George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teacher Development

The Key to Effective Teams in Schools: Emotional Intelligence

Photo credit: Kevin Jarrett via flickr (CC BY 2.0)
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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.

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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.