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How to Use Emotionally Intelligent Leadership

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There are always personal differences in leadership style, but leadership, in general, has irrevocably evolved from its strict and detached past. It’s not just proficiency in your field that qualifies you to be a leader. That might have been the case at one time, but all industries now appreciate that leadership is as much about your people skills as your professional proficiency. To be a leader in your industry you need to be able to work well with others and lead a team to success. Your individual success as a leader is inextricably bound to the success of your people.

Leadership Slogans Based on Style:

• Coercive/Commanding: “Do what I tell you.”
• Authoritative/Visionary: “Come with me.”
• Affiliative: “People come first.”
• Democratic: “What do you think?”
• Coaching: “Try this.”
• Pacesetting: “Do as I do, now!”

A key skill for modern leaders is the ability to model behavior for staff. One of the most talked-about behaviors is Emotional Intelligence. Originally coined in 1990 by researchers John Mayer and Peter Salovey, it was popularized by the journalist, Daniel Goleman who wrote the New York Times bestselling book in 1995,  Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ.

Emotional Intelligence refers to an individual’s ability to recognize and manage their own feelings as well as respond to others. It’s a concept that’s been absolutely central to modern leadership and encapsulates 5 central skills; empathy, motivation, influence, self-awareness, and self-regulation.

This article is an overview of Goleman’s concepts and how leaders can generally apply the principles of Emotional Intelligence to their own skillset.

What is emotional intelligence in leadership?

Leadership today isn’t about exerting power but rather enabling teams to reach their full potential. Leaders need to be able to be aware of and manage their own feelings and those of others around them as much as they are equipped to manage and assign tasks and roles. They need to be able to motivate and inspire, create positive responses to challenges, be able to use tact, and diffuse conflict.

High expectations, but Goleman theorizes it’s possible through a focus on five skills. The idea is to focus on building on all of these skills. A leader can succeed in one area, but if they fail in another, it can spell disaster. Let’s look at these 5 areas in turn.

1. Empathy

Leaders need to know how to read a room. DDI, a global leadership development firm, ranks empathy as the number one leadership skill, reporting that empathetic leaders perform more than 40% higher in coaching, engaging others, and decision-making. We’ve previously looked at the importance of empathy in our earlier article, How To Create Empathetic Teams.

Empathetic leaders are not only better able to support their team but also able to improve individual performance since employees that are supported are more motivated to perform. Now more than ever, with the added pressures the pandemic has brought, empathy is crucial to managing the uncertainty and building the trust needed to get through challenges together.

2. Motivation

A leader has to be able to communicate the bigger picture. Employees need a reason to get up in the morning, to keep going, and to get the job done. Leaders need to be storytellers and have compelling communication skills that can contextualize an organization’s strategy for an individual team and break down their role in making the magic happen.

It’s not enough that managers divide up jobs and crack the whip. Teams need to understand the why and be encouraged to find meaning and purpose in their work. This is never about dollars and cents and always about how someone’s work is making a difference. While this can vary from individual to individual, it’s up to leaders to know what drives each person and then use that to inspire by making the connection between what they do and why they do it.

Often, a leader assumes that their team members understand the game plan because it’s vividly clear in their own head. However, staff who aren’t privy to the planning and strategy work that takes place in the upper echelons of the organization can have no idea how their individual workload fits into the scheme of things. It’s up to leaders to make this crystal clear for staff to give every staff member an opportunity to feel pride over their role and how they contribute not only to the organization but through the organization, to society as a whole.

3. Influence

Influence is a broad catch-all phrase that goes hand in hand with empathy and motivation. It requires a benchmark of communication skills that enable leaders to deal seamlessly with all levels of staff within the organization as well as external stakeholders. It includes having tact and professionalism and knowing how to adjust a message according to who it’s being delivered to for the most effective communication. It also includes all the peripheral skills like good manners, an ability to ‘small talk’, to smile, and be positive that can make the difference between a great leader and a new leader who takes a promotion but actually can't get her team to win together.

When managing people you quite simply have to be good at dealing with and influencing others. There are many extremely intelligent people who are, without a doubt, leaders in their field but who may never make good people leaders because there isn’t a direct correlation between IQ and social skills. Just ask an HR pro at a tech firm if you want examples.

That’s not to say that social skills can’t be developed even if someone isn’t innately social. In fact, the reason to take an Emotional Intelligence assessment is precisely to help you get better. As an example, Bill Gates’ mother is credited for forcing him to engage socially as a child and developing the social skills that could otherwise have been lacking if he would have been left alone in his room to read as he was so predisposed to in his youth. I'm not sure if you've watched a recent Bill Gates interview, but his mom's efforts seemed to have paid off -- even if it was only a little. Anyone can build better social skills through practice and exposure.

4. Self-awareness

Self-awareness is about knowing yourself well, warts and all. How do you react and why? When are your triggers? What are your weaknesses? Since our emotions trigger our behaviors, we need to know what we're feeling when we're feeling it and then be curious enough to understand why if we want to see our behavior change as well. You need to know when you’re at your best and worst to be able to do something about it.

It better enables you to perform gracefully under pressure and to struggle less, and have fewer meltdowns. It’s easy to pick at the faults of others, but you need to understand your own strengths and weaknesses and have a plan for working on your own self-improvement as well.

You can assess your self-awareness by completing our TriMetrix EQ assessment and/or getting 360-degree feedback from your team.  You’ll gain insight into your behavior and how you’re perceived by others.

5. Self-regulation

Self-regulation is about keeping a cool head and maintaining some self-discipline. Leaders who lack self-management are impulsive and may react to a situation before properly thinking it through. An emotionally intelligent leader can more easily make the transition from reaction to response. They have strategies like taking a moment to breathe and collect themselves, taking a short walk, calling a friend, or whatever they need to do, in particular, to handle challenges and stress and respond appropriately rather than with some knee-jerk reaction they regret later.

Being able to self-regulate means a leader’s responses are commensurate with the problems at hand. Since much of leadership is about putting out fires and steering a team safely through treacherous waters, leadership is, in essence, very much about measured and appropriate responses. The better able leaders can read situations, collate all the facts and make smart, empathetic, intelligent responses, the better everyone fares.

Some exercises for improving your emotional intelligence

• When receiving stressful news, count to 10 before speaking/reacting
• Set your phone timer 3 times a day to take 10 deep breaths
• Reflect on your feelings right now and recall what emotions you have felt over the course of the day
• Jot down 3 values that are important to you
• Ask yourself why you do the things that you do
• Develop memory or reminder strategies for remembering people’s names, birthdays, and important things going on in their lives

“[n]o matter what leaders set out to do—whether it’s creating a strategy or mobilizing teams to action—their success depends on how they do it. Even if they get everything else just right, if leaders fail in this primal task of driving emotions in the right direction, nothing they do will work as well as it could or should.”
- Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence.

To summarize the key skills then, Goleman suggests that emotionally intelligent leaders;

• inspire and motivate
• focus on collaboration between team members
• “walk the talk”
• build trust
• develop and support others
• build relationships
• value each team member

In a later article in Harvard Business Review, The Focused Leader, Goleman summarized that leaders can improve their emotional intelligence by improving the ways they focus their attention, backing up his discussion with neuroscience. Goleman takes a three-pronged approach highlighting the benefits of leaders’ focus on themselves, on others, and on the wider world.

He contends that when leaders place their attention on themselves, listening to ‘their gut’, and critically analyzing their actions, that over time they can accumulate a comprehensive, authentic sense of self. They can also employ their own willpower to pursue goals despite setbacks.

Secondly, he discusses the benefits of leaders who are attentive to others, who can listen, and be sensitive to the needs of others. In other words, empathetic leadership.

Thirdly, leaders who ask questions and focus on the wider world are better able to appreciate a wider context and be more visionary. They have a strategic edge and openness to innovation.

While Emotional Intelligence has become an almost accepted prerequisite for any leadership role today, it’s not necessarily a given that it’s so relevant for all employees or as Goleman’s book suggests, more important than IQ. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant argues that emotional intelligence is overrated. He cites research and analysis that found cognitive ability accounted for more than 14% of job performance and emotional intelligence, less than 1%. Grant contends Emotional Intelligence is relevant in industries that deal with people and emotions every day like sales, real estate, and counseling, but that in industries such as engineering, accounting, and science, Emotional Intelligence actually predicted lower performance.

Grant’s discussion is compelling, and yet when talking about leadership, it’s key to note Grant’s admission that emotional intelligence is relevant in jobs where you have to deal with emotions every day. In any given industry, this means that Emotional Intelligence is relevant for leaders since regardless of industry, a leader’s job involves managing people. By definition, this is dealing with people and all their ‘messiness’ - their emotions, conflicts, weaknesses, stresses, and insecurities. That is the meat and potatoes of every leadership role whether you work for BHP, Google, World Vision, or Walmart. The part of the job that’s about expertise and vision within a given field will require its own cognitive capabilities, but as long as a leader has to manage a team of people, Emotional Intelligence is not about to go out of fashion any time soon. A fundamental understanding of Emotional Intelligence is essential for all leaders to address and model for their staff and will also be relevant to team members to varying degrees depending on their role and industry.

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