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Emotional Intelligence Programs in Local Governments

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By James Bourey
May 21, 2021

Last year, PA Times contained a column by Iberkis Faltas touting the value of emotional intelligence skills for public administration professionals. This article will build on that column by describing how emotional intelligence programs can be rolled out to local government leaders. This column is a shortened version of a chapter on emotional intelligence contained in my book, A Journey of Challenge, Commitment and Reward; Tales of a City/County Manager. If I only had one program to institute which would make the biggest difference in an organization, it would be an aggressive program of promoting emotional intelligence. In fact, this is really the only major improvement program I instituted in my last three manager stops. There have been many sessions and presentations on emotional intelligence (EQ) at management conferences and seminars. However, I have been surprised that managers have not been more aggressive in establishing effective efforts for their organizations.

Emotional intelligence has been defined in many ways. I define it as the ability to have a clear and true understanding of how others perceive you, to be able to interrelate to others in a positive, constructive manner and to be in control of your actions and reactions in given situations, while being true to your own beliefs and not shying away from making contributions as you interact with others.

I have been engaged with emotional intelligence training in a significant way for the past 20 years. This culminated when I was the City Manager of City of Newport News, Virginia where more than 100 city leaders were rigorously trained in emotional intelligence.

In each of the last three organizations I managed, the EQ programs consisted of three basic parts. First, it is essential to understand the physiological underpinning of how we control (or don’t control, as the case may be) our emotions and responses in given situations. When some people first hear about emotional intelligence, their reaction can be to view it as some psychological mumbo jumbo and dismiss it as just more touchy feely training that will not be very helpful. By better understanding how the mind and body processes situations and formulates reactions to them, people can gain more confidence that this is not the latest flavor of the month in training.

The information needs to include an explanation of the various parts of the human brain and how each part plays a role in how a person functions and reacts in given situations. This helps people understand how their emotional reactions sometimes can overcome their rational thought to create a response in them which could be out of context with the circumstances. With this knowledge, people can understand how to potentially prevent themselves from having an overreaction. It is especially helpful to know the physical signs and signals that can let you know you need to intercept a potentially inappropriate emotional response.

The next step was to administer a rigorous EQ instrument to assess each participant’s emotional intelligence across a spectrum of dimensions. The most used and tested measure is the EQi 2.0 instrument. This self-administered assessment provides an amazing amount of information about the emotional intelligence of the person. The feedback was then given to each person by a trained professional. Most people that I have worked with have felt the assessment did an excellent job of capturing their EQ. My organizations have had the training on interpreting the assessment results in a group and then in individual sessions with certified professionals.

Knowing the strengths and areas to improve in is helpful but it is not really going to make a difference unless there is follow through and, in my opinion, professional coaching. We provided one-on-one professional coaching. This made all the difference.

Many organizations do not demonstrate that they value individuals. The fact that the EQ program showed that the city cared about each team member was beneficial in and of itself. Even if the EQ worked a lot on an employee’s personal issues, including challenges at home, it helped their performance at work.

Emotional intelligence is more than just controlling responses and overreacting. For some it is being more assertive if they tend to defer to others and not feel confident in presenting their ideas. In addition, EQ training can help people understand how they may feel rewarded from their work and even discover if they are well placed in their existing roles in the organization.

If you are not that familiar with EQ and are like many of my department directors, you may be wondering how this makes a difference in the performance of an organization. The first premise is that human interaction is fundamental to everything we do. How that interaction takes place will go a long way in determining the success of any endeavor. More emotionally intelligent team members will have much more positive interactions and more positively support one another. Thus, team performance will be greatly enhanced. My experience is that emotional intelligence training has improveed the working relationship of department directors and other senior staff and helped to create excellent teamwork.


Author: James Bourey served local government for 37 years, including as a city and county manager and regional council executive director. He also worked as a consultant to local government for another six years. He is the author of numerous professional articles as well as the book, A Journey of Challenge, Commitment and Reward; Tales of a City/County Manager.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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