Why Emotional Literacy is Crucial at Work

Emotional literacy is one of the core capabilities to develop when it comes to being successful at work. Executives share quite openly that this is a skill to learn very actively as you progress up the corporate ladder. Emotional literacy is as critical to a business owner. So let us explore why this is such an essential skill.

Case studies

Bongani is an executive in a large financial institution. He advanced fast in his company due to his strong relationships and abilities. What has been quite an eye opener for him is how his white colleagues often make comments to him about other black colleagues. These comments are hurtful and often times quite inappropriate. Although the comments evoke strong emotional reactions in him, he has learnt to temper his responses.  He quickly realized that he could alienate his colleagues if he reacted strongly. Mastering this skill has increased his credibility noticeably among his seniors and colleagues.

Rupert is a builder. Every client he works with ends up extremely frustrated and angry at the end of the building project. Why? He completely ignores their concerns and frustrations. In fact when a client starts showing any form of frustration, Rupert avoids taking calls. He also fails to respond to emails. As you can imagine, this aggravates the situation even further. Rupert puts in no effort to understand his clients. As a result he never gets any repeat business from clients. His business partner is equally poor when it comes to emotional literacy. His response is to write threatening letters to clients saying he will sue them!

Factors that affect emotional literacy

Our inherent coping styles influence how we respond emotionally to situations. Some of us grow up in homes where our parents control their emotions well. Others however, grow up in homes where parents shout and scream. Many of my clients develop anxiety, panic attacks and depression later in life due to emotionally volatile and verbally abusive parents. So our background impacts on our ability to manage our emotions.

Some individuals have a short fuse. They react quickly to what others say. Also, insecure individuals take everything personally and are quick to react emotionally.

Then of course, we all have vulnerabilities. Our significant others are often pretty good at knowing what our buttons are. So they trigger them when they want to be hurtful. However, this can happen at work too. You may have a boss who knows what your “sore” points are and capitalises on these. Or they may use this to their advantage by manipulating or coercing you into doing work you do not want to do.

Areas to develop

The three areas to develop when it comes to emotional literacy are:

  • Emotional awareness
  • Emotional expression
  • Emotional control

Emotional awareness means that you are able to identify exactly what emotions you experience and why. E.g. If you are angry you can work out why you are angry. In addition you take responsibility for your emotions. You listen to your emotions and take action on them. Why is it important? Unless you know what you feel you will struggle to work out the cause of your emotions. If you are unable to identity your own emotions the chances are very good you are unable to recognise what other people feel.

As in the above case of Rupert, the builder, his clients perceive him as exceptionally arrogant and insensitive. Although he is intellectually bright, his lack of emotional awareness has a definite detrimental impact on his relationships with clients. It seems as if it is only his agenda that is important: making money and moving on as quickly as possible to the next project.

Emotional expression is about talking about how you feel. So you will tell others when you are unhappy and what you need from them. Of course this also means that you are willing to make yourself vulnerable. Sadly, this can have negative consequences within the work environment where information you share can be used against you later. Perhaps this is why so many people in the corporate environment are so stressed and unhappy. You need to wear a mask and keep your feelings to yourself. This results in many executives and managers feeling pretty lonely.

Emotional control is about the ability to manage your emotional reactions. If you are an explosive person this could likely lead to a CLM (career limited move)! Emotional control is particularly important in conflict situations or negotiations. You are very likely to encounter difficult people along your path. It is crucial then to be able to manage your emotions in these interactions.

If you would like to sharpen your emotional literacy skills, coaching would benefit you enormously.


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Posted in Emotional Intelligence.