Being Nice, Being Smart

In which I explore the importance of emotions

I took a detour into teaching high school in the early 2000s. It was the dot-com bust days, when no one could find a job and those of us who had managed to hang onto our jobs through the first part of the bust were simply too exhausted to continue looking after torturous months of failed applications. Teaching high school came as a complete surprise to me and to those around me; I was in front of students within a month of applying for the job and ended up staying for over two academic years.

I came out of the experience with a profound respect for teaching as a profession and a bucketful of stories about the hilarious things that the students said in class and wrote in their essays. I also came out of teaching mulling over the things that students said casually while at the cusp of adulthood, statements parroted from their parents, or things they had been thinking about while trying to figure out where their lives were going.

One such young man was in my English class. He was one of those brilliant kids who were one step ahead of all of their classmates, one of those who came to logical conclusions rapidly and carried around with him a vague sense of ennui about the whole high school experience. He was one of those cerebral kids who you knew would probably grow up to be a cerebral adult.

Probably a month before graduation, I was chatting with a couple of students before the period ended. I don’t remember what we were talking about precisely, but this student stated in a matter-of-fact way, “My dad says it’s more important to be nice than it is to be smart.

This simple statement has stuck with me for over a decade, and now that I’ve been working in tech for a majority of my career, I have to ask myself:

Is this true?

Over the course of my tech career, I’ve worked on a double handful of teams, mostly thanks to the wonderful thing known as a re-org. While it’s meant a great deal of transition, there are some benefits: as a result, I’ve worked with a large number of people and have seen teams both succeed and fail. I also have a better sense of who I want to be working with, and why.

While teaching, I emphasized communication as a key skill for any person to have. (Caveat: I taught English. I almost had to say that.) However, what I was saying wasn’t simply a pipe dream; the years before and years after my short stint in the classroom only proved that one of the key elements to an effective team is excellent communication.

However, I’ve come to realize that the best teams aren’t just formed out of people who talk and write clearly to each other. It comes down to the preschool evaluation: a good team member “plays well with others.”

All throughout my many years of schooling, I saw the same pattern reveal itself over and over again in our group projects. The smartest or most committed person (70% of the time: me) would get the brunt of the work. Everyone else would mostly participate, but the majority of work would always come to that one rock star.

However, some of the best groups I participated in while in school were ones where all of us were equals. We split the work evenly and trusted that the other people would carry their respective loads to the level of quality that we expected out of ourselves. The outcome was almost always better than what we could have done by ourselves.

Similarly, in tech, some of the worst teams I’ve been on have been where there are rock stars or people wanting to be rock stars. (I’m intentionally leaving the dead weight conversation out of this essay.) Conversely, some of the best teams I’ve been on have been where there are a large group of people who are all highly competent, but have the personal maturity to leave their egos at the door to be able to collaborate.

What separates a successful team from a great team has to do with each person’s independent desire to function as a team. It has to do with their investment in each other as people, the ability to encourage, celebrate, challenge, laugh, accept responsibility, and even fail together. A great team coalesces as an organism, supporting each team member in their individual weaknesses and identifying the right mix of competencies to cover all bases.

So where does EQ come in? Emotional intelligence has been the buzzword in the business world over the past couple of years, and it really comes down to these few questions:

  1. Am I self-aware enough to recognize and own my emotions?
  2. Can I respond to these emotions in a healthy way?
  3. Can I help other people succeed by recognizing their motivations?
  4. Do I keep others in mind when I make decisions?
  5. Can I motivate myself?

Why is this so important for a great team? It comes down to the fact that a great team is not a robot with one brain and a lot of moving parts; it is instead a number of autonomous beings who work in symbiosis with one another. This great team has to navigate — among other things—rapidly changing job roles, shifting social and political situations, personal insecurities, previous professional or team trauma, and personal pressures.

Imagine what it would be like if you got a bunch of people together who could answer the following questions: how does what I’m going through right now, personally or professionally, affect how I treat other people? Can I change that to make sure other people aren’t affected by my past trauma? What are other people going through right now? How can I help our team succeed by supporting someone else? How can I allow myself to be supported? What effect will this word or deed or decision have on my coworkers’ work or lives?

Perhaps pushing through insecurity and admitting that your skills in a particular area are rusty means you have a chance to work on them, or that you can work on a part of the product that has a need for your current skills. Perhaps admitting that you might be wrong in an architecture decision opens you up to suggestions for a more elegant solution. Perhaps expressing your desire to help out wherever you can, and then putting your actions where your words are, would help someone who is racing at 110% feel like he or she is supported, no matter how small the effort. Perhaps a little bit of laughter could make work feel less of a burden and more of a joy.

The true rock stars aren’t the ones who can code a million miles a second; they are the ones who can code a three quarters of a million, but have the ability and desire to work together.

EQ is one component of knowing how to work together, and is much more than the rather simplistic view of “being nice.” However, the great thing about it is that it can be taught. I know from both personal experience and seeing those around me struggle that identifying your own emotions can be difficult, especially if you’re not taught how to do so. I also know from both avenues that given the right support structure, you can learn how to connect with your own emotions, learn how to hear others’, and learn how to handle both with grace.

This isn’t taught in school, where academic achievement is quite often simply doing well on the test or coding the best project. Some of the smartest people I knew while in undergrad were also the ones with the fewest social skills. Part of me wanted to just tell them that they would be less lonely if they took care of basic hygiene and stopped being so condescending to the rest of us idiots who were in their classes. However, some of the best and brightest do end up with higher EQ, to the benefit both to themselves and to those around them.

So, maybe it just does boil down to one statement: “Being nice is more important than being smart.”

But if it’s possible, be both.

Photo courtesy COCOEN Daily Photos. Licensed under Creative Commons License 2.0

Elaine is an engineer at Adobe. You can find her on Twitter at @elainefinnell. All statements in this essay are her own and do not reflect the opinions of her employer.