Team Emotional Intelligence as a Driver of Digital Transformations

Do emotions play a role in data and digital transformation projects? These projects are driven by technical people, and, according to a common stereotype, IT and technical specialists do not let emotions impact their work. But what if I, a data management solutions architect with more than 20 years of experience, told you that the success of data projects depends on emotional factors? Or rather, the emotional intelligence of the project stakeholders.
8 min read
08/09/21
By Oleg Kapustin
Data Management Solutions Architect
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Team Emotional Intelligence as a Driver of Digital Transformations

Data and digital transformation projects need strong technologies and firmly-established processes. But neither of these can materialize without people. For every project I work on, I insist on this order: people, process, technologies. Emotional intelligence changes how stakeholders fine-tune underlying technologies and processes, how they negotiate and share concerns — on both individual and team levels.

At DataArt, we abide by the «People First» principle. We care about creating a positive working environment for our staff and our client teams and see high emotional intelligence as a cornerstone of digital transformations.

What Is Team Emotional Intelligence?

The term «emotional intelligence» (EI) or «emotional quotient» (EQ) was coined by a science journalist Daniel Goleman in the 1990’s to describe a person’s ability to monitor, distinguish and label different emotions. Unlike intelligence quotient (IQ), emotional intelligence can be developed throughout one’s life, based on five elements: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills.

Similar to individual EQ, emotional intelligence in teams can and should be consistently improved. This process is more complicated than just boosting team morale, because teams interact and manage relations on multiple levels — upward, downward, inward, sideways. To develop team EQ, staff should regularly seek feedback from organization’s internal and external environments. They should also be wary of the way emotions affect the team’s work because this kind of awareness fosters productivity and better decision making.

Why Team Emotional Intelligence Matters

In the modern world, where companies are driven to success by teams, not individuals, emotional intelligence takes on a new dimension.

Working with Team Emotional Intelligence to De-risk a Transformation Project

Strategic projects that enable new data or digital capabilities always transform a company. In a recent article, Why Every Company Needs a Data Governance Strategy, we wrote that company-wide transformations inevitably trigger a cultural shift. This shift, aggravated by the fear of unknown, poses a threat to the project success. Only stakeholders high in EQ can deal with the associated stress and accept the change on a mental level.

Among stakeholders low in EQ, the change naturally triggers protective reactions, resistance, or even emotional burn-out, all of which put the project’s success at stake.

Higher Team EQ vs. Internal Resistance to Change

Some stakeholders involved in a transformation project demonstrate resistance to change because they fear loss of power or extra work. Others may not understand the rationale for the transformation or are reluctant to change the business-as-usual routine. Sometimes, the staff may accept that the change is necessary, but oppose it on an emotional level.

Negative emotions that are not handled properly can intensify over time and pose a serious risk to unbiased decision-making and the projected transformation timeline. As a result, staff creativity and productivity go down, in the worst cases — to the extent of do-nothingism or even sabotaging the project.

To mitigate the risks posed by resistance to change, the emotional quotient of the team as a whole and every member of it should always be at the forefront of discussions.

Higher Team EQ vs. Loss of a Key Stakeholder

If project stakeholders hold onto emotional strain and frustration, the risk of them quitting the project multiplies exponentially. How is the project affected when a key person leaves? The scale of disaster differs depending on the project, but the chance of falling behind, going over budget, or expanding the scope rise dramatically.

Higher team EQ will help its members deal with stress more efficiently and avoid emotional burn-out, which lowers the chances of key stakeholders leaving the project.

In the data and digital transformation projects DataArt completes for clients, we emphasize the importance of team EQ. This helps us maintain an inclusive working climate and, at the same time, de-risk how stakeholders perceive organizational changes associated with the transformation.

Best Practices for Managing and Improving Team EQ

As a provider of custom software development and consulting services, we at DataArt strongly believe that clients can only outsource the strategies and technologies for a digital transformation, not a culture of acceptance. We always pay attention to teams’ reaction to transformations to avoid potential «clash of clans.»

In my experience, increased attention to team emotional intelligence and social awareness is an integral part of any digital transformation projects. For instance, I have seen data governance efforts work better when team members had a high level of involvement in their new roles and made creative contributions to the process. This is a must for complicated and long-lasting changes, like establishing a common data model across an organization or aligning definitions of key data entities.

For DataArt, caring about the team’s EQ feels natural. We project this care to client teams, too. Here is a list of proven best practices for monitoring team emotional intelligence and improving it.

1. Always Put People First

In data and digital transformation projects, we identify acute, often unstated stakeholder concerns and map them onto the project plan. Recognizing and valuing personalities behind professional qualities of each team member is a soft skill, as well.

Project challenges require a technical solution, as well as a human one. Sometimes, stakeholders worry about upcoming organizational changes because they do not understand why the change necessary; sometimes, they do not understand this because they worry. It is the foremost task of a project senior is to understand the human root cause for frustration.

2. Be the Change You Want to See

To oversee group EQ and improve atmosphere in joint DataArt-client teams, our company staff improves our own emotional competencies and awareness. We encourage all team members to openly share their thoughts and feelings about the project and communicate if the stress level rises.

We learned first-hand that, in a team environment that is open for communication and aware of each other’s emotions, members feel more secure. They respond positively and constructively when a team member shares how he or she feels and do not let emotionally uncomfortable situations hinder the project’s progress. This is one of the signs of a high team EQ.

3. You Can Never Overcommunicate

Just like building a software product, delivering a digital transformation project is a team sport. Most often, such a project connects both technical and business stakeholders who must share a common language. This means that they communicate their concerns and emotions on the group level. All team members should participate in establishing the «code» of conduct for confrontation, expressing constructive emotions, and caring for each other.

Dedicating enough time to communication, especially in the early stages of the project, eventually pays off. If someone dwells on an issue they do not understand during a meeting, take extra time to discuss it, or schedule a separate meeting to go into detail. All negative emotions in the course of a project should be communicated as soon as they appear, before the conflict escalates.

As well-worn as this sounds, open communication fosters rapport, mutual trust, and a culture of accountability and group efficacy (the belief that the group members are more effective working together than apart). It helps relationships grow stronger and fosters high team EQ. This allows teams to work more effectively and commit to common goals.

4. Recognize and Interpret Emotional Cues

In addition to paying attention to the messages communicated verbally, the team members should know how to interpret non-verbal cues. I always listen carefully to the tone of stakeholders when they talk about negotiating the changes during a digital transformation project. I also intentionally observe how they behave during the negotiation — whether they feel inspired or frustrated, doubtful or confused can all be perceived via non-verbal (visual and aural) means.

Since DataArt works in distributed teams and conduct virtual meetings with the client teams, noticing and interpreting non-verbal cues is often a challenge. Over our 20-plus years of experience working in a distributed mode, we have developed a strong tendency toward «wide bandwidth» communication ± like videoconferencing (with video on!) — over lower-bandwidth ones like email or chat. Although video calls pale in comparison to in-person communication, they still allow the leader to capture facial expressions, body position, and other non-verbal emotional content of the people on the other end.

5. Allow Team Members to Embrace the Change

People adopt and absorb changes at their own pace. It is vital to allow each project stakeholder a period of time to comprehend and adjust to the change brought on by a digital transformation. These periods vary depending on the person, the company, and the project. For instance, in DataArt’s experience, it takes between half a year to a year and a half for all stakeholders in a company to comprehensively adopt a chosen data governance strategy or any other large data transformation.

Sometimes, the pace of imposing changes may be deliberately slowed down (if it does not violate the projected roadmap and timeline of the project). This can help key team members take additional time to live the change and get used to it. This is a good strategy for showing members their value in the team.

Summary

A hallmark of DataArt’s approach to digital transformation projects is our focus on people — our staff and our client teams. Whether a project will succeed or fail depends entirely on the decisions stakeholders take during the project. They are not robots who can take these decisions completely emotionlessly. This is why emotional intelligence matters. It defuses emotional strain, helps stakeholders reach a compromise when opinions clash, and fosters a productive team.

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