Better Development Through Emotional Intelligence

Fredric Mitchell
#Development | Posted

I am unabashedly an engineer. I obsess over the pursuit of finding the most efficient solution to any problem.

In the realm of open source software, this approach has served me well. We read, reverse-engineer, fork, improve, and share. I want my process to be faster, more flexible, and maintainable for the long haul.

As I've investigated different methodologies, one characteristic I constantly underestimate is the team dynamic. I tend to pigeon-hole my mind into thinking that the solution to a problem is the most important goal.

Hey look! There's a problem! I must find a solution for it.

  • What if complex problems can't be solved by me?
  • What if, when I suggest a tool or a programming philosophy, it masks the need to dive deeply into other factors?

The more I researched my approach, I came across a concept that is vital to team effectiveness when solving complex problems: emotional intelligence.

Emotional Intelligence, sometimes referred to as EQ (emotional intelligence quotient) to complement IQ (intelligence quotient), is the ability to be aware of, express, control, reason, and interpret emotions appropriately.

Within a team, many, many, many studies have shown that EQ, more than IQ, is the key to solving complex problems.

The team dynamic is engrained with the DNA of open-source projects. Any Drupal issue queue or Packagist library commit log supports that.

The better question I ask myself, however, is:

  • Are the teams I work on the most emotionally intelligent?
  • If not, what am I doing to improve that metric?

Peeling back this onion revealed the societal constructs that affected how I view an effective team.

Typically, I look to the most technical people I know for answers. In some cases, I follow the stereotypical engineer playbook of positing a hypothesis, demanding evidence, and playfully browbeating a decision.

Put another way, how many times have I jokingly used the phrase "You are doing it wrong"? Is that the most effective solution, even when I mean no malice?

As the research suggested, this emotionally oblivious approach was philosophically incongruent with proven science!

  • How could I call myself an engineer?!?!
  • How could I obsess about the pursuit of efficiency and solution, when my own attitude was blunting my team's effectiveness?

I needed to do better.

I needed to find something, rooted in math and science, that helped me understand how to refactor my way of thinking.

I then learned about perspective and heuristic techniques. Perspective is how one looks at a problem. Heuristic is the mental shortcut one uses to arrive at a solution. Both are shaped by experience and knowledge, but the nuance in process from a variety of individuals is key.

Dr. Scott Page elaborates :

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The diversity of an agent's problem-solving approach, as embedded in her perspective-heuristic pair, relative to the other problem solvers is an important predictor of her value and may be more relevant than her ability to solve the problem on her own. Thus, even if we were to accept the claim that IQ tests, Scholastic Aptitude Test scores, and college grades predict individual problem-solving ability, they may not be as important in determining a person's potential contribution as a problem solver as would be measures of how differently that person thinks.

It opened my eyes to how I've been going about solving complex problems all wrong.

In the context of a complicated problem, there is a higher likelihood of finding a global optimum (the best solution) when you have a diverse set of team members with local optimum (their best solution). Put simply, I needed to engage more (not less) with people who were different than me.

In essence, given the right conditions, diversity trumps ability!

What's interesting about this research, however, is the fact that communication among members with different perspectives is very difficult.

In fact, as Dr. Page continues:

Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 11.36.31 AM

Problem solvers with nearly identical perspectives but diverse heuristics should communicate with one another easily. But problem solvers with diverse perspectives may have trouble understanding solutions identified by other agents.

Thus, we've come full circle to why EQ is so important.

If team members are not in-tune with each other, the benefits gained from their diversity can be lost. It is vital, therefore, in my unabashed obsession to being an engineer, that I not only need to improve my EQ, but surround myself with colleagues who have a high EQ and learn from them.

So what are the characteristics of high EQ individuals? Statistically, who has high EQ?

Some of our thought leaders here at Phase2 have answered that question.

If you're interested in learning more, find me as I share my ideas on a building a more inclusive community at various conferences and camps!

Fredric Mitchell