Emotional Intelligence, Conflict & Business Outcomes

I can’t cite a source for the widely circulated statistic that “ten percent of conflicts are caused by a difference of opinion and 90% are caused by tone of voice” but my EAP consulting work supplies a steady stream of examples demonstrating the primacy of emotional tone in business communications.

Whether a difference of opinion ends up leading to a creative collaboration or to a conflict frequently depends on the emotional tenor of the discussion.

The domain of emotion has its own inviolable analogue to Newton’s third law of motion: for every (emotional) action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

This reaction may not be immediately visible, but whether you call it karma or the butterfly effect or psychophysics, a negative emotional tone inevitably leads to undesirable consequences somewhere downstream.

I first witnessed this principle in action, when I was 19 and working a summer job at a Cott Soda factory in New Haven, Connecticut.  I was sitting with a group of employees on my lunch break and drinking from a quart bottle of orange soda that I had plucked off one of the production lines. (The heat was so debilitating there we regularly used salt tablets to help fight the effects of dehydration).

The owner of the company walked by and scolded me for drinking from a quart bottle. He didn’t object to my drinking a soda (this was allowed) but chastised me for selecting a quart bottle instead of a 12 ounce bottle. For an adolescent, already prone to embarrassment, the experience of being harshly rebuked by the company owner (in front of a crowd no less) was excruciating but I managed to mumble some apology to Mr. Cott before he went on his way.

The men I was sitting with, my coworkers, were very angry about how Mr. Cott had treated me. When I returned to my work station at the bottle sterilizer (the beginning of the production line) the man who was training me told me to step aside and he proceeded to strategically break a bottle in two locations that would jam the conveyor belt saying: “We can’t let him get away with talking to you like that!.”

He then rang the bell to shut down the line and call for the repair engineer.

The cost of Mr. Cott’s bullying (invisible to him): one of his 12 production lines was shut down for about a half hour.

I don’t know if he was chronically indifferent to the feelings of others or if he was just having a bad day. It doesn’t make any difference in terms of the results.

If you treat people harshly they will try to find a way to even the score.

Or leave.

One recent example is the mass desertion of talent occurring at Verily (an ambitious Google startup trying to transform the practice of medicine) which is being blamed on their emotionally tone deaf CEO. The CEO was memorably described as the “seagull of science” by one of his former senior employees because: “he used to fly in, squawk, crap over everything and fly away.”

Beware of the seagull in the C-suite.

Whether the context is a soda factory or a cutting-edge startup striving to change the face of healthcare, the fundamental importance of emotional intelligence on business outcomes remains the same.

In a post I wrote about employee engagement last year I outlined the specific people skills required to avoid creating a payback scenario:

  1. Self-awareness: The ability to understand and manage what you are feeling (including stress) and how you are coming across to the people around you.
  2. Self-control: The ability to override impulses and fluctuations in mood so they don’t interfere with the achievement of goals.
  3. Empathy: The ability to understand what the people around you are feeling.
  4. Interpersonal skills: Being able to communicate effectively (includes listening and receiving/giving feedback), promote teamwork, resolve conflicts, bring out the best in people, delegate effectively and positively influence the motivation and performance of others.


You have a choice every day in business (and at home):  pay it forward with respectful and emotionally intelligent responses or plant the seeds for a future payback with a negative emotional tone.

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