UnitedHealth Group: Case Study

Emotional Intelligence and a Culture Shift

In 2009, UnitedHealth Group, a diversified health care company with over 190,000 employees and $140 billion in revenue, embarked on a company-wide cultural initiative, the goal of which was to build a highly engaged and high performing culture that operated and behaved in alignment with its new cultural values – Integrity, Compassion, Relationships, Innovation, and Performance.

Early on, UnitedHealth Group recognized that developing its leaders in Emotional Intelligence would be a key component of driving this cultural shift. “We realized that Emotional Intelligence went hand-in-hand with our cultural initiative and that in fact, it is the foundation of our organization’s values.” says Brenda Polis, Senior Management Consultant, Enterprise Talent Development at UnitedHealth Group.

UnitedHealth Group started delivering IHHP’s Science of Emotional Intelligence classroom-based training programs to their senior leaders as part of the General Manager Program, which is a year-long leadership development program for their top talent.  “The reaction to the EI training was extremely positive. We have highly analytical leaders and when they realized EI wasn’t something soft and squishy, that it was based on research and brain science, they really engaged in the learning”, explains Brenda.

“Emotional Intelligence exploded when we brought it to the next level of leaders down. They had seen the senior leaders behavior change as a result of the program and felt a shift in the culture – and they wanted to learn more.” Brenda continues.  UnitedHealth Group’s internal facilitators became certified to deliver the Emotional Intelligence training program and in the past 5 years, UnitedHealth Group has delivered the classroom training to over 3000 leaders, consistently ranking as one of UnitedHealth Group’s highest rated training programs.

The Business and Personal Impact

homepage-blocksSince the roll out of IHHP’s Science of Emotional Intelligence training, UnitedHealth Group has seen an impact on their business, including retention, better collaboration and improved engagement. “We’ve seen relationships improve.  Leaders have become more self-aware of how they impact people and are able to better connect and coach their teams.  We also heard many stories of people applying the strategies in their personal lives – that’s when you know people are really engaged in learning!” says Brenda.

Going Virtual

Today, UnitedHealth Group has more than 190,000 employees in 40 countries around the world.  In 2007, they began to explore delivering training virtually as it wasn’t feasible to train everyone in a classroom.  Back then they offered 4 virtual classes – today they offer over 80 facilitator-led virtual classes.

Wanting to bring the benefit of Emotional Intelligence training to more of its global leaders, UnitedHealth Group and IHHP partnered in 2014 to take the classroom-based EI program and design it for deployment as a virtually facilitated offering. “UnitedHealth Group had the knowledge and experience in developing and delivering training virtually as well as a passion for our EI programs, so it made perfect sense to partner with them to develop our Virtual Emotional Intelligence offering” explains Sara Ross, Vice President of Product Development and Innovation for IHHP.

Best Practices in Virtual learning

Brenda shared the following best practices that were incorporated into the Virtual EI solution:

  • “Virtual breakouts are the game changer” says Brenda. Having people in virtual rooms of 2-3 provides the safety and interactivity needed for robust conversations and deep application of the content.
  • Like any learning, it needs to be interactive. In addition to break-out rooms, make use of all the different interaction tools – polls, white boards, chat, etc.
  • As you are redeveloping exercises for a virtual platform, start first with the goal of the exercise vs. just translating it to the virtual platform. It may be that the direct translation of an exercise for virtual may not be effective. To get the same outcome from an exercise, it may need to be redesigned.
  • The first 10-15 minutes is critical for engaging people.
  • Have the first 10 minutes scripted and polished. It still needs to be genuine, but you want to nail the first part.
  • Make sure there is an engaging interaction in the first few minutes.
  • Alleviate any fears people might have. For Emotional Intelligence, this involves being clear that this isn’t anger management, couples counselling, or something soft.
  • You need to do housekeeping for people who are new, but don’t do it first thing. Start with why they want to participate and what the value is from participating.
  • The ideal length for a learning module is 90 minutes to 2 hours, the ideal class size is 15-25, and the length between modules should be no longer than a week.
  • Technology issues will happen. Stay calm and be confident.  Deal with any issues and do not get (or at least do not appear to be) flustered. The good news is that Emotional intelligence facilitators have learned strategies to perform under pressure!  For new facilitators, have technical support available for the first few sessions and/or the first 30 minutes.
  • Communication and expectation setting prior to the training is very important.
  • When participants register, provide an e-mail that explains logistics, times, materials, what they need to do to test the technology etc.
  • A week prior, have the facilitator send a personal e-mail making sure participants have the materials they need (participant guides, pre-work, etc.) and the goals for the training. This creates a personal connection with the facilitator before the class has started.
  • Provide short, simple and interesting pre-work assignments that get people engaged with and reflecting about the content of the training.

So far, so great!

Since the roll-out of the Virtual Emotional Intelligence program in late 2014, the response from UnitedHealth Group participants has been extremely positive.  In addition to the obvious benefit of eliminating the time and cost of travelling, having virtual learning provides the opportunity to create a sustained learning program over a period of weeks.

“People are enjoying virtual learning and find it very engaging.  We are seeing that the material is living beyond the classroom (ok, phone), and people are putting the strategies into practice.  At the end of the day, that’s what learning is about: help people change their behavior so they can become better leaders – regardless of their role in the organization.  By offering the Emotional Intelligence training to a larger group of our global leaders, we know we can have an even greater impact on our culture and ultimately, our performance”, concluded Brenda.


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