The Importance of Emotional Intelligence in a CPA’s Career

This article was originally written for The Georgia Society of CPAs magazine Current Accounts

To succeed in the highly competitive world of financial consulting, accounting professionals must possess the right mix of technical expertise and soft skills – think ‘emotional intelligence (EI).’ As discussed in an article published by Harvard Business Review, EI plays an increasingly significant role in today’s business environment. Therefore, it’s vital that you optimize your EI to improve your bottom line and increase your organization’s job satisfaction, engagement, and retention rates. 

Let’s start by explaining what emotional intelligence is. According to the HelpGuide.org blog, “Improving Emotional Intelligence” EI “is the ability to understand, use, and manage your own emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges and defuse conflict.” EI helps build stronger relationships, succeed at work, and achieve your career and personal goals. “It can also help you to connect with your feelings, turn intention into action, and make informed decisions about what matters most to you.”

Four components define emotional intelligence: self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, and relationship management.  

  1. Self-awareness: You understand your emotions and how they affect your thoughts and behavior. When you first learned about EI, you had no self-awareness and thought it was silly. A couple of performance reviews brought this to your attention, so you decided to research EI and find ways to improve. One exercise was to write down whenever a situation sparked an emotion. For example, you were happy when someone remembered your birthday. On the other hand, you were angry because you were late for a meeting. Journal two weeks’ worth of data, analyze the data, and increase your awareness.
  2. Self-management: According to a SkillsYouNeed.com blog post titled, “Self-Regulation | Self-Management. This blog is all about how “you control and manage yourself and your emotions, inner resources, and abilities. It includes your ability to manage your impulses, taking responsibility for your actions, and ensuring that what you do matches your values.” This is not masking or hiding your emotions but recognizing and controlling them appropriately. We all have bad days, whether we overslept and were late to a client meeting; got in a fight with our significant other as we were about to login into a virtual meeting; the computer crashed, or dealing with the myriad of other unexpected events that can happen at any given moment. Those who can self-manage their emotions can change their thoughts and attitude into a positive one if they choose. Or they can bring their bad juju into the meeting, office, or lunch and complain about all the things that have gone wrong. Tigger or Eeyore (Winnie the Pooh) will rise up – and you have a choice of whom you want to be in that moment and beyond.
  1. Social awareness: Do you recognize the emotions in others? Do you respond and interact appropriately when you do? Social awareness is about ‘reading’ the emotional landscape and responding with empathy. Empathy is not putting yourself in their shoes; it’s about understanding how that person feels in their shoes. Big difference. According to the PositiveAction article, Social Awareness: An Introductory Guide, “social awareness skills will help us understand professionalism in the workplace, as well as making it easier to share information, communicate, and collaborate with others.” Social awareness is a fundamental part of creating relationships with the people we work with and the customers and clients we need to build our businesses.
  2. Relationship management: In the HelpGuide.org article referenced above, when we understand the top three elements of EI – self-awareness, self-management, and social awareness – and apply them correctly, CPAs can begin “to develop and maintain good relationships, communicate clearly, inspire and influence others, work well in a team, and manage conflict.” Good leadership skills drive a positive mental attitude, a.k.a being an optimist.

The following are some strategies on how to increase your EI. First and foremost, remember that improving your EI requires intentional effort.

Engagement

To retain employees, managers must first understand how people feel about their jobs. Engagement surveys help you assess how content your staff members are at work and whether or not they will stay for the long haul. To help improve morale, you need to listen to your employees’ concerns and address them appropriately. By learning what makes people tick, you can manage each person individually and create EI central to every manager. By regularly measuring engagement scores, you can keep tabs on employee happiness while also taking proactive steps to ensure that employees remain engaged over time. If scores begin to drop off, investigate why and brainstorm ways to bring your team back on board so they stay engaged, excited, and productive for the long term.

Retention

It is crucial to increase employee engagement to reduce turnover and avoid talent shortages. According to the Hay Group, employee retention can help a company achieve a return on investment (ROI) as high as $34 for every dollar spent. But what factors influence engagement? According to one study, three main elements—empowerment, meaningful work, and recognition—can drive engaged workers to stick around even when they’re unhappy with their pay or leadership. However, the company also found that disengaged employees are three times more likely than engaged ones to quit within six months, resulting in lost productivity and costs amounting up to $3 million per year for larger firms.

Improvisation – plays a critical role in EI.

In business, life, and sports, a critical EI skill separates high performers from mediocre/average performers – Improvisation.  Improvisation is vital when things don’t go as planned during a negotiation, meeting, disagreement, or game. In improv and business alike, being able to roll with whatever comes your way will make or break the outcome. It is the ability to adapt to change. It is ‘Yes! And’ philosophy of improv and EI leadership.  There is a widely used quote in improv that describes this philosophy by Keith Johnstone, “There are people who prefer to say “Yes,” and there are people who prefer to say “No.” Those who say “Yes” are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those who say “No” are rewarded by the safety they attain.”

This skill is also crucial for career development. When employees are taught and developed to recognize patterns and manage their emotions during performance reviews or when delivering presentations or dealing with client issues, they learn how to respond effectively to any scenario that might come up. This can be instrumental in employment and everyday life; many believe EI contributes more to success than cognitive intelligence (IQ). Improvisation allows people who may not have a natural knack for talking themselves out of trouble to get creative by thinking on their feet. And by doing so, they practice getting outside their comfort zone and gain confidence that applies in various situations.

Build an EI culture

Think about how you’d build EI into your organization from start to finish. The first thing you’ll need to do is hire people skilled at managing their emotions and reading those of others—and then develop a culture that promotes these skills so employees see the value in developing EI. One way to do that is by emphasizing engagement, retention, and connection. Another is by encouraging improvisation among employees to tackle new projects or work with unfamiliar clients. You could even team up with an expert consultant or coach specializing in improv leadership development to help integrate EI building into your workplace strategy. Whatever approach you take, make sure you are very clear about the kind of environment you are building and what everyone can expect when they enter the office every day—and that it reflects the type of relationships that matter most to you and the organization.

Reflect and report – no, really!

No matter how intelligent you are, you’re not immune to boredom with your job. In fact, according to a study done by Mercer Consulting, 40% of people are actively disengaged at work! While job-hopping may seem like an easy solution to your boredom problem, it has more severe long-term effects. Employees who change jobs multiple times over their lifetime earn less money than those who stick with one employer for their entire career. So what’s an unhappy employee to do? Instead of quitting, commit yourself to improving your emotional intelligence.

Conclusion

An optimist CPA and a pessimistic CPA walk into a bar, and the bartender says, “Is there such a thing as an optimistic CPA?”  The pessimistic CPA says, “no,” and the optimist CPA says “yes, and it is all about one’s attitude and emotional intelligence.” The optimist CPA asks the pessimist CPA, “what do you see/think when you look at a glass filled halfway” – the pessimist CPA says, “the glass is half empty.” The optimist CPA says, “add ice.”

“Originally written for The Georgia Society of CPAs magazine Current Accounts.”

References:
Improving Emotional Intelligence (EQ). https://www.helpguide.org/articles/mental-health/emotional-intelligence-eq.htm?pdf=13508

Self-Regulation | Self-Management | SkillsYouNeed. https://www.skillsyouneed.com/ps/self-management.html

Social Awareness: An Introductory Guide | Positive Action. https://www.positiveaction.net/blog/social-awareness

A Dose of Humor Will Help Manage Your Stress

I’ll be the first one to tell you improv isn’t all about comedy and making people laugh. However, my introduction to improv resulted from finding and using comedy as a coping mechanism to deal with several challenges life threw my way. 

There is great power in being able to leverage comedy, laughter, and improv. The fundamentals of improvisation have been a literal lifesaver for me in dealing with highly stressful situations throughout my life. The fact is, stress is a part of our everyday lives. Stress can come from a variety of sources. For example, stress can come from daily frustrations, including our jobs, others from unexpected challenges, such as significant health issues, or a looming deadline as your work piles up around you. 

You remember this saying, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” Mary Poppins was onto something here: to digest something undesirable but necessary – add something sweet to go with it! I favor taking this advice literally – sweets and snacks made available when you are in a crunch can undoubtedly go a long way, but so can humor. 

Is there anything better than experiencing a terrific laugh? It’s one of those sensations that lightens your mood and makes you want more. When something is funny, it feels good – it’s sweet that can make medicine taste a little better. So, why are so many workplaces seemly devoid of humor? I often ask my audiences, “When was the last time your coworkers burst out into laughter, and it wasn’t at your expense?” Of course, the answer depends on your culture and your colleagues. But all too often, that humor isn’t as typical and present as it should be, and stress can be a big reason for that. 

But, a regular dose of laughter reduces stress, and it’s desirable. A Forbes article written by Jacquelyn Smith cited a few statistics that validate the importance of humor. According to the article, “A Robert Half International survey, for instance, found that 91% of executives believe a sense of humor is important for career advancement; while 84% feel that people with a good sense of humor do a better job. Another study by Bell Leadership Institute found that the two most desirable traits in leaders were a strong work ethic and a good sense of humor.” 

I get it though, people are in survival mode, just trying to get through until quitting. When you’re facing a strict deadline or enduring an impossible task, the last thing you probably want to hear is some joker saying, “Hey, did you hear the one about the priest, the rabbi, and Bill Clinton walking into a bar?” You want to rip their tonsils out. However, humor need not be a stand-up routine – it can be present in how you finish a request in an email or a brief quip in passing to a colleague in the lunchroom. It can also take more sophisticated forms that take more time – such as [kind] pranks when it’s someone’s birthday, or someone reaches a career milestone, or if your college football team beat your colleague’s football team. 

The following are a handful of ways you can help decrease stress and hopefully increase humor and fun (all while being incredibly efficient and productive): 

Smile. It seems so simple, but body language – especially a smile – can dramatically impact how you and all your coworkers feel. It takes the edge off tense moments; it communicates that you aren’t consumed with negative feelings; it makes you more approachable, and others will feel comfortable around you; it invites positive emotions. 

Be prepared. The clown amuses no one at work that isn’t pulling their weight, shows up late to meetings, and can’t be relied on. Having humor in the workplace doesn’t mean you shirk your responsibilities. Humor is enjoyed with you, and those around you are confident – and that confidence, especially in the workplace, comes with being prepared for your job. Preparation for the days and weeks ahead will allow you to be less stressed and more confident – which will not only help you and your clients. It will help your colleagues. 

Adapt. Adaptability is a HUGE part of improvisational humor – it IS improv. Many things in life can be stressful, but we can “go with the flow.” Adapting is simply the ability to readjust as you experience things – whether that readjusts your sales pitch or the time in the morning you give a presentation, or having to select a different menu item when your first choice is sold out. No matter the situation, it takes flexibility and confidence to address change head-on – and let’s face it, things are constantly changing, things rarely go as planned. 

Have the right attitude. Your attitude affects everything. Since being little children, we’ve been told this – depending on our mood, and we’ll see the world a certain way that can either be positive or negative. It’s also incredibly contagious. No matter the source of your stress, your success in overcoming it depends on your ability to perceive things positively. You either can see your situation as a challenge and make the most of it, or you can succumb to it and let the stress win. Your ability to positively approach the workday will dramatically affect the vibe of your group – even if you have some Debbie Downers. Perhaps you won’t be able to win everyone over, but there will be plenty who will positively respond to your cheerful and witty vibes. 

So you’re committed to bringing more levity to your workplace – good, you all need it! As you make an effort to get to know your team members and engage with them, you’ll soon be able to determine your comedic boundaries. Of course, most of you probably know your colleagues well enough to know your limitations already – but consider times where you need to collaborate with other teams, new clients, outside resources, etc. Just remember, wit and humor are appreciated, and it’s needed! So, let yourself laugh; doing so will reduce your stress and helps others reduce theirs. Laughter is the proven antidote, and it comes naturally when the company culture is conducive to it – so, be a part of it!