Emotional Intelligence, Emotion and Social Work: Context, Characteristics, Complications and Contribution (2023)

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Volume 37 Issue 2

February 2007

Article Contents

  • Abstract

  • Introduction

  • Connections and context

  • Emotional intelligence: definitions and complexities

  • Social work and emotional competence

  • Conclusion

  • References

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Tony Morrison

Tony Morrison

Tony Morrison is an independent trainer and consultant working with a background in children’s services. He works with social services, health and other agencies both in the UK and overseas on issues including staff supervision; inter-agency collaboration; change management; and team development. He has a special interest in attachment theory and has been involved in work to develop services to young people who sexually abuse. He is a Visiting Research Fellow at the School of Human and Health Sciences at Huddersfield University and is an external examiner for the MSc in Advanced Social Work at Queens and Ulster Universities in Northern Ireland. He has published widely in the fields of supervision, staff development and inter-agency working.

Correspondence to Tony Morrison, 3 Aintree Drive, Rochdale OL11 5SH, England. E-mail: Tonymorrison@btinternet.com

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The British Journal of Social Work, Volume 37, Issue 2, February 2007, Pages 245–263, https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcl016

Published:

30 March 2006

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01 February 2006

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30 March 2006

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Abstract

Emotional intelligence (EI) has become one of the new management ‘buzz’ terms. It is suggested that this is the missing ingredient that separates average from top management or performance. However, despite its potential relevance for social work practice, there has been little investigation and few reports about its application in social work settings. This paper seeks to stimulate debate about the role of EI in social work practice by considering its development, definitions and problematics. Whilst the empirical evidence supporting the existence of a separate and measurable EI is ambiguous and emergent, the role of emotion in the organization of human behaviour is more firmly established. The paper examines the role of EI and emotion in relation to five core social work tasks: engagement of users; assessment and observation; decision making; collaboration and co-operation; dealing with stress. The paper situates itself in the rapidly changing context of social work: the merger of social services departments with larger more powerful bureaucracies; the movement towards integrated service delivery; and the new social work degree. It is argued that social work needs to identify its claims to professional competence at a time of such change, one of which is the ability to use relationships to address users’ needs. This requires the capacity to handle both one’s own and others’ emotions effectively.

emotional intelligence, emotion, social work practice, relationships, change

Introduction

Emotional intelligence (EI) has been defined as ‘Being able to motivate oneself and persist in the face of frustrations; to control impulse and delay gratification; to regulate one’s moods and keep distress from swamping the ability to think; to empathize and to hope’ (Goleman, 1996). Given the centrality of emotions and power relationships in the social work task, the exponential growth of academic and popular literature about EI suggests that the need for a discussion of the potential relevance of EI to social work is overdue.

Additional impetus for this discussion arises from two sources. The standards underpinning the new social work degree include requirements for practitioners to ‘to develop and maintain effective working relationships; reflect on your own background experiences and practice that may have an impact on the relationship’ (Training Organisation for Personal Services Services, 2002). Second, the Common Core of Skills and Knowledge for the Children’s Workforce (Department for Education and Skills, 2004) provides a multidisciplinary framework of competence targeted at all those working with children and young people. The framework stresses the intra and inter-personal skills required of practitioners, including:

  • listening and building empathy;

  • understanding the effects of non-verbal communication;

  • self-awareness about how working with children may affect you emotionally and how to seek help.

This paper seeks to stimulate and inform debate at all levels about the role and contribution of emotion in general, and EI in particular, within the practice of social work. To date, the voice of social work, which, in theory at least, has extensive experience of working intelligently with emotions has been largely silent. The intention of this paper is thus to begin to identify the potential applications of EI for social work. The contention of this paper is that EI is, alongside professional values, one of the cornerstones for effective social work, which current social work teaching, practice, management and research can ill afford to ignore.

Following a brief reflection on the rationale and stimulus for writing this paper, the opening section provides a description of the origins and characteristics of EI models. The complications and limitations of existing models which have, to date, been largely American and corporate in nature will be discussed. The paper goes on to explore the relevance of EI to five core social work activities. The paper concludes with some cautionary notes about possible pitfalls that should be avoided.

Although the primary context for this paper is children’s social work in England, the challenges and changes facing social work in general, across jurisdictions both within and beyond the UK (Eire, Canada, USA, Australia and New Zealand), share many similarities. These include uncertainties about its professional identity; relocation of social work services within integrated service delivery systems (Ehrle et al., 2004; Cm 5860, 2003); problems of recruitment and retention (Gibbs, 2001); ambivalent and confused public understanding of its role (Davidson and King, 2005); and negative perceptions particularly with regards to its competence in child protection work (Scottish Executive, 2002). It is therefore hoped that readers operating in other service contexts or jurisdictions, and indeed in other social or health care contexts, will find much in the paper to which they can relate. Indeed, my own experience of teaching EI principles to practitioners and managers as far apart as Canada and New Zealand confirms the universality of much that is contained within this paper.

Connections and context

It is often the case that interest and conviction about the relevance of a theory come alive when a connection is made with lived experience. Indeed, it would be somewhat incongruent to write a paper on the relevance of EI without some individual reflection. As a social work trainer, mentor and external examiner who has been following the emergence of EI over recent years, three situations provide compelling evidence about the relevance of EI in social work.

As an external examiner for a masters-level advanced social work course, it has become clear that the best dissertations describing, evidencing, explaining and reflecting upon effective social work interventions in complex care settings are characterized by candidates who display a congruence of professional, academic and personal mindfulness that sets them apart from their competent colleagues. These candidates, whilst highly conscientious and well organized, also bring a level of unconscious competence, expertise and effortlessness that sets them apart. These are fluent practitioners who ‘fly’. Moreover, these candidates frequently refer to the role of EI in their practice. Finally, they demonstrate, under the same pressures and constraints as their ‘competent’ colleagues, an ability to make a positive impact above and beyond their competent colleagues. By contrast, candidates at the borderline levels of advanced competence find individual reflection difficult, and often fail to take into sufficient account the views, wishes or feelings of users and colleagues. Interestingly, whilst some of these may have also have struggled academically, this is not always the case.

Second, as a mentor for managers and supervisors dealing with difficult staff management situations, it is increasingly apparent clear that the most troubling and intractable situations exist when performance difficulties occur in the context of staff who lack accurate empathy, self-awareness and self-management skills. This lack of emotional competence renders the specific performance problems, such as poor recording practice, all but unmanageable. In the worst cases, these become almost ‘toxic’ in such a way that whole teams or even agencies can become enmeshed in the distorting dynamics surrounding the individual staff member.

It was such situations that stimulated a link between the EI literature (Goleman, 1998; Bar-On, 2000; Cherniss and Goleman, 2001; Caruso and Salovey, 2004;) and social work practice. The third powerful stimulus was Benner’s research on competence and expertise in nursing practice (Benner, 2001). This research was conducted during the mid-1980s at a point of crisis in US nursing services. Shortages in nursing staff and the need to train new nurses quickly resulted in the development of technical competences against which nurses could be trained and easily measured—a context wholly familiar to contemporary British social work.

Benner’s analysis of critical incident interviews with experienced nurses identified that, in acute medical or care situations, the expert nurse had a level of anticipatory, observational, analytical and inter-personal patient care skills that were both care enhancing and frequently life-saving. In part, this was achieved by intervening speedily during medical crises, but equally it was by making powerful emotional contact with the patient during such crises that motivated the patient’s self healing determination. This is borne out by other research in which it was found that cardiac patients nursed by staff with depressed mood had a mortality rate four times higher than expected (Goleman et al., 2002). It is clear, then, that the handling of emotion and the process of care are inextricably connected. Yelloly and Henkel (1995) strike a similar vein about the nature of the best social work practice using a musical analogy to describe the art of social work:

There are laws of harmony which the musician must follow. But the act of musical creation is in no way determined by these laws, and at times they clearly do not apply, and a new musical language may be introduced. It is likely that the effective worker, like the accomplished musician, combines an informed understanding of principles and theories with an intuitive gift which enables her to tune in to the experience of troubled people (Yelloly and Henkel, 1995, p. 7).

However, Benner (2001) argues that unless such expert or intuitive practice can be described and articulated, it will be lost in the context of the pursuit of a purely technical set of competences in which such expertise is neither described nor valued:

Narrative accounts of nursing practice reveal major aspect of the nursing role that cannot be captured in formal descriptions of techniques and procedures or task analysis approaches to job descriptions (Benner, 2001, p. ix).

Similar unease has been expressed about the adoption of competency based models in social work training. Joss and Hey (1991), quoted in Yelloly and Henkel (1995), comments on the way in which ‘competence’ denies the holistic nature of the work, shows what people must do, but not how or why. These comments fit into a much wider debate about the recent direction of social work (Jordan, 2001; Parton and O’Byrne, 2000). As far back as 1996, Howe observed that the competence movement was in danger of developing practitioner technicians:

. . . confined to performing surface responses according to pre-coded procedures. Practice no longer responds to the inherent meaning of the case. Rather meaning is imposed according to the skills, resources and interests of the organization . . . . Relationships between social workers and their clients change from inter-personal to economic, from therapeutic to transactional, from nurturing and supportive to contractual and service oriented. The personal relationship once a central feature of social work practice is striped of its social, cultural, emotional and inter-personal dimension (Howe, 1996, p. 92).

Gregson and Holloway (2005) echo previous voices (e.g. Banks, 1995) in identifying the trend from a professional towards a managerial culture and language in social work, driven by the public policy imperatives of risk prediction, public protection, consumerism and care management. It is not surprising in such a context that many social workers no longer believe or see themselves as change-agents for their users (Platt, 2003).

Despite these trends, writers such as Trevithick (2003) maintain that relationship-based practices remain at the heart of social work. Gregson and Holloway (2003) place the conversation between worker and user at the core of social work practice, and the essential tool for the formation of a relationship within which any movement or change can take place. The healing power of such relationships is recognized by Fosha (2003, p. 223), who states: ‘Through just one relationship with an understanding other, trauma can be transformed and its effects neutralized.’ The International Federation of Social Work (IFSW, 2000) similarly lays emphasis on the centrality of relationship skills, defining the social work profession as one which promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being.

Trevithick (2003) identifies a number of areas of social work activity in which relationship- based practice is relevant. These include: assessment; help and care for people experiencing difficulties relating to self and others; advocacy and mediation for people experiencing discrimination; holding and containing anxiety in times of transition or crisis; and creating a foundation for capacity building.

But the importance of relationship skills extends beyond practitioner–user interactions, to working with other colleagues, disciplines and systems. Relationship competence is equally important for supervisors, administrators, leaders and managers. Indeed, evidence from the emerging science of quantum physics identifies relationships as the basic building blocks to all life. Such thinking is being increasingly adopted by organizational theorists such as Margaret Wheatly in writing about leadership. Quoting Jantsch (1980), Wheatly (1999) writes: ‘In life the issue is not control, but dynamic connectedness’ (p. 25).

It might be suggested that the future health of social work rests, in part, on restoring a sense of dynamic connectedness with both its task and those whom social workers seek to assist. It is therefore precisely at a time of professional and occupational turbulence that an understanding of relationship-based practice and the contribution of EI to social work can make their most important contribution. In the next section, the origins, nature and emerging schools of EI are explored.

Emotional intelligence: definitions and complexities

The notion that there are forms of intelligence, not captured by IQ and which are important in life skills and life chances, has long been established. For instance, Thorndike (1921) coined the term ‘social intelligence’ to describe the idea of acting wisely in human relationships. Wechsler (1940) proposed that the non-intellectual abilities were essential for predicting the ability to succeed in life. More recently, Gardner (1983) developed the idea that humans possess multiple intelligences, including inter-personal, intra-personal, physical, visual, special, artistic, environmental and kinesthetic in addition to cognitive intelligence. He argued that inter- and intra-personal intelligences were as important as IQ. However, it was Salovey and Mayer (1990) who first used the term ‘emotional intelligence’ to describe a form of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and action.

These writers were among a growing group of researchers who were becoming concerned with the inability of traditional tests of cognitive intelligence to predict performance, whether in life or in jobs. Hunter and Hunter (1984) estimated that, at best, IQ accounts for about 25 per cent of the variance. Others such as Sternberg (1996) suggested that whilst studies vary, 10 per cent may be a more realistic estimate. An example of the limits of IQ as a predictor of life chances is a forty-year longitudinal investigation of 450 boys who grew up in Sommerville, Massachusetts (Snarey and Vaillant, 1985). Two-thirds of the boys were from welfare families, and one-third had an IQ below 90. However, IQ bore little relation to how well they did at work or in the rest of their lives. What made the biggest difference were childhood abilities, such as being able to handle frustration, control emotions and get along with other people.

Rosenthal (1977) discovered that people who were best at identifying others’ emotions were more successful in their work as well as in their social lives. Thus, empathy is particularly important in contributing to occupational success.

However, it was Goleman’s publication (1996), Emotional Intelligence: Why It Matters More than IQ, that brought ‘EI’ into the public arena and spawned an explosion of media, business, popular and academic interest. Although his first book (Goleman 1996) focused on the role of EI in parenting, Goleman’s subsequent books (Goleman, 1998; Cherniss and Goleman, 2000; Goleman et al., 2002) have largely focused on the application of EI in the field of leadership in the American corporate sector. Goleman (1996) claimed that EI was twice as predictive of the best leaders as IQ or technical knowledge.

The basic EI paradigm within which all the main schools mentioned below broadly fit comprise four domains, which are visually represented by Figure 1. There are two intra-personal domains—self-awareness and self-management—and two inter-personal domains—awareness of others/empathy and relationship skills. The arrows indicate the interrelationships that exist between all four domains.

Figure 1

Emotional Intelligence, Emotion and Social Work: Context, Characteristics, Complications and Contribution (3)

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The Emotional Intelligence Paradigm

The arrows indicate the interrelatedness across the four domains, particularly between self-awareness and empathy for others as a basis for managing self and relationships. Shulman (1999, p. 156) encapsulates the relevance of this for practitioners when he states: ‘The capacity to be in touch with the client’s feelings is related to the worker’s ability to acknowledge his/her own. Before a worker can understand the power of emotion in the life of the client, it is necessary to discover its importance in the worker’s own experience.’

A decade later, three broad schools, each with its own assessment instrument, have emerged. These are Goleman and the ECI: Emotional Competence Inventory (Goleman, 1998); Bar-On and the EQ-i (1997) and the MSCEIT Mayer Salovey and Caruso Emotional Intelligence Scale (2002). Goleman’s definition of EI is the widest ranging, and most performance orientated, encompassing abilities beyond the specific processing of emotions including:

  • self-awareness;

  • emotional resilience;

  • motivation/drivers;

  • empathy/sensitivity;

  • influence/rapport;

  • intuitive re: decisions;

  • conscientiousness.

These abilities are assessed using the Emotional Competence Inventory, which is a 360-degree instrument in which colleagues are asked score the individual on a range of EI measures, following which a composite EI profile is constructed.

Bar-On’s EQ-I (1997) is a self-report instrument evolved in a clinical rather than an occupational context. It was designed to assess those personal qualities that enabled some people to possess better ‘emotional well-being’ than others, and includes an additional scale measuring general mood.

In contrast to both the above, Salovey and Mayer’s definition (1990) focuses on a discrete set of emotion processing abilities:

  • perceiving and identifying feelings in self/others;

  • emotional integration and facilitation of thinking;

  • emotional understanding: thinking about feelings;

  • emotional management.

Moreover, their MSCEIT Scale is an ability test based on ‘objective’ criteria rather than a self-report or 360-degree measure. The test-taker performs a series of tasks that are designed to assess the person’s ability to perceive, identify, understand and work with emotion. One other framework deserves mention. Schutte et al. (1998) developed a self-report measure based on Salovey and Mayer’s (1990) early work, which has been used to rate the ability of student counsellors working at mental health agencies.

It will be noted that all of the above define EI as an individual phenomenon. An interesting departure from this is found in the work of an organization called Antidote, which has been using EI principles in work with troubled schools. Antidote offers a collective definition of EI:

EL is the practice of thinking individually and collectively about how emotions shape our actions and of using emotional understanding to enrich our thinking. EL involves using whatever relationships are available to help transform feelings that incapacitate to feelings that empower (Antidote, 2003, p. v).

Significantly, this definition places emotions alongside thinking and action. In other words, EI is not an end in itself; it is means to enrich thinking, action, service delivery and outcomes.

In summary, the main differences between these EI approaches and their respective measures lie in whether EI is seen as a personality-type trait or an ability; the range of human functioning (narrow versus broad) covered by the definition; whether it describes individual or collective phenomena; and the degree to which EI is claimed as a distinct type of intelligence. The question as to whether EI is a measurable and separate form of intelligence has been subject of a robust critique by Matthews et al. (2004). Nonetheless, despite their reservations about the concept of EI, they conclude:

There is a growing realisation that psychological processes considered to be purely cognitive or intellectual in fact depend on a synergy between cognition and emotion. Whether or not programmes are actually fostering EI competence, various useful skills are learned. These include: labelling and describing emotions, appraising basic emotions in oneself and others, conflict management, taking perspective of others, decision making and problem solving techniques, effective peer relation trainings (p. 542).

Petrides et al. (2004a, p. 577) summarize the current state of EI research as follows: ‘We believe that the future of EI lies in its conceptualization as a personality trait.’ Petrides et al. (2004b) also claim that there is emerging evidence that trait-based EI is implicated in academic performance in that pupils with lower-trait EI have been found to be likely to have unauthorized absences and to have been excluded. However, in recognizing some of the difficulties with the concept of ‘intelligence’, the same authors suggest that emotional ‘self-efficacy’ or emotional competence may be a more appropriate terminology. However, regardless of the degree to which a separate and measurable EI exists, research on the role of emotion, rather than EI, in human behaviour is compelling. Panksepp (2000) describes emotion as a central organizing system responsible for the co-ordination of behavioural, physiological, affective and cognitive responses to major adaptive problems.

Thus far in this paper, the broad relevance of EI/competence to the practice of social work has been argued. The emerging concept of EI has been presented as a potential framework around which emotional competence can be articulated, enhanced and assessed.

The point has been made that emotional responsiveness and capacity are not merely a product of individuals, but are powerfully influenced by collective and contextual processes, including workplace, professional and socio-cultural factors. Bearing this in mind, the paper now considers five core aspects of social work practice and considers the contribution of emotional competence to these activities.

Social work and emotional competence

Engagement

Whilst assessment is commonly described as the first stage of the care or intervention process, in fact, assessment cannot be effective unless there has first been attention to a process of engagement and rapport building with the service user. We all know how the demeanour and language of the family doctor have a powerful and immediate effect on the manner in which our health concerns are presented and the details we offer about them. Gask and Usherwood (2002, p. 1567) state: ‘The success of any consultation depends on how well the patient and doctor communicate with each other. There is firm evidence linking the quality of this communication with clinical outcomes.’ Furthermore, the pattern of interaction is established very early in the consultation so that once a doctor has interrupted, patients rarely introduce new issues.

Given that emotions are often generated around power and status interactions (Kemper, 2000) and the presence of anxiety (Morrison, 1997), social workers also need to pay particular attention to both their own and their user’s emotional states. The degree to which vulnerable users have suffered multiple experiences of dysregulated emotions, inconsistent care and unpredictable danger, in response to which they have developed emotional antennae which are highly attuned to the emotional demeanour of those on whom they may have to depend, must not be forgotten. Their life experiences have imprinted on them the potential dangers of misreading the emotional demeanour of a carer/helper. It is likely that many users can detect the practitioner’s emotional state faster than the practitioner can elicit the emotions of the user.

Spratt and Callan (2004) examined twelve parents’ experiences of their families’ first contact with their social worker. Whilst five of the parents felt the first encounter had been positive, three were ambivalent and four were left concerned and very anxious parents. Spratt and Callan concluded:

Irrespective of the nature and source of referral and the families’ previous attitude to social workers, it was their relationship with their particular social worker that parents were to return to again and again . . . in particular their ability to empathize and communication skills (Spratt and Callan, 2004, p. 217).

Assessment and observation

Assessment practice should serve to reinforce, rather than reduce the importance of both intra and inter-personal skills. This is borne out by McKeown’s (2000) review of key change factors in family support work with vulnerable families. He found that four main factors accounted for the change process:

  • characteristics of the user (IQ, history, socio-economic status and social support) (40 per cent);

  • relationship between worker and client (especially empathy and planfulness) (30 per cent);

  • method of intervention (family therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, etc.) (15 per cent);

  • verbal hope expressed by the client (15 per cent).

Thus, the combination of understanding the characteristics of the user and their context (assessment) combined with establishing a purposeful and attuned relationship together account for 70 per cent of the change effort, outscoring method by over four to one. This is echoed by Brandon et al.’s (2000) study of 105 children who had suffered significant harm. This study found that the depth of the problems, the determination of the key worker and the comprehensiveness of services, rather than any particular method of work, were related to positive outcomes. There is a clear link between the quality of the worker’s relationship and comprehensiveness of assessment information. In particular, information about emotionally or morally laden material such as trauma, loss or problem drinking, is hugely influenced by the degree to which the assessor is empathic and non-judgemental. Insensitive assessment practices can result in a failure to elicit crucial aspects of the details, feelings, context and meaning of the user’s story, leading to inadequate plans, reduced user commitment and ineffective services.

Current assessment frameworks in children and youth justice services (Department of Health, 2000; Youth Justice Board, 2000) give limited attention to the significance of history, or understanding of the interaction between current problems and experiences of loss, trauma and bereavement. Brandon et al. (2000, p. 205) argue that insufficient attention has been paid to the ‘many dimensions of biography . . . and that such an understanding could lead to differential patterns of intervention’. A survey of 1,000 young offenders supervised by Youth Offending Teams found that 90 per cent of the young people under supervision had significant experience of loss or rejection, and identified emotional literacy as a key variable affecting change. In short, the report stated: ‘This is an awareness and acknowledgement that emotions play an important part in behaviour’ (Youth Justice Trust, 2003, p. 31).

It may be that the limited attention paid to the role of emotion in assessment frameworks also stems from an inadequate understanding about ‘feelings’. Emotions are more than feelings (Siegal, 1999). They are deep level signals about information that demands attention, as to whether a situation is to be approached or avoided. The rapid appraisal of such signals conveys the meaning of the situation and is often a trigger for action. Emotion, meaning, perception and action cannot be neatly segregated. Needs cannot be elicited or addressed without an appreciation of their emotional and cultural meaning. The result is that workers may see the need, but not the meaning of the need. In failing to elicit the meaning, well intentioned plans may fail.

Assessment requires both accurate observation and recall. Research has identified recall about emotional events is reduced when we try to suppress emotion (Richards and Gross, 2000, quoted in Caruso and Salovey, 2004; Baumeister et al., 2000, quoted in Caruso and Salovey, 2004). The suppression of emotional information may stem from either personal discomfort or cultural, organizational and professional beliefs which fail to distinguish ‘being emotional’ from using emotion. Attachment theory (Siegal, 1999) would suggest that emotion is information, and that discomforting emotions provide signals of possible danger which require attention and appraisal. A lack of self-awareness or suppression of emotion may result in important information being missed, either about the presence of external dangers or about intrusions from the worker’s own experience which may distort observation and assessment. Additionally, the capacity to accurately identify one’s own and others’ emotions also enables one to spot false emotions (Ekman, 1985). Practitioners need to make sense of not only the meaning of emotions in others, but, equally, the meaning for emotions in themselves, in order to make and interpret observations.

Decision making

Mood and the management of emotions play a significant role in decision making. For instance, Isen (2000) found that positive affect is associated with a range of mental capacities that have a direct impact on judgement and decision making. These include: expanded and creative thinking; ability to link between different sources and types of information or ideas; better elaboration about information; greater flexibility in negotiation situations; improved diagnostic/assessment ability. For example, doctors in whom positive affect had been induced (via a gift of sweets!) identified the nature of the medical problem more quickly, were more open to information than the controls and were less likely to distort information that did not fit their hypothesis (Isen, 2000). Clore and Schwartz (1988) and Frederickson (2001) have demonstrated that feelings influence what we pay attention to and how we think, remember and make decisions. Caruso and Salovey (2004) argue that emotional awareness increases the ability to predict the future|—either our own or others’, e.g. the potential consequences of our interventions on service users: ‘If we can generate an emotion or set of emotions that mimic some future or possible event we can transport ourselves and walk around in this future world’(p. 46).

Taken together, this research suggests that the boundary between feeling and thinking, and the oft-heard call for the removal of emotions from so-called objective or professional decision, needs re-assessment. The notion that emotion does not employ reasoning is weakened by the emphasis on the role of cognition in emotional appraisal (Frijda, 2000). Emotions play a central role in decision making. The illusion that they can be somehow removed or put on ice whilst rational decision making is in progress is neither helpful nor possible. Equally, the failure to manage feelings compromises the balance between thought, feeling and action. Perception and receptivity become distorted and people become less able to make effective use of evidence and information that do not fit with their view (Schofield, K., personal communication, 2005). What is required, instead, is the ability to harness all emotion as sources of information, and to seek to promote a positive climate within which the best decisions are likely to be made. Thinking devoid of emotional knowledge is as problematic as emotion devoid of thought.

Collaboration and co-operation

Emotion is not simply an expression of individual experience. It is also an expression of collective and institutional experience. Social care organizations carry considerable stresses due to the emotionally charged nature of the work, and the institutional anxiety resulting from the politically and publicly exposed context in which it is undertaken (Morrison, 1996, 1997; Menzies, 1970). Reynolds and Vince (2004) comment on the centrality of emotion in the workplace:

Every organization is an emotional place because it is a human invention, serving human purposes and dependent on human beings to function . . . . Emotion is what creates and sustains a system in its current form. Individuals and groups continually organize themselves both on the basis of their emotional responses to organizational issues, and on the basis of avoiding emotion (p. 447).

Long ago, Menzies (1970) identified the presence of social defence systems which are unconsciously reflected in organizational rituals, processes and systems designed to avoid feelings and experiences that are too deep and dangerous to confront. These protect the institution from its worst fears. Fineman (2005) notes that organizations are shaped by members’ unconscious desires, hopes and fantasies for attention, security and order, which replicate early family experiences. Through these mechanisms, it is possible to see how individuals’ feelings and relationship capacities are intertwined with the emotional needs and rules of the organization in its struggle for survival. Thus, problematic micro-level interactions between staff often act out unspoken macro-level tensions within and between organizations.

Social work is a collaborative practice. It is not enough for social workers to be able to work individually with their service users, if they are unable to make and sustain constructive within and outside their organizations. In particular, social workers operating within statutory roles will act as care managers or key workers responsible for commissioning services, and co-ordinating multidisciplinary assessment and planning processes. Both National Occupational Standards (Training Organisation for Personal Social Services, 2002) and the Common Core of Skills and Knowledge for the Children’s Workforce (Department for Education and Skills, 2004) emphasize the importance of the ability to work co-operatively with others, including colleagues, supervisors and other agencies. However, the organizational and inter-agency context in which social workers must make and maintain these collaborative relationships is particularly demanding. There are often hidden organizational dynamics that that complicate and undermine the regulation of feelings and relationships in the workplace.

Goleman et al. (2002) uses the ideas of resonance and dissonance to describe the contagious nature of emotions, which can be particularly powerful phenomena in organizations. Contagion occurs through a process of mirroring in which emotions spread amongst people who are in proximity to each other, leading to not only a sharing of mood, but also to an alignment of body posture and even heart rates. Friedman and Riggio (1981) suggest that the person who is most emotionally expressive transmits his or her mood to those around. Thus, positive resonance occurs when two people’s moods align around positive feelings which create optimism, mental efficiency, fairness and generosity (Goleman et al., 2002). In contrast, dissonance occurs when one person is out of touch with the feelings of another, putting that person off-balance and on-guard. Just as resonance is part of what makes work meaningful, dissonance leads to defensive pre-occupation, inefficiency and poor decision making.

Isen (2000) found that positive affect reduces inter-group hostility and discrimination, enables people to identify shared commonalities and enables members to treat other groups as members of their own group. In support of this, Wells (2004) has identified a positive association between EI and openness to differences. This has obvious implications for the ability of workers to practise in an anti-discriminatory manner. Values and knowledge about discriminatory forces have to be integrated with inter-personal skills, if practitioners are to be able not only to identify, but also challenge, such forces appropriately. This also has implications for workers located in multidisciplinary settings who need to be able to work across boundaries with a range of different groups and disciplines. In short, the ability to understand and manage one’s emotions and to be aware of the power of both resonant and dissonant emotions is an important element of the practitioner’s role.

Dealing with stress, building resilience and coping strategies

The emotionally and morally demanding nature of social work requires that practitioners give thought to issues of resilience and coping strategy. High workloads, increased bureaucracy and the nature of decisions that social workers have to make have resulted in rising levels of stress within the workforce (Stevens and Higgins, 2002). In a survey of 151 child welfare staff in Kentucky, Anderson (2000) found that 62 per cent scored in the high range both for emotional exhaustion and depersonalization—appreciably higher than a comparison group surveyed in 1986.

A survey by Gerits et al. (2005) found that symptoms of burnout amongst female nurses caring for people with severe behaviour problems were greatest amongst those with low EI and low social skills, but that those with high EI and high social skills could also be vulnerable. From the perspective of the user, it is desirable both to avoid recruiting those with low EI but also to ensure that those with higher emotional competence possess positive coping strategies and personal resilience. The benefits of a highly emotionally competent worker are lost if the worker is regularly off sick. Isen (2000) has identified that positive effect increases intrinsic motivation, enables people to work harder, raises positive expectancy that effort can lead to improved performance and also that the outcome will be one that is valued. In addition, Isen (2000) suggests that positive effect enables people to deal more directly with stressful situations.

Rudowicz and Au (2001) argue that although social workers’ own help-seeking attitudes and behaviours are likely to influence their perception of users who seek help, little attention has been paid to professional helpers’ attitudes to help seeking. In their view, social worker training should give students the opportunity to examine their own attitudes and feelings related to help-seeking experiences and how these may affect their relationship building with clients. This also suggests that assessment of a worker’s resilience and coping mechanisms should be included in recruitment and selection processes.

Shapiro (1999) distinguishes between engaged and disengaged coping styles. Engaged coping styles involve planful problem solving as opposed to avoidance; cognitive appraisal rather than wishful thinking; seeking support rather than withdrawal; expressing rather than suppressing emotions. Wolgien and Coady (1997) report that when nurses, psychologists and social workers were asked to peer-rate the best practitioners, the top practitioners were all individuals who, in addition to their professional knowledge, had experienced and resolved difficult personal issues and utilized these skills and insights in their practice. They were also practitioners who actively worked to create positive social and professional support networks and pursued their own professional development. The best practitioners are not only technically proficient; they also possess maturity in their help-seeking skills and attitudes. This is reinforced by other studies (Yoo, 2002; Grasso, 1994) which have found that the key buffers to stress for social workers include personal commitment to their work, and the support received from supervisors and co-workers. Indeed, these buffers have been identified as more powerful than general organizational characteristics (Yoo, 2002).

Conclusion

This paper has argued that understanding and handling one’s own and others’ emotions is a critical aspect at every stage of the social work task: engagement, assessment, observation, decision making, planning and intervention. It is also an essential skill for managers who need to ‘develop and maintain a practice which is self aware and critically reflective’ (Training Organisation for Personal Social Services, 2004) but that must be the subject of another paper. Emotional intelligence or competence is also pivotal to gaining the co-operation of other colleagues and services on which social workers depend to achieve their outcomes, and to surviving and thriving in a very tough occupation. It seems ironical in a profession so steeped in relationship-based theories that such arguments need to be re-stated. But the place of relationships and emotion in social work is in danger of becoming increasingly marginalized. If it takes the concept of EI, despite its limitations, to refresh and re-engage with emotion as a central concern in the social work task, then this can only be beneficial.

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FAQs

What is emotional intelligence and its characteristics? ›

Emotional intelligence or EI is the ability to understand and manage your own emotions, and those of the people around you. People with a high degree of emotional intelligence know what they're feeling, what their emotions mean, and how these emotions can affect other people.

What is emotional intelligence in social work? ›

Emotional intelligence (EI) has been defined as 'Being able to motivate oneself and persist in the face of frustrations; to control impulse and delay gratification; to regulate one's moods and keep distress from swamping the ability to think; to empathize and to hope' (Goleman, 1996).

What are 3 of the 5 characteristics of emotional intelligence? ›

Emotional intelligence in leadership is comprised of empathy, social skills, self-awareness, self-regulation and motivation.

What are the 5 basic emotional and social competencies of emotional intelligence? ›

The five SEL competencies (self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision making, social awareness, and relationship skills), are vital to the teaching and understanding of social and emotional learning at school.

What are the characteristics of emotions? ›

Emotional experiences have three components: a subjective experience, a physiological response and a behavioral or expressive response. Feelings arise from an emotional experience. Because a person is conscious of the experience, this is classified in the same category as hunger or pain.

What are the 5 elements of emotional intelligence? ›

  • Self-awareness. Self-awareness is about recognising and understanding your emotions – what you're feeling and why – as well as appreciating how they affect those around you. ...
  • Self-regulation. ...
  • Motivation. ...
  • Empathy. ...
  • Social skills.
28 Apr 2021

What are the 8 types of emotional intelligence? ›

After all, is emotional intelligence what build rapport with others and make them move in the desired direction. And these are the eight evolutionary steps to do so! Anger, sadness, fear, enjoyment, love, surprise, disgust, shame.

What are the 4 examples of emotional intelligence? ›

The four domains of Emotional Intelligence — self awareness, self management, social awareness, and relationship management — each can help a leader face any crisis with lower levels of stress, less emotional reactivity and fewer unintended consequences.

What are the 7 signs of emotional intelligence? ›

Emotional Intelligence Part II: 7 Signs of Strong EQ
  • Getting Along Well/Interest In Others. ...
  • Self-Awareness of Strengths and Weaknesses. ...
  • Operating With Integrity. ...
  • Self-Awareness of Feelings. ...
  • Present-Focused. ...
  • Self-Motivated. ...
  • Well-Placed Boundaries.

What are the benefits of emotional intelligence? ›

Emotional intelligence is a skill that builds better working relationships, creates value in your role, and gives you confidence to work with others, resolve issues, pioneer new ideas, and drive you and your organisation towards success.

What are the five characteristics of social emotional development? ›

Social and emotional learning in schools involves 5 key abilities: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. These skills are seen as the foundation upon which people can build all other relational skills.

Why is emotional intelligence important? ›

But what is EI and why is it so important? Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and regulate one's emotions and understand the emotions the others. A high EQ helps you to build relationships, reduce team stress, defuse conflict and improve job satisfaction.

What are types of emotions? ›

The Six Basic Emotions
  • Sadness. An emotional state characterized by feelings of disappointment, grief or hopelessness. ...
  • Happiness. A pleasant emotional state that elicits feelings of joy, contentment and satisfaction. ...
  • Fear. ...
  • Anger. ...
  • Surprise. ...
  • Disgust.
17 May 2019

What are the functions of emotions? ›

Emotions drive our actions – for example, a fight, flight or freeze response. Emotions tell others that we're dealing with stressors and may need support. Emotions have wisdom. They tell us something important in our life is changing or needs attention.

What are the 4 components of emotions? ›

The wholesome picture of emotions includes a combination of cognition, bodily experience, limbic/pre-conscious experience, and even action. Let's take a closer look at these four parts of emotion.

How do we measure emotional intelligence? ›

There are three generally accepted ways to measure EI: self-reporting, other-reporting, and ability testing. Self-reporting asks candidates to evaluate their own emotional intelligence, similar to a personality test.

What is emotional intelligence made of? ›

Emotional intelligence is made up of four core skills that pair up under two primary competencies: personal competence and social competence. Personal competence is made up of your self-awareness and self-management skills, which focus more on you individually than on your interactions with other people.

How do you develop emotional intelligence? ›

Emotional Intelligence
  1. #1) Practice observing how you feel. ...
  2. #2) Pay attention to how you behave. ...
  3. #3) Question your own opinions. ...
  4. #4) Take responsibility for your feelings. ...
  5. #5) Take time to celebrate the positive. ...
  6. #6) But don't ignore the negative.
  7. #7) Don't forget to breathe.
  8. #8) A lifetime process.

What is another word for emotional intelligence? ›

What is another word for emotional intelligence?
emotional intelligence quotientemotional quotient
EIEIQ
EQ

Who is the father of emotional intelligence? ›

The term emotional intelligence was popularized in 1995 by psychologist and behavioral science journalist Dr. Daniel Goleman in his book, Emotional Intelligence. Dr. Goleman described emotional intelligence as a person's ability to manage his feelings so that those feelings are expressed appropriately and effectively.

What is the most important part of emotional intelligence? ›

Being empathetic – or having the ability to understand how others are feeling – is absolutely crucial to emotional intelligence. But it involves more than just being able to recognize the emotional states of others. It also involves your responses to people based on this information.

Where is emotional intelligence used? ›

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  • Focus more on "we" and less on "me." ...
  • Use more personal forms of communication. ...
  • Ask questions about the other person's experiences. ...
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21 Oct 2015

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"Emotional" people are those who are in the grip of high emotion in the moment. There are some strategies for dealing with emotional people that may make the encounter more productive and less stressful.

Are emotional people successful? ›

Research shows that people with strong emotional intelligence are more likely to succeed than those with high IQs or relevant experience.

Why is emotional intelligence important in communication? ›

Emotional Intelligence improves your assertiveness by allowing you communicate effectively. By being aware of your emotions, and by having self-control, you can communicate your thoughts clearly and with confidence. In turn, this will make you more assertive and confident, without coming across as pushy or aggressive.

What is the importance of emotional intelligence in education? ›

In fact, when it comes to academic performance, research has revealed emotional intelligence is almost as important as your cognitive intelligence and having a conscientious attitude. This is because emotionally intelligent students are better equipped to deal with negative emotions that might disrupt learning.

What is the purpose of emotional intelligence training? ›

Emotional Intelligence Training is a set of practical knowledge and skills that help individuals to become fluent in understanding the language of emotions. The training aims at developing: Self-motivation. Productivity.

What is the characteristics of emotional development? ›

Emotional development involves learning what feelings and emotions are, understanding how and why they occur, recognising your own feelings and those of others, and developing effective ways for managing those feelings.

What are 3 main aspects of social emotional development? ›

Social-emotional development consists of three main areas of children's self-regulation: Acting: Behaving in socially appropriate ways and ways that foster learning. Feeling: Understanding others' emotions and regulation of one's own emotions. Thinking: Regulating attention and thoughts.

What is the characteristics of social development? ›

The characteristics of social development are often associated by the skill of cooperation, rotation, initiative/leadership, sharing, discipline and participation.

What is emotional intelligence theory? ›

Daniel Goleman's emotional intelligence theory outlines five components of EQ: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. Emotional intelligence can be applied to meet goals and targets, as well as create a happier and healthier working culture.

What is emotional intelligence explain with example? ›

Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize, understand and manage your own emotions as well as being able to understand and influence the emotions of others. It involves being aware that emotions drive behaviors and impact people either positively or negatively.

What are the 7 signs of emotional intelligence? ›

Emotional Intelligence Part II: 7 Signs of Strong EQ
  • Getting Along Well/Interest In Others. ...
  • Self-Awareness of Strengths and Weaknesses. ...
  • Operating With Integrity. ...
  • Self-Awareness of Feelings. ...
  • Present-Focused. ...
  • Self-Motivated. ...
  • Well-Placed Boundaries.

What is emotional intelligence and why is it important? ›

Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and regulate one's emotions and understand the emotions the others. A high EQ helps you to build relationships, reduce team stress, defuse conflict and improve job satisfaction.

What are the 8 types of emotional intelligence? ›

After all, is emotional intelligence what build rapport with others and make them move in the desired direction. And these are the eight evolutionary steps to do so! Anger, sadness, fear, enjoyment, love, surprise, disgust, shame.

What are the benefits of emotional intelligence? ›

Emotional intelligence is a skill that builds better working relationships, creates value in your role, and gives you confidence to work with others, resolve issues, pioneer new ideas, and drive you and your organisation towards success.

What are the types of emotional intelligence? ›

There are three main branches of emotional intelligence - the ability model, the trait model and the mixed model. There are three main branches of emotional intelligence – the ability model, the trait model and the mixed model.

What are the 4 examples of emotional intelligence? ›

The four domains of Emotional Intelligence — self awareness, self management, social awareness, and relationship management — each can help a leader face any crisis with lower levels of stress, less emotional reactivity and fewer unintended consequences.

How do you develop emotional intelligence? ›

Emotional Intelligence
  1. #1) Practice observing how you feel. ...
  2. #2) Pay attention to how you behave. ...
  3. #3) Question your own opinions. ...
  4. #4) Take responsibility for your feelings. ...
  5. #5) Take time to celebrate the positive. ...
  6. #6) But don't ignore the negative.
  7. #7) Don't forget to breathe.
  8. #8) A lifetime process.

How do you measure emotional intelligence? ›

There are three generally accepted ways to measure EI: self-reporting, other-reporting, and ability testing. Self-reporting asks candidates to evaluate their own emotional intelligence, similar to a personality test.

Who is an emotional person? ›

"Emotional" people are those who are in the grip of high emotion in the moment. There are some strategies for dealing with emotional people that may make the encounter more productive and less stressful.

Why is emotional intelligence important in communication? ›

Emotional Intelligence improves your assertiveness by allowing you communicate effectively. By being aware of your emotions, and by having self-control, you can communicate your thoughts clearly and with confidence. In turn, this will make you more assertive and confident, without coming across as pushy or aggressive.

Why are emotions important in the workplace? ›

Our emotions have a great impact on our workplace. Positive emotions such as joy and hope can improve our productivity and help us to build positive relationships with our colleagues. On the other hand, negative emotions like anxiety and anger can lead to conflict and make it difficult to focus on the task at hand.

What is another word for emotional intelligence? ›

What is another word for emotional intelligence?
emotional intelligence quotientemotional quotient
EIEIQ
EQ

Who is the father of emotional intelligence? ›

The term emotional intelligence was popularized in 1995 by psychologist and behavioral science journalist Dr. Daniel Goleman in his book, Emotional Intelligence. Dr. Goleman described emotional intelligence as a person's ability to manage his feelings so that those feelings are expressed appropriately and effectively.

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