Applying Emotional Intelligence to Your Testing
Is software testing an emotional activity?
I’m not talking about encountering code that makes us want to cry, but the range of emotions we feel when undertaking our role. What “emotional intelligence” (EI) tries to teach us is how to identify and respond to those emotions in the most productive way.
The concept was popularized by Harvard psychologist and author Daniel Goleman through his 1995 best-seller, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, which has much to offer the testing profession. He argues that the first thing we need to do is listen to our emotions without letting the “amygdala hijack” take control.
We’ve all been there. We hear a project manager say, “We’re halving your testing time” and immediately feel the blood rush to our heads and the temptation to look for a blunt object. This “fight or flight” response is triggered by a small, almond-shaped structure at the top of the brainstem called the amygdala. It’s part of our primitive brain and causes a strong emotional reaction way before our higher-level cortical centers have had the chance to think things through. This is the amygdala hijack, and taming it is a key part of EI.
But it’s not all about us. EI also focuses strongly on our colleagues, knowing what they’re feeling, and being able to interact positively with them in difficult situations. This especially applies to agile environments, where we’re working closely with people in many different job roles. EI encourages us to be empathetic to where they’re coming from without turning into doormats.
Giving criticism is a prime example of where EI can help. Whether the criticism is explicit (e.g., “Wally, your code fix still doesn’t work!”) or implicit (e.g., specifying the number of defects raised against Wally’s code), the recipient is likely to feel hurt. EI reminds us to think about ways of delivering criticism sensitively. We also need to constrain the criticism to just those who need to know (not in public and not in an email cc’d to the entire project team).
Conflict is another area that benefits from an emotionally intelligent approach. Conflict should never be totally suppressed, because it can result in “groupthink” and lead to dangerous decisions, like those that resulted in the Challenger disaster. Handled properly, conflict can even be positive, energizing, and creative.
A different aspect of using emotions in testing relates to intuition. How often have you felt uneasy about software you were testing without being able to put a finger on exactly why? Or frustrated? Or impatient? Or angry? These emotions may well be telling you something. Although emotional reactions have been dismissed by some in the “logical” world of IT as irrelevant, others have defined intuition as “subconscious logical analysis” that should be listened to.
As testers, we need to work on our emotional intelligence, but one encouraging facet of EI compared with IQ is that while IQ appears to decline with age, EI can be enhanced and developed throughout our lives.
Thomas McCoy is presenting the tutorials Applying Emotional Intelligence to Testing and Getting Your Message Across: Communication Skills for Testers at STARWEST, in Anaheim, CA, October 12–17, 2014.