therefore, deal with it logically? This in itself, isn't logical.

Wouldn't it make more sense first to manage the emotions, so that when someone is angry, frustrated, indignant, resentful, bitter or feeling powerless, isolated or unheard, you manage these emotions and only once they are soothed follow up with logic? This is more logical, surely?

Even when you are not dealing with community complaints you will be dealing with emotions. If your local government has a keen interest in developing community engagement and a sense of inclusiveness and safety, you are still dealing with emotions. Feeling engaged is an emotion. Feeling included is an emotion. Feeling significant, safe and cared for are all emotions. Emotions can help keep your community healthy and on side.

What is emotional intelligence?

Having made a case for the importance of emotions in your local government let's consider what emotional intelligence is. At the very core of emotional intelligence are emotions.

Basically defined, emotional intelligence is being smart with your own and other people's emotions. This includes being open to them and being able to recognise them, acknowledge them, understand them, communicate them clearly, reason with them, foster some, soothe others, and determine their influence over behaviour.

Why does this matter in Local Government? Because emotions drive everyone's behaviour and communication. Your own emotions have an impact on the way in which you communicate. If you are feeling exasperated by people you are likely to communicate in a different way than if you feel appreciation towards them. The consequence of your communication is high. The way that you communicate influences how someone feels about your Shire, Town or City and themselves. Yes, the way that you communicate has an impact on everybody's emotions, and your emotions impact on your communication. It is a circular consequence not a linear one.

However, it's not just communication that is at stake. It is also our behaviour. A subtle facial expression can reflect an inner emotion that leaves someone feeling patronised. Whether we open a door for someone or not can reflect a feeling of kindness or dislike towards that person. Whether we turn up to a meeting on time or not can be influenced by how interested or disinterested we feel about that meeting. Whether we select somebody in a job interview or how we manage them in a performance review is also influenced by how we feel.

How the community feel towards you and your local government influences how they behave.

For many "logical people", emotions may appear totally unpredictable, unnecessary and a sign of weakness. They aren't, they provide important information and pieces of data, especially when it comes to decision-making about people, which is after-all one of the core functions of local government. Understanding people and their emotions and managing them positively is a sign of intelligence. I am not talking about sentimentality, being emotional, or always being positive. These are not the same as being emotionally intelligent.

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Local government examples

I will give you a couple of examples to make it clearer that emotional intelligence is relevant to everything that you do in local government. Whether it's how you behave towards yourself or your staff, how you facilitate team work, how you encourage and foster motivation or how you communicate with your councillors or the community, emotions are always present.

Whether something is going well or badly, there are always emotions involved to be aware of, acknowledge and manage. In fact, one aspect of working as a leader in local government is being able to foster the more helpful, positive emotions so that people are resilient on the job and the community are happy and feel safe and cared for.

Part of being emotionally intelligent also involves not taking on other people's emotions as your own and staying calm, even when others aren't. This means that if you get strong negative feedback on social media, or you're accused of being corrupt (when you aren't), or ratepayers complain to your council, that you don't take on the emotions driving this but ride that storm and stay well.

One of my examples has arisen from hearing the current local government minister in Western Australia, The Honourable David Templeman, MLA, speak before me at the LGPro meeting.

He said in his speech that "Your job in local government is to make sure that within your local community people feel as though they belong". 

Why is this important? It is important because a sense of belonging is a feeling, an emotion. In other words, the minister is saying your job in local government is to be able to facilitate specific emotions within the community. Surely, you could only do that well with high levels of emotional intelligence, with a sophisticated ability to be able to foster the emotions that induce a sense of belonging and to reduce those that don't?

At the same function, a CEO of very long standing said that he perceives his role as a CEO in local government "Is to leave the community in a better place than when I started working for them and to leave the community happier". Why is this relevant? Because happiness is a feeling. It is an emotion. In other words, he was agreeing that local government is about managing feelings. It is not just about giving services. It is about how people feel about the services they're given.

Services are not simply about providing a road, street lighting or a new building, it is the impact of these services on people's emotions that also matters. How do they feel about the road? How does the building help people belong and feel happier? How do the community feel about the street lighting? They may feel annoyed, indifferent, or safer. The role of local government is to help the community feel safer, amongst other emotions. Safety is a feeling as well as a practical measure.

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A light bulb moment – when logic meets emotion

At the LGPro function, I was explaining emotional intelligence to the local government audience when one of the engineers in the room said, "But surely there are times when I have to say "No'". Yes! There are. There are definitely times when you must say "No" to the community. Emotional intelligence does not turn you into a "Yes person".

It is how you say "No" that indicates your level of emotional intelligence and that influences the outcome.

From the perspective of emotionally intelligent communication, what matters is that when you communicate, you choose the best way to communicate. They may hear "No" but still feel good because they have been listened to, understood and cared for. Such feelings are achieved by how the answer has been delivered.

In other words, you choose how you communicate according to the emotional impact you will have on the person. You choose to say "No" in a way that makes it easier for them to hear that the answer is "No", but still leaves them feeling respected, valued and understood. Your "No" does not cause or escalate community unrest or dissatisfaction and continues to build constructive relationships between you.

If you leave community members feeling heard and respected, even though the answer is "No", you will foster productive community relationships.

In the end, that is why emotional intelligence is important. Everything you do involves a level of communication. Everything you do involves a level of interaction and the hardest problems to deal with in local government are not the technical, financial or policy ones, it's the people issues. People issues are always driven by emotions and therefore everybody in local government needs to be able to develop their emotional intelligence so that they can smoothly respond to difficult emotions and encourage the more positive ones within their community.

Developing emotional intelligence as adults has been shown to be possible. Most of us have never been coached in managing the emotions of others, in reading the emotions of others, in reasoning with and processing emotions, in predicting emotions, in understanding emotions and even in knowing how we feel. We may not even have emotional literacy - yet. Because we have not developed these skills, it is easy to shun emotions, to avoid or repress them, or to ridicule those who show them. A far more emotionally intelligent response would be to develop the skills of emotional intelligence to ensure your local government is run effectively, on time and on budget, with a community who trust you and feel included, cared for and safe.

Summary of seven steps to develop

  1. Focus on the development of community relationships and helping the community to feel happy and safe with a sense of belonging. Ask yourself: "Am I providing services that will increase the feelings of happiness, safety and belonging in the community?".
  2. Be open to emotions – look for them and recognise them in yourself and others.
  3. Manage your own emotions so you stay calm even when others don't.
  4. If you become irritated, hurt or upset be able to self-soothe quickly.
  5. Be able to soothe people who feel angry, helpless or upset.
  6. Choose the best way to communicate based on the emotional impact you will evoke. Ask, "What emotional response will I produce if I explain it in this way?".
  7. Once the emotions have been managed, if required, use logic and present the facts.

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