Why Admins Need Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace

By Robert Half on September 14, 2017 at 8:00am

In the administrative field, professionals face myriad demands and challenges daily. Many of them are technical, but some can be emotional.

Most office staff handle these pressures with grace, relying on their years of experience and a deep well of patience, empathy and practical prowess. Collectively, these skills are known as “emotional intelligence,” a quality increasingly valued by managers, especially those of administrative professionals.

In a nutshell, emotional intelligence refers to a person’s capacity to be aware of, control and effectively express emotions. It involves understanding how others feel and using that knowledge to manage how one interacts with them.

In a recent OfficeTeam survey of more than 600 human resources managers and 800 office workers in the United States and Canada, most HR managers (95 percent) and workers (99 percent) said it’s important for employees to have a high emotional quotient (EQ), a measure of emotional intelligence, because it helps them manage their own emotions and understand and react to the emotions of others in the workplace.

Here are some tips for hiring administrative professionals with emotional intelligence and promoting positive interpersonal skills among your existing staff.

What does emotional intelligence mean for the administrative workforce?

Emotional intelligence means being smarter with feelings, explains Joshua Freedman, CEO of Six Seconds EQ Network, a panelist-expert on OfficeTeam’s recent webinar addressing the importance of this skill in the workplace. A high EQ is especially relevant for administrative professionals because their job involves interacting personally with a wide range of people.

“Emotions are data,” Freedman said. “Emotions in the workplace are information about how we’re perceiving ourselves and others. And as with any data, to be smart with it, we must accurately assemble emotional data and use it to solve problems.”

The work of the administrative professional requires — among other skills — calmly executing under pressure, remaining motivated to tackle challenging situations, and responding diplomatically when faced with negative emotions from others. If you are a manager of administrative professionals, you play a large role in strengthening the emotional intelligence of your employees.

By preparing your team members to deal with complexity, preserve their wellbeing and maintain a holistic view of the company, you can help them be more effective and advance in their careers. Case studies also show that high emotional intelligence among staff has led to improved employee retention, a better customer experience and higher company sales, Freedman said.

Kemetia Foley, coordinator (research) at the American Staffing Association — another webinar panelist — said emotional intelligence boils down to admins keeping their cool and modeling good etiquette. Be a good observer, practice empathy and do not react negatively if a client or colleague is in a bad mood, she said.

“We’re generally the first people folks encounter when they come to our companies whether by phone or at the front desk,” said Foley. “To be able to make that emotional connection, and to be aware of the state of that person is really important. … I keep that in mind when I come across anybody who seems a bit out of sorts.”

Office staff views on the importance of emotional intelligence in the workplace

The OfficeTeam survey also suggests professionals at all levels of business place high value on emotional intelligence in the workplace. Here are some highlights:

  • More than one in five team members (21 percent) believe a high EQ is more valuable in the workplace than a high IQ. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) said the two are equally important.
  • Most workers (92 percent) think they have strong emotional intelligence; slightly fewer (74 percent) believe their bosses do.
  • Three in 10 HR managers (30 percent) feel most employers put too little emphasis on emotional intelligence during the hiring process, overlooking its many benefits.
  • Forty percent of HR managers said soft skills, such as communication, problem-solving and adaptability, are more difficult to teach workers than technical abilities.
  • More than six in 10 employees (61 percent) admitted they’ve let emotions influence them negatively in the office.
  • Eighty-six percent of workers said when a colleague doesn’t control his or her emotions, it affects their perception of that person’s level of professionalism.

Interested in the details? Check out our report Emotional Intelligence at Work: What It Is and Why You Should Care.

Motivation and morale among the top benefits of emotional intelligence at work

HR managers surveyed by OfficeTeam identified increased motivation and morale (43 percent) as the greatest benefit of having emotionally intelligent staff. Other benefits those in management positions cited include improved leadership, better collaboration and effective conflict resolution.

“I find staff with a high EQ extremely valuable,” said panelist Joan Burge, founder and CEO of Office Dynamics International, who last year had to let go of an employee who lacked emotional intelligence. “You could immediately tell when she was upset,” Burge recalled. “Her tone or attitude or her closing up or shutting down would affect the other members of our team. It wasn’t good for the coworkers. It wasn’t good for me in my leadership role, nor good for what we could give to our clients.”

Burge said the former worker’s behavior is starkly different from the administrative professional who holds the position today. “Our current staff member uses a lot of emotional intelligence, including paying close attention when spoken to and being observant.”

Added Burge, “One of the elements of emotional intelligence is social awareness. It’s behaving as if, ‘I know you. I’m paying attention to you and others in the organization and adapting as I need to with you.’ With this approach, we’re going have a better relationship, better collaboration and we’re going to produce better results. When I think about assistants being leaders, visionaries and modeling change that they want to see in others, I’m reminded of how important emotional intelligence really is.”

How to find administrative talent with the right self-awareness and social skills

There are several tools managers can use to gauge the EQ of job applicants. All involve practicing a little psychology. In the OfficeTeam survey, 70 percent of HR managers said they use reference checks for help in determining a candidate’s emotional intelligence, 55 percent use behavioral-based interview questions and 32 percent use personality or psychometric tests.

The OfficeTeam Emotional Intelligence at Work report found that a growing number of companies are factoring emotional intelligence into their hiring process because they value people with a high emotional quotient. That’s because workers with high EQ can more effectively deal with workplace changes, challenging situations and difficult colleagues — and they make great leaders.

The language applicants use to describe their goals and accomplishments often holds clues to their emotional intelligence.

Here are some other tips for hiring for high EQ:

  • Are there indicators candidates were self-motivated enough to take outside development courses?
  • Do they give credit to others when describing initiatives that would clearly be joint efforts?
  • When it comes to handling criticism, does the candidate display an ability to listen, acknowledge any shortcomings and keep things in perspective rather than becoming defensive and making excuses?
  • When it comes to teamwork, can candidates describe how they have confronted simmering issues and helped to solve them with a team, or are the answers slanted more individually?
  • Are you able to gauge their ability to juggle multiple demands from different supervisors and shifting business priorities?

Helping your team polish their social skills

Daniel Goleman — psychologist, author and co-director of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations — helped popularize emotional intelligence with his writing on the topic. Goleman identified five key components of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills. Here are a few steps your staff can take to boost their emotional intelligence at work, based on his and others’ research.

  • Start by stepping back. Take notice of your emotions when they surface. What types of situations or people trigger your emotions, and how do you react?
  • Learn to control your emotions when things don’t go smoothly.
  • Maintain a friendly tone.
  • Ask for input on how you’re coming across to others.
  • Think about how your behavior may impact your colleagues.
  • If you’re in a management position, it’s particularly important to model good emotional intelligence. Poor self-awareness can cost your company employees, money and time.
  • Ignore distractions (e.g. your cellphone, computer screen, or office television) while you’re talking about something important with someone at the office.
  • Take an inventory of your interpersonal skills and do a self-evaluation, or ask a colleague, friend or mentor for areas where they think you could improve.
  • Study and practice your interpersonal skills. Become a pro at conflict resolution.
  • Evaluate your progress with the help of a peer or mentor, and don’t forget to pat yourself on the back for improving your emotional intelligence in the workplace.

Why your leadership strategy should include development of your own personal skills

Administrative professionals, including those in management positions, reap tremendous professional rewards, but also have a lot of stress in their work lives. Foley encourages employees at all levels to pause and think about the physical reaction you have to a stressor in the workplace.

“If you think about the physiology, the physical reaction you have when you’re stressed, that’s the same reaction you have when you’re excited,” Freedman said.

It comes down to nipping a conflict in the bud. “If you can start thinking about these stressful situations and ask yourself, ‘What’s exciting in this situation?’ That’s a powerful tool for confining the positive side of that stress.”

Emotions are not a problem, Freedman added. Rather, he said, “This emotion is telling me something about how I am perceiving this situation. Am I perceiving it as a problem or as part of the value I am going to add in my work? If I can tune in to it when it’s small, I can get into it before it turns into something big and hard to handle.”

Hiring an administrative assistant? We can help you find the right fit for your team:


Motivating your team to boost EQ

Motivating your team can be as simple as writing a creative positive intention for the day on an employee bulletin board. “What’s the self-fulfilling prophecy we want for today?” Burge said. “At my office, we have ‘magnificent Monday’ and ‘thankful Thursday’ among others. That’s what our focus is for the day. We all take turns. It’s fun because we all get to be creative. It does make us laugh and does keep us upbeat.” Other ideas include:

  • Hold a team-building activity.
  • Leave a positive sticky note on someone’s desk.
  • If you’re in a management position, reward team members for their accomplishments.

“Administrative professionals are in a wonderful position and place to motivate others,” Burge said. “They are the core. They are the hub. Positivity is important, especially today. With all that’s going on in the world and in our personal and professional lives, we need to work at keeping our motivation going.”

Listening closely, practicing empathy and noticing nonverbal cues

A person’s EQ is his or her ability to understand the views, needs and wants of others. That is only achieved through active listening, practicing empathy and watching nonverbal cues.

Administrative professionals are famous multitaskers. However, for your team to be active listeners and more emotionally intelligent workers, they may need to put this strength on hold at critical times. Consider Foley’s approach when a colleague or client comes to you with a problem.

“Basically, stop what you’re doing and make eye contact with that person,” Foley said. “Don’t try to think a step ahead. I’m reminded of the Steven Covey quote, ‘Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.’ That’s human nature to do so. But when somebody is upset at your desk or on the phone, put yourself in their shoes. I try to keep that in the forefront. It helps me be calm. How can I help this person? How can I make sure that person knows they have my full attention?”

Emotional intelligence means being honest about personal challenges

Burge said being candid with your boss is the best policy even in times of difficulty. Reflecting on the employee she had to let go last year, Burge said she spoke with the admin on a couple of occasions about the difficulties but it only resulted in further outbursts. “I thought maybe there is something deeper here. I know when I was an admin assistant for 20 years, if things were tough at home or with children, I would think, ‘Gee I’m not quite acting like myself, but that’s because this is going on, but I’m going to do my very best.’ We need to be open in terms of our communication so others don’t have doubts about you.”

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