July-August 2018

Understanding emotional intelligence

Marisa Dunagan

Assistant Criminal District Attorney in Collin County

I first heard the term “emotional intelligence” during an episode of The Bachelor. Like many others watching, I believed that emotional intelligence was not actually a thing and that the contestant made it up. Imagine my surprise a few months later when I saw the book HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Emotional Intelligence sitting on the coffee table at my in-laws’ house. Turns out, emotional intelligence is one of the single most important factors in determining if someone will make a great leader. More importantly, unlike many of the various attributes of great leaders, emotional intelligence can be learned.
    Emotional intelligence consists of five key areas: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill. These skills maximize our own performance in the workplace and help others do the same. While the book focuses on how this applies to businesses, it is also applicable to prosecution.
    The book is a compilation of 10 essays about emotional intelligence in the workplace and how it leads to positive change on a personal and team level. Each essay in the book offers insight on how to develop your emotional intelligence and become a more effective leader. There are numerous takeaways from this book—these are my top four.
1. A positive mood affects everyone. In the essay Primal Leadership, the authors discuss how a leader’s mood influences performance. Many prosecutors assume this to mean they must put on a game face, but that is not the case. As my first assistant preaches, “Happiness is an attitude, not a mood.” This phrase perfectly describes the authors’ basic premise: Effective leaders recognize that their mood drives everyone else’s mood, and the leader is capable of adjusting his behavior accordingly.
    We’ve all had days where something in our personal life is weighing on us as we drive to work, or perhaps the stress of trials, victims, or defense attorneys has thrown us off-kilter. Nevertheless, a leader recognizes his mood and makes adjustments. A negative mood is toxic in the workplace, but when a leader is happy, those around him are more positive, efficient, and effective at their jobs.
2. Recognizing biases allows for more effective leadership. Another important takeaway is recognizing your own biases—for instance, knowing when you have become too emotionally invested in a case. While we all care about our workload, the inability to step back and effectively evaluate a case can have grave consequences. In practice, this emotional intelligence may translate to having a few trusted peers to discuss the facts of the case and what it’s worth, or on a larger scale, having a pitch session with prosecutors of varying experience levels to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the case.
3. Communication is a process worth investing in. The ability to effectively communicate is ever-present in our jobs. The essay Why It’s So Hard to be Fair focuses on process fairness. The process of making decisions involves three main components: input, implementation, and behavior. On a prosecutorial level, this can mean seeking input from victims, coworkers, and law enforcement; using the most accurate information and minimizing biases; and communicating to other parties why you made a decision while respecting and actively listening to their concerns and points of view.
    Practically, process fairness may translate to keeping open lines of communication with law enforcement on cases where an alternative resolution is sought or explaining to a victim ahead of time the case’s weaknesses and why a lesser charge or plea offer is more appropriate. By utilizing process fairness, we allow others to express their feelings regarding a decision—they feel included in the process rather than shocked by the outcome.
4. Emotional intelligence is best learned through feedback. The ability to strengthen your emotional intelligence through practice, feedback, and diligence sets it apart from the other hallmark qualities of leadership. The key to truly maximizing emotional intelligence is feedback from other people. Individuals must be willing to ask supervisors and coworkers at all levels for constructive evaluations of their performance. Performance does not merely include how well they do their job, but rather how they communicate with others, respond to difficult situations, and process their emotions. The essays The Price of Incivility and Fear of Feedback are tremendously informative in this respect. Seeking out and receiving constructive feedback aids in increasing your emotional intelligence because it allows you to better understand and respond to situations and others.

If you want to be an effective leader, then this is definitely a book worth reading. Emotional intelligence is unlike IQ because emotional intelligence can be learned. Whether you are new to the office or a senior chief, there are valuable points that apply to all levels within a prosecutor office. After all, as people who work in prosecution, we are viewed as leaders in our community. Regardless of whether we are at the bottom of the totem pole or the top, better understanding ourselves and others, communicating effectively, and promoting positive change is central to our goal of seeing that justice is done.