Ability to read emotions is an undervalued skill in long-term care, elsewhere

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Elizabeth Newman
Elizabeth Newman

Reading other people's emotions well is a little like being Spider-Man: With great power comes great responsibility. It means people often start spilling their life story to you, or assume you can read their mind.

For those of you fellow sensitive emotional people, there's good news. It turns out, according to a psychologist at the University of Bonn, recognizing people's emotions positively affects income, namely because these people in a business environment are able to care and deal with the emotions of their colleagues. The verdict is still out as to whether these people also tear up at commercials involving animals or have a strong need for people to like them, but I'm going to guess these fine qualities overlap in a Venn diagram.

Around 150 people were involved in the study, which involved photos and recordings of actors and children, and a measurement based accordingly. Researchers, including University of Bonn Professor Gerhard Blickle, Ph.D., then asked participant's colleagues and supervisors to assess political skills of study participants, such as whether they were good networkers, influential and sincere.

Results showed the people who did well on the emotions test “are considered more socially and politically skilled than others by their colleagues ... Most notably, their income is significantly higher.” That's with the researchers controlling for variants such as gender, age, training, working hours and hierarchical position.

These study results translate across any business setting, but the researchers said the value on recognizing emotions should be even more important in professions where contact with people is important. It's a skill, Blickle says, akin to learning a foreign language or an aptitude for athletics.

Healthcare managers would not be alone in not realizing that recognizing emotions is a skill.

"Often we hear managers speak of understanding and esteem," Blickle says critically, "but when we look at their management behavior, we realize that they have neither."

Ouch. The next question is, can this ability to recognize emotions be trained? Blickle said he's not convinced — the people who try to enhance their “emotional intelligence” are likely already fairly adept in this area.

What we can change is the value placed on the skill of recognizing emotions while hiring. I know this sounds a bit lily-livered: Long-term care executives often want people who can produce positive financial results and strategic vision, not people who care about feelings, right? But if there's any field fraught with emotions, it's long-term care.

Let's take the ability to read a resident's family member. It's easy to assume the family member is sad, especially if a long-term care resident is approaching the end of his or her life. But what if the family member is feeling guilty, angry, relieved or anxious? Having a staff member who can accurately decipher those emotions may make it less likely that family member is going to barge into a manager's office or leave the resident in tears.

In a different environment, reflect on how many times a team meeting has turned tense because one participant didn't realize the escalating anger or frustration of another colleague, or dragged on because a speaker has failed to recognize the boredom or despair on the faces of attendees.

Ultimately, until we have more research completed, it might be hard to discern this quality in people. But in the meantime, when you find an employee who has it, hold onto that person firmly.

Elizabeth Newman is Senior Editor at McKnight's Long-Term Care News. Follow her @TigerELN.


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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.