May 15, 2019

The role of emotions in therapeutic care

The role of emotions within human service work may at first glance appear to be intuitively obvious and incontestable. Indeed, Howe (2008) described the day of a human service worker as ‘suffused with emotional content’. The role of emotions is at the core of literature regarding relationship-based practice and the separation of feelings from professionalism can be seen as anathema in an interpersonal profession (Hennessey, 2011). Intensive Therapeutic Care has been described as:

‘Providing quality care environments that support positive, safe and healing relationships and experiences, to address individual and complex needs and work towards addressing the trauma experienced…The children and young people will receive the appropriate level of care, ‘in the right way, at the right time’.
(FACS, 2016)

Staff who work in such an environment require leadership that is emotionally intelligent responsive, authentic, open and honest and compassionate.
This blog will explore how the development of two habits that can help increase your Emotional Intelligence (EQ or EI). Emotional Intelligence is a term created by two researchers Salavoy & Mayer (1990) and popularised by Dan Goleman in his 1995 book of the same name.

Ingram (2013) highlights the role of emotional intelligence as a trait and skill that can help human service leaders manage the emotional complexities of practice. Emotional intelligence can be briefly defined as the ability of an individual to: be aware of their own emotions; be able to understand and manage these effectively within relationships; be motivated to similarly understand the emotions of others; and to communicate this within relationships (Salovey and Mayer, 1990; Morrison, 2007). Such leadership capacities are crucial for relationship-based practice, as they underline the existence and importance of emotions within residential care practice.

In practical terms, this means being aware that emotions can drive our behaviour and impact people (positively and negatively), and learning how to manage those emotions – both our own and others – especially when we are under pressure; a common condition in residential services work.

According to Goleman (1995), there are five key elements to it:

  • Self-awareness.
  • Self-regulation.
  • Motivation.
  • Empathy.
  • Social skills.

The more that you, as a leader, manage each of these areas, the higher your emotional intelligence. Good leaders know that there is power in emotions. They work smarter, not harder and use their insights to cultivate conditions that tend to motivate others. Research studies, such as that done by the Harvard Business School determined that EQ counts twice as much as IQ and technical skills combined in determining who will be successful. It has also found that people with high EQ experience vast benefits including better mental health, job performance, and leadership skills.

Below are two powerful habits that can help you to continue cultivating your leadership skills related to emotional intelligence. Emotionally intelligent leaders:

1. Focus on the AFFECTIVE before the EFFECTIVE

This approach helps us build and nurture positive relationships. The rule means that affective considerations (how people feel) are vitally important, and often pave the way for effective results (what people achieve).

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is a famous quote from legendary management consultant and writer Peter Drucker. To be clear he didn’t mean that strategy was unimportant – rather, that a powerful and empowering culture was a surer route to organisational success.

How people within a program, agency or organisation FEEL. The affective part- is crucial to an organisations/programs’ long term culture and success. What research has told us is that the results – the effective part- flows because of the presence of happy, challenged, empowered people within the organisation.

Emotionally intelligent leaders know that one of the most artful, yet trustworthy, ways to take the “temperature” of their organisation and forecast positive outcomes is to gauge how people FEEL. Do your staff feel…. Happy. Valued. Challenged. Excited. Safe. Inspired. Appreciated. Resourced. Hopeful? This is one antidote to high staff turnover.

When leaders have a single focus on outcomes or processes without accounting for affective elements, they may be susceptible and eventually contribute to not only creating the conditions for burnout of their staff but also themselves.

Emotionally intelligent leaders proactively invest time, resources and sometimes make explicit mention that they care about their staff and service users

Emotionally intelligent leaders proactively invest time, resources and sometimes make explicit mention that they care about their staff and service users (the Affective part). Emotionally intelligent leaders know that: everyday acts of care and recognition are more important than formal standards and procedural requirements. Without this kind of human interaction, there are no relationships. Without relationships, there is not trust. And without trust staff feel unsafe, like no one has their back, and this results in them spending more energy on self-preservation and leads to low innovation and lack of agility and responsiveness to complex and challenging situations, the essence of therapeutic residential care.

To be clear. Everyone agrees that outcomes (Effective considerations) are vitally important. No doubt. One of the exciting consequences of the “Affective before Effective” rule is that not only does everyone end up feeling better (Affective), they often also end up producing better outcomes (Effective) for the organisation. Effective relationships are central to successful outcomes.

There are compelling philosophical, policy and practice reasons to put relationships at the heart of our leadership practice. In short: Be affective to be even more effective.

2. The Power of WHY.

The second habit of emotionally intelligent leaders is understanding the power of Why. This reminds leaders to drop the ego of “I” and speak from the vision of WHY (connect to the larger purpose or vision).

With significant demands in their roles, very often leaders will think and speak from an “I” perspective (which is totally understandable). They’ll make statements that begin with phrases like “I need you to….” or “I want to make sure that the results are….”. These statements are productive and necessary – at times. However, and here is the caveat- sometimes it’s important to focus on the WHY first and intermittently throughout the grind of the day or week.
Importantly, “Why before I” leaders periodically and explicitly talk about the “why” to frame the discussion. They increasingly use WHY statements. Why statements state the WHY first (the larger purpose) and then lead into stating a goal or making a request. There is a difference between ‘supplying’ information about what, where, how and when things will happen and deeply ‘engaging’ with people, actively listening, supporting capacity development and authentically connecting people to find shared opportunities. Purpose should permeate everything you do. “Every decision should be looked at in terms of purpose.

For example, at the ACF, we are committed to making sure that every child and young person feels safe and is relationally supported (the WHY) and that is why we

privilege relationship before all other forms of therapeutic intervention.

Relationships are central to the healing process for children and young people who have experienced multiple adverse childhood experiences. The quality of life, happiness, their ability to cope when things get tough for a child are all directly related to the degree that they feel connected to a healthy adult who they can rely on for support.

Another example: At our organisation, we believe in the power of collaboration and dreaming big to change the experience children and young people in the OOHC system (the WHY) and that is why we form partnerships with organisations around Australia to de-silo and create join-up approaches to care for these children.

Connecting to the why can help us tap into our emotional power. When we are drained, or frustrated in our roles, the question we commonly ask ourselves is “why am I doing this”. A person’s WHY can be motivating and help people persist amid challenges. Our neocortex can process the what and the how, our emotional limbic brain is motivated by the why. That is why services and leaders only feel right when there is a why behind what they do. Why is all about your raison d’etre, cause and beliefs.

“I statements” can appear self-serving even when they are not. A leader may be thinking about the WHY (larger purpose or vision) while delivering an I message, but staff are not mind readers. In these scenarios, the message heard is about the leader (the I). The connection with the larger purpose or vision can get lost.

You are a leader for many good reasons. You also often connect to your WHY at times without saying it out loud. The power of WHY invites you to refer to and say your WHY periodically so that it transforms from latent potential to practical inspiration.


Noel MacNamara
Senior Advisor, Centre for Excellence in Therapeutic Care



Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam.
Howe, D. (2008) The Emotionally Intelligent Social Worker, Basingstoke: Palgrave. (p. 13)
Hennessey, R. (2011). Relationship Skills in Social Work, London: Sage.
Ingram R (2013) Locating emotional intelligence at the heart of social work practice. British Journal of Social Work, 43, 5, 987-1004
Morrison T (2007) Emotional intelligence, emotion and social work: context, characteristics, complications and contribution. The British Journal of Social Work, 37, 245-263
Salovey P and Mayer J (1990) Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 9, 185-211