George Lucas Educational Foundation
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I'm going to share one of my greatest discoveries about developing teams. This understanding has led me to take actions that otherwise would never occur to me when working with groups. I also think it might be one of the keys to building effective teams of educators who can collaborate, learn together, and transform our schools.

You've probably heard about emotional intelligence (EI) -- the ability to recognize when you're experiencing emotions, to have strategies for managing them, and to recognize other people's emotions and respond appropriately to them. A team leader's EI is extremely important, but there's also such thing as a group's collective emotional intelligence. And this, say the researchers, is what sets high-functioning teams apart from average ones.

Why Group Emotional Intelligence Matters

A team's emotional intelligence might be the most important predictor of what it will do together, what conversations will sound like, and how members will feel about going to meetings -- and just because a team is comprised of individuals with strong emotional intelligence doesn't mean that the team itself will have high EI. Groups take on their own character.

Group Emotional Intelligence Examples

Some indicators of low EI in a group:

  • Team members don't look at each other when they're talking. A speaker might look at one other member or at the team leader.
  • Team members allow themselves to be distracted by technology, each other, and other things.
  • Team members interrupt each other in discussions.
  • When someone shares an idea or perspective, the first response from another member is a disagreement, skeptical question, or challenge.
  • Questions about the processes used in meeting are constantly raised.
  • Individuals raise potentially contentious topics that might be important to address but are not relevant or appropriate at that time.
  • Team members put each other down or attack each other.
  • One person can hijack the meeting because of her opinion, confusion, disagreement, or emotional state.
  • There's a lot of blaming others (parents, administration, "the district").
  • Conversations often focus on the sphere outside of our control or influence.
  • Personal beliefs are espoused as truths. For example, "Our students can't do that."

Some indicators of strong EI in a group:

  • When a team member is talking, he makes eye contact with all others. Team members paraphrase each other's ideas.
  • When a new idea is put on the table, there's curiosity about it.
  • You hear comments such as:
    • I've shared a lot already. I'm going to sit back and listen to others on this topic.
    • I'd really like to hear your perspective on this, _____. We haven't heard much from you today.
    • I'm having a hard day and I'm not feeling great this afternoon. I'm working on shifting this and I don't want you to wonder why I'm less engaged today.
  • Team members express empathy for each other, as well as for others outside of their team.
  • Conversations focus on seeking solutions.
  • Team members address when others seem to be having emotions. This can sound like, "I'm wondering what's going on for you right now, ____. You seem upset."
  • Team members offer feedback in the moment on their process. This can sound like, "I feel like we might have rushed through that discussion too fast to surface everyone's ideas. Do others feel that way?"
  • Team members offer feedback at the end of meetings on their process. This can sound like, "I appreciated our conversation at the start of our meeting. That was really helpful for me to get clarity. I wish we'd had more time to articulate our next steps. Is that something that others would like to spend time on next time?"
  • Humor is used appropriately to lighten situations and call awareness to a group or individual's mood.
  • People find things to be optimistic about.
  • Team members appreciate each other for their contributions to the team and their action.

Further Benefits for the Group

Emotionally intelligent teams have ways of managing the moods that one member is experiencing as well as their moods as a team. This "management" doesn't necessarily come from the leader -- in fact, an indicator of an emotionally intelligent team is that any member accepts authority to address moods, communication dynamics, and interactions between members.

Much of the time, the ways that teammates manage these interactions feel comfortable and appropriate. In an emotionally intelligent team, members welcome insights, observations, and suggestions for improving their work and team dynamics. When one person starts talking too much, another might lightheartedly say, "OK, James! We've got it. You love this idea and hope we start working on it right away. I appreciate your enthusiasm and want to make sure we hear from others, so zip it for a while!" And in an emotionally intelligent team, James would laugh, motion the zipping of his lips, and sit back to listen to others.

The concept that a team has emotional intelligence can significantly affect how we facilitate groups and can help us address myriad challenges in our teams. But the purpose is not just so we feel good.

Teams need to develop emotional intelligence so that members can engage in conversations that push each other's thinking (not each other's buttons), and that include challenging questions, taking personal risks, and acknowledging vulnerability.

Building emotionally intelligent teams might just be the most important work that we do as facilitators, department heads, instructional coaches, and leaders. In my next post, I'll share strategies for building a team's emotional intelligence. It can be done.

What are your thoughts and ideas on this post? Please share in the comments section below.

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Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Teacher/leader & techie at independent, alternative, therapeutic high school

I love how you gave specific examples! You could turn both lists into a checklist self-assessment and your team could rate themselves on how they are doing as a way to open the conversation. Even better, you could have your team develop their own list: "What would it look like, sound like, feel like if we were at our best functioning as a team?" and then self-assess how they are doing along those lines. This is also great stuff for thinking about groupwork with students - a well-functioning student grouping has emotional intelligence, as well!

Elena Aguilar's picture
Elena Aguilar
Transformational Leadership Coach from Oakland, California

Thanks, Alex! I forgot to mention in this blog (oops!) that this is an excerpt from my next book, The Art of Coaching Teams, (Jossey-Bass) which will be out in early 2016. There are a whole lot of tools in there related to this section - and much more!

LindaInlay's picture
Recently retired middle school administrator committed to SEL

In my work related to a systems approach to social emotional learning, I've realized too that transformation of the self is the critical foundation for personal growth and growth of an organization. My first principal said, "YOu don't just subjects; you teach who you are." So consciousness, self-awareness or as you shared, EQ, is important to growth. And EQ is becoming more and more of a priority in the business world. In addition to this "awakening," is the group's consciousness about the dynamics that support or conversely get in the way of synergistic and effective functioning as a group. Your descriptors of a functional team versus a non-functional one is very helpful as a reflection by a team to assesss its own EQ health. Thank you for this and I look forward to your new book!

LisaG's picture

I really enjoyed this and plan to implement many of your ideas. Is there an easy way to find the subsequent post you mention, describing strategies for building a team's emotional intelligence?

Heather Mcleod's picture

I think this is a little idealistic and a little like telling starving people to eat with more manners, or to be more generous. I have worked in both types of environment and perhaps not surprisingly, the easier the task, the easier it was to all be our best selves together and achieve great things. In a school where things were impossibly tough and resources scarce people were tired, frayed and not as able to be the Zen master in staff meetings. Immensely challenging environments already take enough of a toll without coming home and reading it's not good to vent or have negative emotions and share them, staff in these predicaments know this well enough!

Arundhati Swamy's picture

Excellent thoughts and ideas Elena. Especially the examples and the concept of collective emotional intelligence . Looking forward to your ideas on building it in a team. Thank you!

Will Minton's picture
Will Minton
Traveling the world to learn about education

The emotional intelligence of a group is influenced by everyone but I think the leader has a large influence on it because they largely control the context and tone of the meetings. Here's an interesting case study of an instructional coordinator that's created a very high functioning team from a group of teachers who didn't always like working together:
Also, I'm incredibly excited about the new book. The Art of Coaching has proved fundamental to my understanding of working with teachers.

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