You probably think of the workplace as the arena for carrying out tasks, earning a living and with luck, experiencing the fulfillment of a job well done. In reality, it’s the place where people spend a lot of time playing out complex and often counter-productive dynamics with their colleagues, supervisors and employees.
Understanding how your own and other people’s personality and psychology affect your interactions in the workplace can make the difference between a frustrating, unhappy work experience and a successful, fulfilling one. Intelligence and hard work, while necessary ingredients for a positive work-life aren’t enough. You’ll need to have (or to develop) emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence, or the “EQ,” is a combination of several psychological functions which are separate from what is measured by IQ tests. Whereas the latter involves comprehension, memory and the ability to analyze and synthesize data, the former pertains to judgment, insight, intuition, impulse control, empathy, reasonableness, personal accountability and integrity.
If you have a high EQ, you are both self-aware and have some understanding and empathy toward other people. You accept yourself while recognizing your own deficiencies, and you see the truth about your choices and behavior without resorting to harsh self-criticism. Your self-knowledge is in service of self- improvement and an optimized work performance.
Emotional intelligence also involves recognizing that other people’s behavior is driven by underlying, often unconscious motivations or inner conflicts. This behavior might sometimes appear illogical, but with a high EQ you recognize that it’s meaningful, and as a result, you’re better equipped to deal with it. With emotional intelligence, you can navigate relationships based on both the overt and subtle needs and intentions of both parties.
People gain emotional intelligence while growing up: loving, nurturing parents are instrumental in its development. Those who were deprived of a fully positive childhood are often deficient in this type of intelligence to a greater or lesser degree, and a lower EQ is demonstrated by ongoing inter-personal difficulties in the workplace. Fortunately, emotional intelligence can be developed later in life through various means, including counseling, coaching, and courses of study.
There are three essential tasks which you’ll need to master at work, and two of them are interpersonal, as opposed to specifically job-related. This makes having a high EQ more important than any other attribute for avoiding problems and achieving success in the workplace. The first and most obvious work task is doing the actual job, but this may be less important than those which follow.
The next essential task is dealing with your boss. They may be someone who is supportive, laissez-faire, inappropriately chummy, overly-critical or even downright abusive. In order to avoid unnecessary stress at work, you should make every attempt to forge an alliance with this person.
You don’t even have to like them, (or they, you) but if you are strategic, and demonstrate to your boss that enabling your success is in their best interest, you’re likely to obtain their support. You must also recognize & deal with the overly-familiar or critical boss and right from the start, establish good boundaries with them. You are responsible for showing them how you expect to be treated.
If you have a high EQ, you’ll understand that most bosses want to know that they didn’t make a mistake in hiring you, and that you’re an asset, as opposed to a burden. You’ll need to look competent yet not set up unreasonable expectations, and demonstrate dedication while not being a martyr to the job. When you make a mistake, you must find a way to demonstrate to the boss that this is an isolated incident, as opposed to an indication of a general lack of competence.
Bringing interpersonal conflicts to your boss’s attention might backfire on you, if they perceive you as a complainer, a trouble-maker or someone who is adding to their already considerable work-load. Telling on someone for stealing your idea or your work or for doing something unethical is also fraught with risk, as some of their taint could rub off on you.
You need to ask yourself why you become so irate when people do the wrong thing, and why you feel compelled to police your colleagues. Also, if people are stealing from you in the workplace, perhaps there’s a lesson in it for you about more carefully guarding your ideas. Your co-worker’s bad behavior and your reactions to it both derive from the inner workings of your psyches.
Some people are prone to throwing themselves on their sword when they make an error; those with a high EQ recognize that it’s preferable to find a way to reassure the boss that this error is out of character for you. If you are too quick to point out your faults to your boss, this is a sign of low self-esteem, which needs to be dealt with somewhere other than the work-place.
Some people become frustrated at work when they’ve performed their tasks competently and responsibly and yet see other, far less capable people being advanced ahead of them. If this has been your experience, perhaps your lack of belief in yourself has been picked up on a subliminal level by your boss, who promoted the individual with a (perhaps undeservedly) stronger sense of self.
Sadly, the narcissistic personality tends to do well in the workplace, as this type is viewed by the boss as confident, competent and deserving of rewards, even when they merely appear to be so. On the other hand, the inadequate personality is doomed to suffer at work. This type does everything required of them but is hyper-critical toward themselves. They will frequently be passed up for promotion as their self-doubt will cause their boss to doubt their abilities, too.
The third essential task at work is dealing with colleagues. You need to appear pleasant yet not come across as a pushover. It’s very important to get along with others at work, but trying too hard to please the people you work with will result in their attempting to take advantage of you. In the power-politics of a hierarchical workplace, demonstrating too great a need for approval is read as weakness and garners contempt.Your colleagues are no more the source of emotional nurturing than your boss is.
Coming in late or sitting at your desk unoccupied are things which will annoy your co-workers and if brought to the attention of your boss could result in your being accused of lowering staff morale. Often, chronic lateness is a way of indirectly expressing resentment. If you have this problem, it would be helpful to address it with a professional.
If you don’t have enough to do, or if you tend to finish your work tasks more quickly than your co-workers, you have a few choices: request greater challenges, take on an independent project or find a way to look busy, even when you’re not, but remember that each of these choices comes with possible consequences. Those with a high EQ at work know to go about their business in the same way as a defensive driver.
People take their emotional baggage to the workplace. There are those who shirk their responsibilities at work, and those who are overly-conscientious. The former have a sense of entitlement or resentment toward their role, while the latter are looking for parental-type love and approval from their boss for being a “good child.”
It’s important to understand that the workplace is not the arena for emotional healing, and that the only outcome of sacrificing yourself for your job is burn-out. You must also recognize that there will always be those who’ll lie, cheat, steal ideas or materials and avoid work, as a result of their unresolved anger or troubled personalities.
People with a high EQ know that they can either be strategic in dealing with such individuals, or, if there are one or more truly toxic individuals in the workplace, it might be time to look for a new job. Workplace conflicts can create opportunities for you to learn new interpersonal skills or they can be a way in which you recreate an old, counter-productive family dynamic.
Those with a high EQ understand that no job is ever worth tolerating disrespect for. Some people feel a sense of helplessness or desperation at work, not believing in their own ability to be assertive or to find something better. If you are feeling unhappy or resentful at work, you aren’t doomed to tolerate the situation, interminably.
Having emotional intelligence enables you to recognize that although you don’t necessarily have control, you have a choice about how you deal with each and every work situation. You see that personal empowerment not only enables you to walk away from a dysfunctional work environment; it makes it possible for you to find another, better position.
Taking responsibility for yourself at work can make things much better for you. If you are someone who has gone from job to job, always being bullied or mistreated by co-workers, it might be time to ask yourself if there’s something that you’re doing which could be provoking this pattern of behavior in others. After all, the common denominator in this equation is you.
If your colleagues, and perhaps even your boss are constantly coming to you with their problems, and you are feeling burdened by your role as the emotional care-taker of your workplace, again, you’ve created a situation, based on your own emotional issues, which isn’t working for you.
Success at work is never a matter of merely being competent. Those who rise through the ranks are either clever manipulators who know how to get others to promote them, or excellent negotiators who are able to navigate the minefield of workplace personality and psychology with finesse.
Marcia Sirota MD is a psychiatrist and psychotherapist practicing in Toronto Canada. Her areas of interest include overcoming compulsive eating and other addictions, unblocking creativity and healing PTSD.
She is the founder of the Ruthless Compassion Institute, which is dedicated to promoting the philosophy of Ruthless Compassion.
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