Overcoming Obstacles to Collaboration: The Role of Emotional Intelligence

About the Author

Rick Morse

Rick Morse is an associate professor of public administration and government at the UNC School of Government.

LadderRick Morse is a School of Government faculty member.

While cross-sectoral and cross-jurisdictional partnerships are often key to successful community and economic development, the fact remains that there are many real obstacles to collaboration, including time, turf, and trust. People naturally resist changes to the status quo, tend to want to protect their own turf, and are reluctant to share power and control. What can community leaders do, then, to improve the chances of collaborative success? Research on collaboration has underscored the key role of leadership, and here we look what is perhaps the most important aspect of collaborative leadership: the leader’s ability to cultivate and manage relationships. And at the heart of that competency is a cluster of personal attributes that psychologists now call “emotional intelligence.”

One of the biggest obstacles to successful collaboration is lack of trust between potential partners. This could be due to experiences in the past that lead to mistrust or it could be due to simply not knowing each other very well. In either case, the root problem is relational. In other words, the concern here is the extent to which potential partners know and trust one another. How successful are you at building and maintaining relationships of trust? Russ Linden, in his excellent book Leading Across Boundaries, highlights the critical important of building relationships of trust in collaborative endeavors. He cites the work of Stephen M.R. Covey, who finds that credibility (the combination of one’s character and competence) lies at the foundation of interpersonal trust.

Another body of work that I believe is most relevant to tackling relational issues in collaboration is the work on emotional intelligence or “EQ.” Daniel Goleman, a Harvard psychologist, first introduced the term “emotional intelligence” in the 1990s. He found that while there are many people with native intelligence (IQ), great ideas, and even technical capabilities, those qualities alone are not sufficient for leadership. The key was a set of capabilities that, taken together, Goleman labeled emotional intelligence.

So what is emotional intelligence (EQ)? Basically EQ is about how people manage their emotions. According to Goleman, it is made up of five related components:

  • Self-Awareness, which involves understanding how others see you, having self confidence, and realistic self-assessment;
  • Self-Regulation, which involves being able to control disruptive impulses, being open to change, comfortable with ambiguity, able to suspend judgment, and ultimately, personal integrity;
  • Motivation, which involves a passion for outcomes beyond status or wealth, optimism, and commitment;
  • Empathy, which is the ability to understand others’ emotions and being sensitive to that (some would also include a service ethic here); and
  • Social Skills, which include networking, building relationships, working with others, and being able to find common ground among different interests.

While the components of EQ are strongly linked to effective leadership in general, they are particularly relevant to collaborative leadership and overcoming the relational obstacles inherent in most would-be partnerships.

What is perhaps most exciting about EQ (for those leaders looking for collaborative success) is that, unlike IQ, EQ can be learned or developed. It is not a fixed trait. Goleman’s research finds that it increases with age. But beyond natural increases with experience, it can also be purposively developed with

  • motivation to do so (wanting to be more self-aware, motivated, socially adept, etc.);
  • extended practice; and
  • feedback or coaching.

Travis Bradberry’s book Emotional Intelligence 2.0 is full of useful insights on how one can enhance their EQ. In my research on collaboration and collaborative leaders I find a consistent and strong theme of effective collaborative leaders being those that would score high on EQ tests. They are driven by public values rather than selfish interests. They are self-aware of their own strengths and weaknesses as well as those around them. They are extremely socially adept and are viewed as trustworthy, honest brokers by those they work with.

Value-adding partnership opportunities abound in communities and regions, yet in almost every case there are also a litany of relational obstacles to forming those partnerships. Strong collaborative leadership, including leaders with high “EQs,” is a critical factor in overcoming those obstacles.


3 Responses to “Overcoming Obstacles to Collaboration: The Role of Emotional Intelligence”

  1. Steve in Chapel Hill

    Perhaps I am too left-brained, but the whole concept of emotional intelligence remains hazy to me. And, yes, I have even read a book about it. How can emotional intelligence even be measured in the way that “regular” IQ can be (not to say the science behind IQ tests can’t be questioned as well!).

    • Rick Morse

      This is a very fair question. No, I don’t think EQ can be measured the same as IQ, as IQ can be objectively measured by having test-takers do a variety of puzzles and whatnot whereas EQ assessments are usually based on subjective perceptions of one’s own behavior. I believe this is why “360 degree” assessments of EQ are much better, as you are asking co-workers, supervisors, etc. to evaluate a person’s behavior. It is still subjective, but there is good research as to the validity of such assessments. But regardless of measurement issues, it seems to me that the concept of EQ has tapped into something that leaders consistently identify from their own experience, and that is how important self-awareness, self-management, social skills, etc. are to leadership success. And I would say especially important to success in collaborative endeavors where “command-and-control” doesn’t apply.

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