I came to emotional intelligence because I suppose I felt I wasn’t as effective as I could be. I have a lot of knowledge that kind of built up over the years in a certain area and I wanted to become more effective in it. I was finding that I ended up doing a lot of administrative tasks and not really executing what I wanted to really deliver to patients and healthcare professionals. This was a personal dilemma for quite some time.
Reflecting on this with a mentor, they suggested reading more about Emotional Intelligence (EQ). At first, I couldn’t relate to how this was going to fix my dilemma, but I sought to read about it nonetheless. Researching EQ I found that the phrase has many interpretations but is generally defined as the ability to be aware of how to handle interpersonal relationships with self-awareness and empathy. It measures how well an individual is able to regulate their own emotions and the consequent emotions of others. It is scientifically split into the four domains of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management.
Only then has the fog cleared up in my mind and I could relate this to medical affairs practice. At a health institute: the ability to manage and read emotions would seem to be an important skill for any HCP and might potentially enhance patient-centered care, improve the quality of the HCP-patient relationship and increase patient levels of satisfaction with care. On the flip side of the coin: without bias, in no part of the pharmaceutical industry, emotional intelligence plays a more critical role in success than in the Medical Affairs Department.
Since HCPs are our main focus, it’s evident that HCPs vary in their ability to achieve an understanding of the patient perspective and provide patient-centered care. This means that EQ is increasingly referred to as having a potential role in medical professions. It is suggested that EQ is important for effective practice, particularly with respect to delivering patient-centered care. To capitalize on this, EQ is increasingly referred to in healthcare literature and becoming a new “trend” in evidence generation. Yet a substantial amount of further research is required before the value of EQ as a useful concept can be substantiated.
I realized that there are many aspects that EQ will develop within you once you indulge yourself in this learning journey and I’m summarizing here some key take-home messages:
EQ will teach you to increase your self-awareness of how you feel and be more connected vs disconnected. This will help you learn to recognize your triggers and redirect negative responses to engage more positively and effectively with Thought Leaders, cross-functional colleagues, or even family and friends.
EQ will teach you how to become more understanding and acknowledging of how others feel and become more empathetic vs insensitive. This awareness of others will enable you to view situations more accurately from their perspective, anticipate responses or reactions and be more behaviorally agile and situational in your approach.
EQ will teach you how to become more resilient by managing your emotions in accordance with each situation. In this essence, self-management is about managing one’s own mood and emotions while continuously improving oneself. This will inevitably enhance how you manage stress and workloads, and bounce back from the challenges the field can give you.
Last but not least, one of the aspects that were newly introduced to me was Emotional Reasoning. It is about using the information in feelings (from oneself and others) and combining it with other facts or information to create a compelling decision.
Surprisingly, your appetite for authenticity will increase. Authenticity is about openly and effectively expressing oneself, honoring commitments, and encouraging this behavior in others. EQ will teach you how to be seen as genuine as opposed to untrustworthy by more openly and effectively expressing yourself. This is a game-changer during interactions with HCPs indeed.
We are always having an inﬂuence on others in everything we do. MSLs’ job is to influence correct management in the first place. What if we were all 2-3% better at having a positive inﬂuence on others? MSLs can use all these skills to build a positive influence around their everyday interactions. EQ will sharpen this skill by teaching them how through problem-solving and feedback they can empower and positively inﬂuence HCPs around them.
The importance of taking this one step further is to not only learn the theory – but to explore the things you can do to boost the quality of your day-to-day business or social interactions and identify a relationship you could improve as well as the actions you could take to do so. Closing the loop comes from finding a mentor to coach you or better still: learning by doing and exploring a coaching model for helping others respond to their challenging situations eﬀectively. As with any ‘soft skill,’ the learning and successful implementation relies heavily not just on the individual’s motivation, but on consistent support and follow-through.
Using the above theory and reflecting on the practical importance of EQ as well as my journey as a past MSL in the Middle-East region during 2014-2015, it is not challenging to find very intelligent individuals for an MSL role. If someone has the discipline and intellect required to obtain a master’s or doctoral degree, they usually can master product information quickly, even if it is a new therapeutic area for them. The bigger challenge is finding MSLs who also have the proper levels of self-awareness so that they can read the personalities of those they are communicating with and adjust their levels of questioning or presenting appropriately.
The COVID-19 Pandemic in 2020 has also dramatically raised the need for emotional intelligence. It was evident that during the pandemic, MSLs with a high level of emotional intelligence will bring even more value to their customers. Now more than ever, being able to “read the situation” and to empathize is critical when engaging with individuals internally in the organization or externally with KOLs and other stakeholders. This is especially important when engaging with international stakeholders, MSLs need to heighten their sense of global awareness to recognize that different countries are going to be in different stages of the product cycle and may handle the situation differently from the way we have handled it locally.
Previously it was fairly straightforward to conduct a fruitful interaction. HCPs weren’t that diverse, data wasn’t that much, pre-defined scenarios were available or studied and time wasn’t scarce. This has changed dramatically now and as an MSL you need to be efficient in using the tight time of interaction to deliver your message across and ensure it is digested.
For that reason, MSLs should, as always, do their homework before entering a conversation with a KOL. Taking it a step further using EQ, MSLs can uncover KOLs’ needs and concerns easily in less time. They can use their gained talent in looking for verbal and visual cues, like: is the KOL distracted, is someone else in the background? On a personal level, do they have children or loved ones at home, has their spouse lost their job, is anyone in their circle sick?
Let’s not forget the human nature of this KOL, in the end, they are a human who has a life outside this interaction. We need to realize our stakeholders might be spending most of their days on virtual calls, telemedicine, etc., and, like the rest of us, are likely experiencing some degree of zoom fatigue as the majority of our interactions shift from face-to-face to virtual platforms. A few simple strategies can help ensure that you and your stakeholders connect in a productive way.
Productivity doesn’t come in one-size-fits-all, yet EQ will ensure you’re more free-handed with some practical points you can consider. Get creative: use your network and explore the possibility that you might be able to get the information you seek from another person on your KOL’s team such as a nurse or a medical fellow. Tap into empathy: For those KOLs who struggle with virtual platforms, explore what the reasons are. If it is a training need, look for ways to facilitate that. If it is due to an unwillingness to change, start by acknowledging that their feelings are reasonable, and work up from there, perhaps connecting them with their peers who have adopted the technology.
Most of the time an MSL spends is on the roads tackling obstacles to ultimately reach a quality 30-minute interaction with an HCP in a clinic, yet some time is still spent back at the office in cross-functional meetings or finalizing admin work. EQ will come in handy here as well since MSLs are always looking to build strong relationships – internally and externally – hence I personally believe MSL onboarding should include technical training with emotional intelligence at its core.
For HCPs too, since EQ is conceptualized as an ability that can be taught, learned, or changed, it may be used to address the specific aspects of the clinician-patient relationship that are not working well. For this reason, teaching EQ should be a priority in the field of medical education in order to better facilitate this relationship in the future.
To summarize, since MSLs now discuss diverse topics including patient-centric solutions, adopting a growth mindset, and facilitating challenging conversations, EQ is the key to effective MSL performance. EQ will help MSLs tap into and nurture their inner talent of how well they demonstrate emotionally intelligent behavior including building trust and rapport, identifying or understanding another person’s situation, feelings, or motives, and, in doing so, improve how they connect, communicate with impact and collaborate with others.
For me personally, EQ enabled me to become more aligned with myself. I began to realize I was abundant with energy that just needed correct channeling. It changed how I interacted with my Thought Leaders and I find them to be much more responsive now.
Bottom line: Medical Science Liaisons need more than just scientific acumen to get the message across. Emotional intelligence is not just a ‘nice to have, but a core capability for the future, hence we need to invest heavily in continuous professional development in Medical Affairs to give MSLs the confidence to engage credibly and have the most impactful medical interactions.
Shereef Ibrahim, MBA
Currently a Therapy Area Medical Manager at Amgen, I previously spent 10 years at Novartis in different roles of varying responsibilities since 2009.
I worked as an MSL for Bone & Pain, Respiratory & Transplantation during the period of 2014 till 2016 which added a lot to my perspective of being patient-centric in business.
My career to date has provided me with invaluable knowledge in some key areas, namely Bone & Pain, Respiratory, Cardio-Metabolic, Nephrology, Transplantation & Biosimilars in Egypt, Iran & Sudan.
I am also an accomplished individual with a strong desire to succeed and lead others to success. Indeed through my past experiences, I have had the distinction of being an individual who is energetic, hardworking, and efficient.
On a more personal level, I am open to any situation that is challenging and which tests my abilities, as well as among my work colleagues I have a reputation as being a fast learner, who is dependable and organized.