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Thinking outside of the library: emotional intelligence for all

By Debra Lucas, D’Youville College, New York | Aug 28, 2019


In his groundbreaking book The Emotionally Intelligent Workplace, psychologist and emotional intelligence (EI) expert Daniel Goleman tells the story of an airline flight attendant who used emotional intelligence to calm a plane full of weary and agitated travelers (2001).  In one of the chapters in the book, Goldman describes a situation that arose after a long and difficult flight. The passengers, who were arriving after a series of long delays, were understandably anxious to depart the plane—after all, the Super Bowl was about to begin! They rose from their seats before reaching the gate—an emotional reaction despite the fact that they were cognitively aware that they must stay seated until the plane comes to a complete stop. Instead of chastising them, the flight attendant picked up the intercom and stated calmly, in a sing-song voice, “You’re staaanding!” Her humor diffused the situation, calming the weary and anxious passengers.


Emotional intelligence, Goleman says in his book, is the ability to “recognize and regulate emotions in ourselves and in others.” “The model of EI as a variety of intelligence has a wide range of implications…particularly in predicting and developing the hallmarks of outstanding performers in jobs of every kind and at every level.” If Goleman’s theory applies to performers in jobs of every kind and at every level, then it follows that he believes that library managers, staff, senior administrators and strategic leaders also have the potential to manage or lead with emotional intelligence.  


Business literature such as Goleman’s work has lessons for librarians. As a profession, librarians need to think out of the box with ingenuity and intellectual curiosity. Relying solely on library literature is a limitation that we put on ourselves, and it results in simply re-creating what other librarians have researched and enacted in the institutions where they have an affiliation. It’s the famed “same old, same old” situation.


Goleman says there is a great divide between the mind and the heart, i.e., cognition and emotion. “Other abilities integrate thought and feeling and fall within the domain of emotional intelligence, a term that highlights the crucial role of emotional performance,” he writes.  The flight attendant who used humor to calm the anxious passengers, he explains, was able to “hit exactly the right emotional note—something cognitive capabilities alone are insufficient for, because by definition they lack the human flair for feeling.”


So how do we apply the flight attendant’s experience with a plane full of weary passengers to a librarian’s daily struggles? It’s simple, really. Librarians face unhappy patrons every day. College students, for example, are often tired, worried, or falling behind in their studies. Imagine that one of them has just arrived from the registrar’s office, where they were told they could not register for the next semester because they owe library fines. How would a librarian handle an encounter with this individual, who is probably irate? Let us hope it is with a healthy dose of emotional intelligence. The librarian would have to put themselves in the patron’s shoes. If you’re in this situation, be empathetic and mindful of your own emotions as well as the emotions of the patron. If you feel their anger is directed toward you (and in some cases it is), diffuse the situation. How? In this case, humor might not be your best option! This may call for using your best listening skills and “talking them down.”  When students break down into tears, your emotional intelligence must ignite.


Library literature will provide us with examples of how other librarians work. But when we expand our horizons and delve into literature outside of library science, including business literature, we forge our own future.  Librarians must keep abreast of the changing trends and opportunities in business. If we disregard the business climate and conduct our research solely in a library-centric manner, we will continue to exist but not to grow. Transformational leaders must create a vision. The vision should not be based solely on the expertise of a few librarians who have published articles on what they accomplished in their unique situations. Delving deeply into the library literature can certainly help transformational leaders, but they need to read the expert business literature too. “While there is wide acknowledgement in the general management literature emanating from the business world that EI competencies are valuable, most literature in the library realm is limited in scope and has been focused on positions at the higher levels of leadership…with little research performed on non-leadership or entry-level positions within academic libraries” (Klare, et al., 2014).


Thinking outside of the library literature can enhance and expand one’s preconceived notions. EI is not specific to the business world. In fact, EI is not just for managers or leaders. Emotional intelligence is for all. 




Goleman, D. (2001). Emotional intelligence: Issues in paradigm building. The emotionally intelligent workplace13, 26. Chapter two

Klare, D., Behney, M., & Kenney, B. F. (2014). Emotional intelligence in a stupid world. Library Hi Tech News31(6), 21-24



If you are interested in learning more about emotional intelligence, you may be interested in learning more about a forthcoming four-week course the author is teaching "Mastering Emotional Intelligence." The class is sponsored by the America Library Association's Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) and topics being covered include staff selection, developing skills and competencies, benefits and rewards, and managing change. The course begins on Monday, October 7, 2019, and additional information is available here



Debra Lucas is the author of the book Marketing the 21st Century Library: The Time Is Now. The book teaches students and practitioners how to and why they should market and promote academic libraries and introduces key marketing concepts, followed by the history of library marketing. Subsequent chapters guide readers through a series of tools and resources so they can create their own marketing plans, concluding with an exploration of resources, services and further readings.