Heart surgery

The term “emotional intelligence” was coined by clinical
psychologist Claude Steiner in 1975. But the concept became
mainstream nine years ago with the publication of a book by Daniel

His most eye-catching claim centred on a case of two people
applying for a job with the same formal qualifications. He found
that the person who scored high on emotional intelligence
indicators would be eight times as successful in the job as the
other person, whose score was low. He went on to develop a set of
emotional competences which research has shown can be learned at
all stages of life. These four competences are self-awareness,
self-management, social awareness and relationship management.

In the UK, the concept has been enthusiastically adopted by
those working in education and is usually referred to as “emotional
literacy”. Antidote, the trust for promotion of emotional literacy,
initially emphasised children and young people. How could they be
helped to develop their intra- and interpersonal skills?

It was soon appreciated that a parallel movement was needed to
support teachers in developing their own emotional literacy. It was
argued that where teachers have limited emotional literacy, the
climate in which young people spend many of their formative years
may be dysfunctional and unhealthy.

More recently, the emphasis has widened to the “whole school” –
its systems, practices and culture – with a view to developing an
“emotionally literate school”.

This acknowledgement of – and need to understand – the emotional
life of an organisation, with its impact on staff-service user
relationships and organisational and inter-agency “productivity”,
has encouraged us to explore implications for staff working in
social care and the health professions.

The concept has a particular relevance in today’s climate.
“Change” is a given, but few people feel they can embrace it
because it is often mismanaged. “People don’t leave organisations;
they leave managers,” Martyn Sloman, adviser at the Chartered
Institute of Personnel and Development recently claimed.(2) He
described the relationship between managers and their workforce as
“crucial to the productivity, morale, attitude and effectiveness of
a department”.

Similarly, Neil Thompson argued that “stress” is the
responsibility of management, and whether workers feel valued and
consulted has major implications for staff sickness levels and for
the retention of staff.(3)

In today’s performance management culture, helping staff to give
of their best is vitally important. This process can be helped or
hindered by the emotional life of an organisation, and therefore
this aspect is ignored at its peril.

This is not just about going around being nice to each other,
and not at all about being able to emote all over the place. Both
are common misconceptions. As Susie Orbach has written: “Emotional
literacy is the attempt to take responsibility for understanding
our personal emotionsÉ Emotional literacy means being able to
recognise what you are feeling so that it doesn’t interfere with
your thinking.”(4)

We have worked for extensive periods in social work and in youth
and community work. From these combined backgrounds, we have taken
the concept of emotional literacy and used it to underpin our work
in several ways:

  • Facilitating workshops for senior managers in the public
    sector, exploring the development of an emotionally literate
  • Facilitating change workshops for health staff undergoing
    significant restructuring.
  • Training early years’ workers to use the competences for
    themselves and their service users.
  • As a regular session on a managerial supervision skills
  • In stress management sessions.
  • Working with a social work team with outstanding interpersonal
    problems to develop an “emotionally literate team”.
  • Working with a national children’s charity to evaluate its
    management structures with regard to emotional literacy.

Within this work we have focused on the competences that Goleman
describes and the need to be aware of the emotional dimension at
four levels:

  • What is going on for the service user?
  • What is going on for the worker in their relationships with the
    service user, with colleagues and with management?
  • What is going on for managers?
  • What feelings are stimulated, for good and for ill, by the
    organisation’s policies, practice and culture?

We seek to address these questions head-on as part of the
planned programme, as well as
making them an ongoing thread of the day. Outcomes for participants
include an awareness of, for example, the powerful influence of
emotions on the dynamics of a dysfunctional decision-making group
or supervisory relationship, and ways of moving these relationships
forward to develop more effective performance.

A recent change workshop used self-awareness as a key component
to help health staff working in an acute trust to identify the
emotional responses they were experiencing, and their origins. A
restructuring had previously been badly managed. The outcomes led
senior management to provide an opportunity for all staff at all
levels to spend a day exploring, in small groups, the changes and
to understand their own emotional reactions. They drew on
theoretical perspectives such as the Kubler Ross loss curve.(5)

When the common assessment framework was introduced, Horwath
argued that, using the Prochaska and DiClimente model of change,6
too often management move staff directly from unawareness of change
to telling them it’s happening to action, without giving them time
to contemplate it.(7) Horwath said this stage is crucial to gain
the motivation of staff to implement the change, and it includes an
opportunity for feelings to be aired meaningfully.

In our experience, the support needs of middle managers tend to
be unaddressed. Good managers recognise the need to support their
own front-line staff as well as hold them to account, but little
attention seems to be given to those managers’ own needs.

We were engaged to work with middle managers of a social
services department through action learning sets, so they could
implement supervision skills they had been trained in. The sets
also provided them with the chance to share with and to learn from
each other about the “emotional side” of the management task.

This process provided a supportive atmosphere, which facilitated
risk-taking in sharing feelings and freed up staff to develop
effective responses to some of the dilemmas they faced in their
supervisory tasks.

A serious case review had wreaked emotional trauma and the
“aftermath” needed to be addressed. Recognising this, we
facilitated a workshop for senior members of an area child
protection committee. We explored theoretical concepts and the
emotional needs of staff as individuals and as part of the
multi-agency network.(8)

As we explored the development of an emotionally literate
organisation, we have encountered interest from individuals and
groups. After one workshop, a senior member of an education
authority redesigned a restructuring process to try to reflect an
emotionally literate approach. We feel that, to have an impact, a
strategy needs ownership at senior level.

But perhaps enough people at all levels trying to work in an
emotionally literate way could make a difference.


This article looks at the growing interest in the concept of
emotional literacy and at ways in which the authors have used it in
training and consultancy with social care professionals.


  1. D Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, Bloomsbury, 1996
  2. M Sloman, “Skills back-up key for new managers”, Community
    Care, p50, 2 December, 2004
  3. N Thompson, “All stressed out”, Community Care, p34-35, 25
    November, 2004
  4. S Orbach, Towards Emotional Literacy, Virago, 1999
  5. E Kubler Ross, On Death and Dying, Collier, 1969
  6. J Horwath, Managing the Change in The Child’s World Training
    Pack, DoH and NSPCC, 2000
  7. J Prochaska and C DiClemente, Transtheoretical Therapy: Towards
    a More Integrative Model of Change, 1982
  8. S King, “Managing the aftermath of serious case reviews”, Child
    Abuse Review, Vol 12, p261-269, 2003

Further Information

  • D Goleman, Working with Emotional Intelligence, Bloomsbury,
  • J Park, The Emotional Literacy Handbook, Antidote, 2003
  • K Weare and G Gray, What Works in Developing Children’s
    Emotional and Social Well-Being, DfES Research Report, 456,
  • K Weare, Developing the Emotionally Literate School, Paul
    Chapman, 2004

Contact the Author

Sue King can be contacted on: 0116 2705007, or e-mail: suemking@btinternet.com

Sue King is co-director of Delos Consultancy with Rob
Hunter. She trained as a probation officer in the late 1960s and
has always been interested in how emotions affect behaviour. Since
leaving the probation service she has worked independently with
public sector organisations.

Rob Hunter is an adviser and consultant in youth and
community work and adult education with local authorities and
voluntary organisations.


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