Leadership Basics Series: Emotional Intelligence – Blog

Why Being People-Smart is So Critical to Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion

We all know that it’s critical to know our work in order to get our work done, and intuitively, we all know that getting along with our colleagues and our team is also key to our success.  So, we really need three kinds of intelligence—intellectual, emotional, and social intelligence. In this post, we focus on the second type, why it is especially important for chronic disease leaders, how you can expand yours.

Let’s start with the technical information. Emotional intelligence (EI) is defined in the Dictionary of Psychology as “the ability to monitor one’s own and other people’s emotions, to discriminate between different emotions and label them appropriately, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior.” It is a combination of traits and abilities. Traits are our own self-perceptions. In the case of EI, it is our perception of our ability to manage our emotions. Abilities are the extent to which we can actually perform task in the real world. In the case of EI, this would be things like our actual ability to identify other people’s emotions, appropriate use of emotion to achieve an intended outcome, and manage our own emotions.

You can see why these matter so much in our work in chronic disease prevention.  We interact with a wide range of people, often people different from ourselves, to develop programs and policies that ultimately are aimed at improving health, usually by changing culture in some way.  And, we often have to do this while navigating our own internal organizational dynamics as well as a set of funding requirements.  Doing this well requires a great deal of emotional intelligence.  First, we have to believe we can get through all of this and that we have the power to manage our own emotions through all of the challenges and obstacles we are going to encounter along the way.  Second, we have get through the actual meetings, conversations, and disagreements ourselves.  Third, we have to use emotion to get other people to care about changing health outcomes that are so important to them or to their community. And, finally, we need to navigate the emotions of others as they react to what they are hearing.  This requires a lot of skill and can be really difficult, even for the most emotionally intelligent person.

Let’s look at some examples from chronic disease that might sound familiar to many of us.  First, let’s take an example from tobacco control.  A state tobacco control program has identified banning the sale of menthol-flavored tobacco products as a key approach to reducing tobacco use among African American and black youth. The tobacco use prevention coalition, made up of advocates, begins working on a legislative strategy for a bill that would achieve exactly this outcome, but it is clear that there will be some opposition from legislators who don’t understand why menthol-flavoring matters and the health department may not be able to get involved in advocating for the bill. 

We can imagine the many ways that such a stressful and important policy issue could really stretch everyone’s EI.  The tobacco control program manager is working with advocates who are deeply passionate about an issue, where race is a factor, and there could be a perception that their own organization doesn’t support their efforts.  Can you identify some ways that EI could help to defuse this type of situation, and engage the coalition in problem-solving?  

Here is another example from diabetes. A diabetes program manager has been working for months with her team to prepare return on investment estimates and plan amendment documents for the State Medicaid program to demonstrate the value of covering the diabetes prevention program. All of the diabetes program’s next steps and eligibility for funding depended on making progress with the Medicaid program. When the day of the presentation came, the Medicaid program thanks the health department for the information and doesn’t indicate any next steps or opportunity for forward progress. EI really matters in this situation.

We might ask, “Did the Diabetes Program Manager listen to the needs of the Medicaid program in their work?” “Was there something else going on that the Medicaid Program was unable to respond more constructively?” “Was emotion used effectively in the meeting to convey the need for a response?” “And, how did she respond, and did the team around the Diabetes Program Manager offer her support and help to regroup when the meeting didn’t go as hoped?” These are the kinds of challenging situations we all experience when working chronic disease prevention. By thinking about the opportunities to use EI in addition to our technical knowledge, we can improve our own performance and also that of our team.

The good news is that we can increase our own EI as individuals and in team settings. There is a lot of literature out there with various tools and techniques for developing your EI.  We won’t go into it all, but there are some major take-away approaches that you can try on your own.  As a starting point, think about a situation where you were upset or felt put down, and take some time to reflect on your feelings, maybe even write them down.  Ask yourself why you responded the way you did to the situation. Then, try talking to someone else, ideally someone with some distance from the situation to ask them for their perspective and see if you can find ways to understand the situation without feeling criticized or defensive.

When you are comfortable using this approach to look back at past events, try doing this as a situation is unfolding—stop and reflect in real-time on your emotions; make an effort to control them and not to imagine the worst; ask yourself what the other person may be feeling and why; and, see if you can bring perspective to the situation that validates everyone’s feelings.  You could even try an EI pre-brief and debrief when you know you will be working on a challenging issue.  

To summarize, EI is a critical type of intelligence for public health leaders, especially those in chronic disease because of the unique nature of the work we do.  Working with people is inherent in our approaches. And, you can develop your own sense of self-efficacy to manage your emotions and you can also build up the EI skills of you and your partners.  Developing or enhancing your EI is a lifelong journey and something we can all work on together. 


Go back to the Emotional Intelligence page.

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