Svetlana Holt: On the Business of Emotional Intelligence

When Dr. Svetlana Holt stands before a class or at the head of a conference table, she is, of course, sharing information and insight. That’s what a university professor does.

But at the same time, she is modeling one of the most important skills she can impart to her management students; one that she has learned through years of research that is critical to management effectiveness: the ability to listen.

She notes and commits to memory what every student says in her classroom. She expects the same of them. “I award the highest grades to the best listeners, not to those who speak or write the most,” Dr. Holt says.

It’s a small counter-intuitive window into Dr. Holt’s central tenets as chair of the Management program and associate dean of the School of Business. And it illustrates how she combines her research and expertise in emotional intelligence with her teaching and the many tasks of running a department.

“Interest in the role of emotion in professional life has been increasing steadily over the past three decades, and many scholars, especially industrial psychologists, emphasize the significance of managing emotions for organizational and personal success,” Dr. Holt says. “I approach the study of emotional intelligence as a scientific endeavor based on empirical data, noting how it adds value to society, and how it encourages development of the so-called ‘soft skills’ in business learners.”

Few business school programs address this evolving field, but Woodbury’s most decidedly does. Dr. Holt helped develop the curriculum in a way that both students and faculty can benefit from. “One of the most important things our educational institutions can do in order to prepare students for success is to teach emotional intelligence,” she says. “Intellectual ability alone is not a guarantee of academic success.”

As the field has grown, it has come under a certain scrutiny. “Emotional Intelligence remains a somewhat contentious area,” Dr. Holt says. “Different opinions exist as to what high levels of emotional intelligence represent and which measurement instruments are most effective in predicting social behaviors, academic performance and overall life outcomes.”

As a business school leader, she also serves as a mentor, a recruiter, and a coach to the management faculty. “Mentoring newer faculty has always been one of my passions, and when the time was right for me to accept responsibility for leading the department, I was eager to work with those open to being developed and challenged,” she recalls. Frequent subjects of faculty give and take: enhancing student engagement, combating chronic under-preparedness, and the most effective ways to frame and format feedback on student performance.

Dr. Holt considers her academic articles stemming from her research into the applications of empathy the hallmarks of her career. Her article, “Empathy in Leadership: Appropriate or Misplaced?” was published in “The Journal of Business Ethics,” an “A” level, double-blind peer-reviewed journal, and as a result, the Journal has invited her to be a regular “blind” peer reviewer and editor of scholarly research on related topics. She has also been serving as an invited grant proposal reviewer for the Singapore Ministry of Education Tertiary Research Fund.

For Dr. Holt, it all comes back to the concept of empathy; it is, she says, “an essential part of emotional intelligence, which has long informed my teaching process.” In the classroom, she uses the Socratic approach: “I communicate as much as I can through asking confounding questions — questions designed to expose inconvenient truths, to reveal different perspectives on previously unchallenged assumptions, and to transform learners from examiners to inquirers and to thus kindle their empathy. Good questions help students to learn to tie someone else’s shoes, so to speak, not wear them.”

What distinguishes Dr. Holt’s classroom experience is her belief that listening to the answers is just as crucial as asking them. “The listening skill is especially vital for leaders of any kind, as they need to understand when to listen and to whom,” she says.

Svetlana Holt knows that she’s in a special position to use and embody the fruits of her research in her work as an academic leader. “I strive to practice what I preach, being smart about my own and other people’s feelings, respecting them and channeling them in the most productive directions,” she says.

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