The Benefits of Emotional Wellness and Skills Training
#evolve Magazine
January 12, 2023

In early 2021, the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland conducted an experiment among its leadership. What practical benefits might the organization gain if 200 leaders were asked to participate in an eight-month program focused on emotional wellness and intelligence?

It was, for better or for worse, a good time to test the idea: Pandemic-era burnout had begun to emerge in the organization, much as it has in workplaces globally.

“Even though we have invested a lot in well-being over the years, we also started seeing increased mental health issues within the organization,” said Kirsi Nuotto, VTT’s senior vice president of human resources.

The experiment at VTT resulted in some notable — and measurable — successes: Decreased sick time among its 2,100 employees, and generally more favorable attitudes among rank-and-file workers toward their leaders.

But VTT’s experience is just one example of a larger conversation that’s being conducted around leaders, emotional intelligence and the workplace. What sorts of emotional challenges are leaders facing in a post-COVID, hybrid-workplace era? What kind of training is required to prepare leaders for this environment? How can the process be successful without being burdensome? And how well can emotional intelligence scale across an entire organization?

The Core of Emotional Intelligence

Burnout, and the turnover resulting from it, is at the center of many organizations’ efforts to develop plans to address emotional intelligence. But COVID has surfaced a much wider variety of issues that need addressing, said Matthew Lippincott, who along with psychologist Daniel Goleman, is co-founder of Goleman Consulting Group, which specializes in corporate training around emotional intelligence. (Goleman is credited with popularizing the term “emotional intelligence,” most notably through his 1995 book of the same title.)

“The pandemic really pushed a lot of people over the edge in terms of needing to acknowledge the role of emotion in the workplace,” Lippincott said. “Not only in terms of performance but employee retention, recruiting, work-life balance — all really critical things that have been somewhat neglected by the traditional corporate attitude.”

Indeed, VTT’s effort was met with uncertainty and skepticism by many of the leaders asked to participate, said Ellariina Rautio, HR specialist, learning and development and culture at VTT. “The most common feedback I received at first was, ‘This is a super-interesting topic.’ The second most common was ‘Do we have time for this?’”

But VTT wanted leaders to make an investment in training that would stick. To that end, it wanted to counter another traditional corporate attitude, that emotional skills training can be knocked out in a half-day seminar or less. 

“Usually, when top management says, ‘Emotional intelligence is important, let’s train our people,’ there’s a two-hour session and then everybody’s emotionally savvy, right?” Nuotto said. “That is not true. You need practice.”

In VTT’s case, it partnered with a leadership training company, Emergy, to build a program called Emotional Agency that included six workshops, peer mentoring, and real-life exercises. Among the workshop themes: “Recognize the impact of emotions in the workplace,” “Learn how to awaken and strengthen authentic positive emotions at work” and “Apply emotional agency in the toughest work-life situations and conversations.”

Participants were paired up with a “learning buddy” — a fellow participant from a different department to meet regularly to discuss and play out ideas presented in the workshop.

Abby Waters, the founder of PeopleScience Solutions and leadership coach, said those kinds of emotional skills are still lacking at C-suite levels — and that absence is a key reason why many employees have changed jobs during the Great Resignation.

“You have middle managers or senior executives who do not have employee development or employee coaching skills in their top five skills,” she said. “Companies are not hiring people with those skills, so they’re losing people underneath them left and right.”

Bubbling under that crisis is a need for a deeper understanding of employee needs.

“After the pandemic, we’re noticing really low motivation,” Waters said. “So there needs to be a deeper question: What are you motivated by? Why have you lost motivation? We find that motivation is directly tied to self-awareness, which is the ability to understand yourself, your values, your strengths and your pursuit of what you’re going after in life.”

The experiment at VTT resulted in decreased sick time among its 2,100 employees and generally more favorable attitudes among rank-and-file workers toward their leaders.

Time and Impact

Though the problem is clear, creating programs that are meaningful while not being burdensome can be a challenge. Lippincott emphasized the importance of emotional leadership training being “lightweight” — that instead of piling on homework, an emotional-skills program builds on what participants already know and guides them to better apply their knowledge in the workplace.

“What it comes down to are a few techniques and a few skills that team members can start to practice with one another,” he said. “They don’t need to go to intense workshops, they don’t need to have intensive coaching. They actually start to agree amongst themselves how they’re going to improve the nature of their communication.”

Though the VTT program involved multiple workshops and consultations, it too was designed to be relatively lightweight: Each leader spent a total 37.5 hours on the program during the course of eight months.

A year after it was implemented, there’s evidence that the approach has reaped benefits among the organization. In the spring of 2021 and 2022, VTT staffers were surveyed on Emergy’s “Emotional Climate Audit,” which measures attitudes across 14 factors around themes of “emotional agency” among individuals and the organization, engagement, and psychological needs. VTT saw significant improvement among 12 of those factors. Its organizational culture KPIs also improved, and it saw a 25% drop in employee sick days.

“People nowadays are looking for leaders who are genuine, authentic, who really want to know how I’m doing and ask the right questions,” Nuotto said of the findings.

Each organization will have to determine for itself what outcomes it’s looking to improve. Google, for instance, uses “psychological safety” scoring to determine how well teams communicate and collaborate. One of Lippincott’s corporate clients measured the perceived value of the training among participants as well as actual behavior change as a result of participation.

Elsewhere, hanging on to key employees is important. “The way we quantify it with managers and department leaders is, how is your retention increasing?” Waters said. “One organization is retaining at 97% right now, after multiple interventions to give their employees coaching and learning opportunities.”

Next Steps 

Emotional intelligence certainly affects the entire organization, but VTT’s training in 2021 was restricted to leadership tiers. The next step is expanding across the organization, Nuotto said. That can be rare across the corporate landscape: A 2020 global study by the Capgemini Research Institute found that only 17% of non-supervisory corporate employees participated in emotional intelligence training.

Another step: Making the kinds of skills that such training provides a factor in the organization’s hiring, both internally and externally.

 “We want to define what kind of leaders we want to have in the company,” Nuotto said. “We want to watch that we recruit against those competencies.”

That means distributing some of that training to middle-management levels, which have notoriously been put under pressure to weather some of the hardest day-to-day leadership challenges through the pandemic, from wellness issues to implementing remote-work policies.

“Middle managers are desperate and hungry for information and support,” Waters said. “They feel like they’re between a rock and a hard place, especially HR managers. They don’t have a lot of power, and they’re trying to be there for employees, but they don’t have that ultimate authority like a CEO or CFO.”

Looking ahead, Waters predicts that more companies will pursue a train-the-trainer model, where leaders in the organization are empowered to share emotional skills training. A little more time in workshops can be worth it if it leads to longer tenures in the organization, she added.

“If you want to attract and retain the best people to your company, you need to have an environment where people can feel safe, where they can express their feelings,” Nuotto said. “They need to be emotionally attached to the company. That can only be done when there’s psychological safety around.”

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