Building a successful business is about more than reaching deadlines and using hard skills to get things done: emotional intelligence (EI) and social skills are just as essential to productivity, according to City of Toronto client relationship manager Erin Leslie.

“Emotional intelligence for me is really the invisible skill set that people need to bring out into their teams and really talk more about,” Leslie told ITBusiness.ca during the Municipal Information Systems Association (MISA) Ontario chapter’s annual conference in Hamilton, Ont. in early June.

Leaders who put an emphasis on emotional intelligence in the workplace can cultivate a healthier work environment and even help improve productivity and efficiency, she says.

“We used to eat lunch together as kids. We don’t do that anymore as adults,” Leslie notes, adding that grown-up or not it remains as important as ever for leaders to create a healthy workplace where social skills can grow even as adults.

Developing emotional intelligence at work

Leslie acknowledges that developing the type of environment that allows for the growth of social and emotional intelligence often isn’t as easy as it may seem.

Among the ways a leader can compensate, she says, is by creating spaces for collaboration, open discussion, and debate. Creating events that serve as opportunities for employees to interact outside an office setting is important as well, since it allows for networking and bonding that can not only grow social skills, but self awareness.

“If we just go home at the end of the day every day, we don’t grow our own abilities and bring those ideas back [into the business],” Leslie argues.

Creating an environment with plentiful opportunities for social interaction can help employees feel comfortable reaching out and collaborating in less formal settings, brainstorming at the drop of a hat rather than “reserving a board room.” The key, Leslie says, is creating a natural and open flow of ideas.

Introverts vs. Extroverts

She also acknowledges that not everyone is the same when it comes to social interaction; that different people learn in different ways, and that it’s especially important to create strategies that work for both introverts and extroverts.

Both dispositions, she says, offer their own advantages and disadvantages, and it’s important that leaders offer a level playing field for the variety of abilities that people bring to the table.

For example, when seeking input from introverted employees, managers might consider speaking with them in a less-than-formal setting where they feel comfortable expressing or contributing ideas. They should also make sure that extroverts aren’t dominating discussions.

A manager’s ultimate goal, she says, should be to organically mix introverts and extroverts together in a task or activity that’s going to benefit both.

EI and tech

When it comes to tech teams, hard skills can often be the focus, Leslie acknowledges; however, soft skills play an important part in creating and developing processes and new ideas too.

Managers should focus on harnessing the unique, individual experiences that each person brings, along with the technical skills that can help grow a business, she says.

“In IT teams we tend to silo by skills and by practices,” she tells ITBusiness.ca. “So your architects on one side, your cloud computing on the other, and your applications on yet another side.” She argues that this type of segregation can hinder progress or innovation. Innovating, she says, is all about getting every one of a project’s contributors into the same room.

“When you pull them all together in a collaborative place, it’s easier to apply best practices and create a diverse organic group, which means you’re going to get a better output,” she says.

How the City of Toronto uses EI

Leslie offers the city’s park and recreation program as an example of how developing emotional intelligence programs can have a postive effect on outcomes.

”We went out and used a human design thinking and modernization approach to project management to really map-in that user experience, for example parents registering their children, then built that into the project, making a better project,” she says.

The city started incorporating EI programs into its operations in 2015, and Leslie says the city plans to grow these EI programs and is currently working on a new and improved EI program within the coming year.

“Like everything in life, practice makes perfect. So no matter what emotional state or personality you are,” she says. “To excel we have to really practice our skills and abilities that we’re less comfortable with and get out there and try to stretch ourselves once in a while.”

“That’s how we’re going to grow our brains and our minds and improve EI.”

With files from Eric Emin Wood.

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