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Why STEM leaders need emotional intelligence training

5 min read


When I entered the workforce as a part of “the tech industry,” most people could do their jobs (even in tech) without using a computer. Today, every company is dependent on technology, to the point that just about every leader is to some extent a “tech” leader. Yet, we still have leaders who are directly responsible for teams who design, build, test and deploy complex, science- and technology-based stuff.

After years working in tech, I really enjoy supporting these STEM leaders in my executive coaching practice. While many other leadership groups receive training on the people skills a leader must refine, many STEM leaders don’t get that same encouragement. They’re more often sent to technical conferences. I don’t want to play too heavily on stereotypes, but it’s true that many science and technology leaders rise to their level of technical competence long before they achieve the same level of human competence. This can leave them at a disadvantage when it comes to managing the human beings — with their human quirks and problems — responsible for building their stuff.

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is not about having emotions

In working with leaders at all levels I’ve come to understand a myth most leaders, especially in technical disciplines, believe about managing the messy human side of teamwork. The myth is that dealing with people who have emotions requires the leader to be emotional in response. The reality is that understanding emotions in others is not the same as expressing them yourself. This mistaken belief about the need to be outwardly emotional reflects an overly-simplistic understanding of emotions, but it’s understandable because our business culture often treats employees more as parts in a massive machine than as emotional beings sharing their gifts with our business.

EQ is not having emotions, it’s understanding them, in ourselves and others and responding constructively.

In reality, emotions are the subtle language our inner selves use to communicate interpersonally and intrapersonally. While no one can get a degree in emotions from a prestigious university, my more technically-oriented clients are always pleasantly surprised to discover that they already know the language of emotions and can fairly quickly learn to use it in understanding themselves and others at a deeper level. This helps them dispel other myths about emotions among their teams, such as “if people express strong emotions, they can’t handle the work” and “empathy equals approval.”

In fact, high EQ is correlated with high-performing individuals, while a lack of EQ in managers is also correlated with employee dissatisfaction and turnover.

EQ is important at all levels, not just at the top. One of my clients, a highly trained scientist and independent contributor, was ready to leave her job and take her decades of knowledge about the company’s product with her because her boss was “getting in her way.” After deploying some very simple, emotionally intelligent approaches to communicating with her boss, she and her boss (someone who might be able to benefit from EQ) now have a good relationship and are working together on shared goals.

That’s the beauty of emotional intelligence: Everyone has it, and most people respond well when confronted with it whether that person is above, below or alongside them in the pecking order of things.

Technical work is more vulnerable to emotional un-intelligence

Not only do leaders in highly technical fields receive less emotional intelligence training than they should, they need it more!

Technical processes and products are very complex to understand, much less produce in collaboration with other humans. Technical leaders and teams regularly work with high levels of abstraction, perform under enormous time-pressure and track intricate interdependencies between highly specialized disciplines. This makes the people in these technical processes — including non-technical people — very dependent on one another, and on their ability to communicate clearly to overcome gaps in understanding.

When someone in this interdependent web becomes emotionally triggered, failing to handle their own emotions well and “taking them out on” those around them, it sends ripples of unconscious disruption through everyone in the system. This disruption costs money and time because it interrupts otherwise smooth processes, incurs stress/employee turnover, late deliveries and repeat procedures.

By contrast, leaders with high EQ can guide these interdependent webs of humans in ways that mitigate many of these costs.

My years in and around technical fields have given me a strong appreciation for the challenges and opportunities of bringing people skills to STEM leaders, their teams and to the non-technical people who work with them. I’m happy to announce a free webinar and discussion forum to help technical and non-technical people understand emotional intelligence aspects most commonly confronted in processes such as requirements gathering, project status reporting and negotiating specifications. Please join us.


Dana Theus is president and CEO of InPower Coaching. An executive coach and women’s leadership advocate Dana Theus cracks the code on personal power in the workplace. In addition to her private practice, Theus helps organizations bring emotional intelligence coaching services to midddle management within the confines of their training budget. Follow her on Twitter at @DanaTheus and on LinkedIn.

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