Which Skill is More Important Emotional Intelligence or Systems Thinking?

August 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

This question is like a “chicken and egg” question.  There is no right answer.  In my opinion, systems’ thinking wins the race (just barely) because the appreciation for a system can prevent the need
for emotionally intelligent (EI) response to a problem.

A colleague and I were traveling for a training project from New York to Los Angeles and we were on the same flight.  I was driving with her to the airport.  As we reached the terminal I pulled up and
asked her to check us in while I agreed to park the car.  She agreed. I found her in the security line which was exceptionally long.  Security had only one station open and hundreds of people were on line.  Although we originally thought we had plenty of time to catch the flight, the extended wait at security made it very close.

We waited and waited.  We watched as nuns were shuffled ahead of us.  Then the flight crew had permission to jump ahead.  We were getting close to departure time and a man behind us went to the front of the line and complained that he had to catch his flight (same flight as ours).  My colleague informed him that we were also in line for that flight and that he was moving in front of us.  He turned to her and rudely said, “I am not speaking to you.”  He clearly behaved without emotional intelligence.

His lack of interpersonal skills created an argument with elevated emotions.  Had he been more emotionally intelligent we could have avoided the negative interaction.  However, the real root cause of the tension was the extended wait in security caused by the limited number of open lines and the number of people who had to pass through.  Had the system been able to handle the larger
crowds we would not have had the altercation.

Obviously the two set of skills work together to solve problems.  We really can’t have optimal system solutions without emotionally intelligent responses.  On the other hand, emotional intelligence is
a skill that is needed less often when stress is low.  Stress can be reduced with emotionally intelligent responses.  Stress can be eliminated with a system improvement.

The ability to improve systems and avoid problems is at least as important as emotional intelligence.  In my opinion, it is more valuable because stress is eliminated with predictable system.  The skill of understanding systems, understanding variation, and appreciating the impact systems can have on the performance of individuals and performance of an organization are the key skills.

Systems are also a big part of the problem today because they are often seen by employees as burdensome, controlling and designed to coerce grudging compliance.   If systems are a barrier to self-organization and high performance then the skill to recognize that (and to fix it) is a skill as important if not more important than EI.   The ability to behave with EI when dealing with dysfunction in the system (or the bureaucracy) is fantastic.  The ability to recognize and understand the real root cause of dysfunction (the system) is a skill few leaders possess and less practice.

The next time you have an altercation with your significant-other be sure to remember to look for the system flaws that caused it.


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