Korn Ferry

Emotionally Intelligent Teamwork

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry.

Karen was a new executive vice president. Her track record was strong, and she had a knack for keeping teams productive. She was a pacesetter through and through, aiming high, establishing tight deadlines, and demanding that her team keep up. So why weren't her new subordinates matching the pace?

As an executive at a software company, Karen's job fell firmly in the "knowledge work" classification. Her productivity related entirely to the efficient processing of information, rather than production or manufacturing of goods.

But here’s the paradox about so-called knowledge work. Despite the name, academic knowledge turns out to be less important for productivity than social smarts. IQ, of course, gets seen as a critical competency for hiring in the tech world, but research shows that Emotional Intelligence (EI) is often a greater predictor of success.

Consider a macro-trend in business: Collaboration across diverse teams is becoming more common as project management tools are integrated into corporate structures. It's becoming almost unusual to see corporate silos now, as matrixed environments spread across functions and divisions.

All team have norms, whether they are intentional or not

Karen, that new EVP, had missed one of the first steps in building a team: establishing productive norms - a process that demands EI competencies. In a classic study done at Bell Labs, researchers found that working groups and teams develop their own level of EI competence based on the capabilities each team member brings and exercises. Further research by my colleague Vanessa Druskat, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, shows that all teams have implicit norms, but high-performing teams are intentional when it comes to setting, agreeing to, and being accountable to those norms.

EI can be seen as a set of skills that lubricate effective interaction, all the more so when team members form their group identity. During their initial interactions, conscious and subconscious assessments are made, "rules of engagement" emerge, and the team establishes norms. In the best cases, when all team members have strong EI skills, the norms build around three pillars:

  1. Interpersonal Understanding,
  2. Addressing Counterproductive Behavior
  3. Self-Evaluation.

Karen's pacesetting style prevented the team from taking the time to gain Interpersonal Understanding, fundamental to establishing norms. Without a sense of how your teammates operate and approach problems, there's no chance to consider how they can be most productive.

Once the groundwork of Interpersonal Understanding falls into place, teams need to develop systems to deal with Counterproductive Behavior. Perhaps someone procrastinates, or is too bossy. By understanding one another, the likelihood of hurt feelings or surprising aggression is lessened. If an established norm dictates that after follows public disagreements or other transgressions a private conversation ensues, where two parties are expected to find a solution, then the entire team can rest assured knowing that the counterproductive behavior will be addressed and that harmony will be restored one way or another.

With such norms in place, a team can Self-Evaluate, policing itself for norm violations and diminished productivity. Members are free to call out problems.

Bottom line: The team Karen led was dysfunctional because the team’s members didn’t know how to interact with one another. Frustrations were vented through passive aggression, and the stress of difficult deadlines led to finger pointing. To get things back on track she needed to encourage and facilitate conversations within her team, so they could get to know one another and start developing their collective EI. Once productive team norms emerged, Karen would be able to get back to strategic leadership as the team sets and plays by the rules they've written.


  • Daniel Goleman

    Contributor, Korn Ferry Institute