Emotionally Unintelligent & They Don’t Even Know It—Tips for Coping


One of my favorite times of year is the week I spend surrounded by 15,000 of the brightest HR professionals in the world.  Yes, I am talking about the SHRM Annual Conference.  Like you I enjoy this conference because it offers exceptional content and learning opportunities.  Like you I love the opportunity to see what exhibitors have to offer.  Most important for me is the opportunity to meet with HR professionals and share war stories.  Over the years, I have met so many HR professionals all willing to share a great story about their day-to-day experiences.  These war stories serve as perpetual LOL moments with hidden educational gems.  This year the stories you shared were just as entertaining as ever, but none left a mark like the one about the emotionally unintelligent employee and their epic failure at empathy. 

It all starts with a lovely lady who had read some of my blogs and stopped me on my way to the SHRM Certification Lounge.  “Dr. Alonso! Dr. Alonso!” she shouted as she ran over to me.  “Boy, do I have a story for you.”  What followed was one of the most unusual stories about a disgruntled employee I had ever heard. 

About a year ago, my new annual conference friend, the HR Director of a small Midwestern organization, lost her father.  She was known for her sense of humor and for engaging her team in engaging work challenges.  People around the organization admired her penchant for developing staff and consistently sought ways to mimic her teambuilding abilities.  She was a bona fide leader.  As she described it though, she had one staff member who served as the team “grump-apotamus.”  This employee had leveraged the director’s open-door policy to lodge more complaints than anyone had in the history of the organization.   

One morning the director was sitting at her desk when the employee strolled in to complain about the organization’s CEO.  During a hallway conversation the CEO bumped into the employee and asked how he was doing.  In the course of conversation, the employee noted his high job satisfaction and the CEO responded by asking proof in the form of a smile.  This prompted a sheepish albeit grudging smile followed by an employee relations complaint against the CEO.  What struck the director more than anything else though was the lack of emotional intelligence exhibited.  You see the employee submitted his complaint via email.  Not too unusual, right?  Well, he submitted this complaint in an email where offered condolences about the loss of the director’s father.  The employee leveraged a communication meant to offer sorrow for a death in the family to complain about what seemed to be a pleasant chat with the organization’s CEO.  The director even offered her reaction to the email—“Holy hell!”

I am certain my face showed my disbelief.  I couldn’t believe someone would even try to communicate those two things in one meeting let alone one email.  The director looked at me with a knowing smile and asked, “Doesn’t that make a great foundation for a blog on the emotionally unintelligent?”  She mentioned that her toughest relationship management task is not conflict management but rather dealing with those who lack all sorts of interpersonal skills especially emotional intelligence.

In keeping with the theme of coping with emotionally-unintelligent people, I offer three tips:

1)      Don’t fight emotion with emotion.  We’ve all seen those people who bring emotion to situations that do not require it.  We’ve all seen the videos of crazy people losing their mind because they didn’t get enough cheese on their sandwiches.  We’ve all witnessed the crazy person in a break-up who will not let go of the situation and fights vehemently until everyone just walks away.  These are all examples of emotionally-unintelligent individuals who apply emotion when they should not.  The best approach for these individuals is to withdraw all emotion.  Respond calmly and watch them acknowledge their own wild behavior. 

2)      Don’t confuse a lack of emotional intelligence with bad attitude. There are people who will always be negative Nellies or rain on every parade.  Not knowing how to respond with empathy and effective communication is different from being a negative Nellie though. Those predisposed to negative affect will not change their affect.  This means we can’t focus on mood or temperament as an indicator of emotionally-unintelligent behaviors.  While the two can go hand in hand at times, one reflects a selection issue involving affectivity and the other reflects a training issue where behavior modification is needed.  So ask yourself, “Am I dealing with a negative Nellie or someone who needs training?”  The latter can be fixed.

3)      Coach’em up and pray they use it at the right time.  Believe it or not the emotional unintelligent can be taught to use appropriate responses when necessary.  It just takes practice.  The best approach I’ve witnessed is assessing how individuals would respond to someone experiencing important life stressors.  For example, I would ask someone how they would respond to someone experiencing a change in roles at work.  Even if the person lacks any form of empathy, you can teach them what to say and how to respond.  The alternative is a mine field of employee relations issues in the making.

When dealing with the emotionally unintelligent you will be tested.  You will need to bring your communication, relationship management, and consultation skills to bear.  Can you think of a time you had to leverage these skills to cope with emotionally-unintelligent behaviors?  Do you have a great story about someone who failed to demonstrate emotional intelligence? 



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