The language of emotional intelligence is relatively commonplace in today’s workplace. We have all heard of the importance of self- and social awareness in influencing and inspiring others, but to what extent do today’s leaders – whether shop-floor supervisors or senior managers – actually embody the principles of emotional intelligence? Are they practising what we’ve all been preaching for years?
A continued reliance on traditional leadership techniques is holding many leaders back from realising their potential – and, by extension, the potential of their people, according to Paul Sanchez, head of communication consulting at Mercer Human Resource Consulting. Leadership models have existed throughout time, he says, and in each phase – from the ancient Greeks to the 20th century’s focus on ‘managership’, the process and resource allocation of organisations – the dominant belief has been that the smarter someone is, the better leader they will be.
Daniel Goleman’s theory of emotional intelligence came on the scene during the 1990s, and while it has been widely embraced as a concept, many leaders lack the emotional quotient (EQ) necessary to inspire and energise their teams.
“In the post-information age we’re living in now, we know that merely solving structural problems, applying more resources or a technical solution is not necessarily key to an organisation succeeding,” says Sanchez.
“What’s needed is full commitment to getting the people quotient right,” he adds.
And that EQ includes emotional intelligence in leadership.
“What’s really key now is innovation and creativity through the building of relationships,” says Veronica Lim, director of Inner Thinking Limited. “When emotions get in the way, you can’t find solutions as easily or be as creative.”
Lim takes the view that emotions and feelings are “an internal form of feedback”. As a leader, one has objectives, and feelings and emotions may sometimes get in the way of these. With emotional intelligence, leaders can work around any negative feedback without negatively affecting their objectives – finding other ways to remain in a position to achieve their leadership goals.
“It’s not [about] managing emotions, but managing the thought that gives rise to the emotion,” explains Lim.
Both Nathan Hobbs, head of leadership development at business psychology consultancy OPP, and Kevin Johnson, client relationship manager for The Leadership Trust, talk of emotional intelligence as being key to “capturing the hearts and minds of their people”.
“A model we prefer talks to authenticity in leadership – being true to yourself and others,” says Hobbs. “With authenticity, the argument is you need to know yourself, your personal qualities and resources, and therefore recognise when they’re sufficient to take up a task or not, and be able to compensate when necessary.”
Every leader, whether consciously or not, enters into an ’emotional contract’ with each of their staff, argues David Parkinson, managing director of Farsight Leadership. Parkinson works with leaders to understand that contract, and advocates the use of what the organisation has coined the ‘DEAR principle’ to explore it:
- Discipline – how and under what conditions people work best
- Ethic base – their sense of right and wrong
- Attention – where they put their focus at work
- Relationships – how collaborative they are, and whether they prefer a distant or close working relationship.
“There’s a lot of theory, and I don’t think people are after that, but the basic truths they can relate to,” says Parkinson.
“We talk about the three elements of human beings: the thinking, feeling and acting parts. For us, emotional intelligence gives you some framework around how all those things are pulled together. It’s creating awareness of the importance of feelings, how they drive people and relate to how we think and act.”
David Light, senior supply chain executive at PZ Cussons, feels too much leadership development involves “taking you up a mountain or putting you in a field somewhere to teach you things”. Farsight has been working with his leadership team to put a sharp focus on developing self-awareness as a leader, and how to attune oneself to other people.
“At some point, you do need knowledge of different leadership styles, and the importance of how different teams will respond to different situations,” says Light.
“We tend to do both, starting off with self-understanding, and then moving on to different styles of leadership that you can apply. It gives the full range – otherwise people tend to remember certain leadership styles they can relate to at that time and stick with it.”
Only by being emotionally intelligent can leaders truly understand and get the most from their team, argues David Pardey, development consultant for the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM).
“You have to understand your team as individuals, and you almost have to lead each individual according to what they relate to,” he says. “That’s what emotional intelligence is about – understanding how other people will react to and understand your behaviour, and working with that to get them to perform.”
Skills require practice and time to develop, and emotional intelligence – although not a ‘skill’ as such – is no exception. Management skills such as budgeting and time management are quicker to learn, but Pardey believes the only way for leaders to ‘learn’ EQ is to turn it into a process with feedback.
The ILM recently launched new qualifications in leadership; a six-month period is worked into the programmes for delegates to focus on developing their insight and self-awareness.
“It’s challenging to you as an individual, because it means looking seriously at your performance,” says Pardey. “It isn’t a form of counselling, but it’s moving towards that, which is why coaching and mentoring tend to be used in this area.”
Godfrey Owen, deputy chief executive officer of Brathay Hall Trust, says a “content-driven understanding” of EQ is less important to leadership development than simply growing people’s self-awareness.
“The most productive way to do this is to work with learners on the skills of giving and receiving feedback,” he says. “Skilled facilitators will create a safe learning environment and introduce the concepts of personal reflection and personal feedback, encouraging participants to give feedback based on observed behaviour.”
One-to-one coaching is an effective way to develop leaders’ EQ, and a range of diagnostic tools based on Goleman’s theory – as well as basic 360-degree feedback – can easily be incorporated into development.
At Coins, a construction industry software company, Lim is running a coaching programme for about 12 leaders.
“We’re doing coaching not just for yourself, but on how to develop your people and find out what makes their hearts sing, so that they’re motivated,” says chief executive Steve Feery. “It includes things on appraisals and a bit on time management and organising yourself, but principally, it’s all about the softer stuff.”
Emotional intelligence is a key competency in today’s workplace where traditional hierarchies are falling away, explains Julia Middleton, founder and chief executive of leadership development organisation Common Purpose.
“Overwhelmingly, people become good at leading when they have authority, but there are increasingly situations in which we don’t have authority, and simply can’t tell others what to do. Yet most of our leadership development is telling us how to do it when we do have authority.”
Pushing people into situations where they can test and try new things is essential to developing their EQ. “Encourage them to be a non-executive board member or volunteer where they can see other ways of doing something,” advises Middleton.
Common Purpose leadership programmes bring together leaders from a variety of sectors, and are spread over a couple of months.
“You can slowly figure it out among people who are approaching being leaders in completely different ways, in different sectors, and who will not treat you as the boss,” says Middleton. “Diversity is a huge strength.”
Action learning can also provide a practical and economical strategy, says Pardy. “Action learning replaces the specialist coach with a peer group that can offer the same level of support, but done collectively.”
Parkinson adds: “If you go back 10 or 15 years, organisations were run in a much more bureaucratic way, with established hierarchies and procedures, and there was a certain level of stability.
“Now we’re seeing changes – represented by the switch in emphasis from management to leadership. Companies are looking for breakthroughs, for ways they can move out of their traditional paradigms, because they know if you stand still, you’ll shrink.”
Managers or leaders?
Where does all this increased talk about the importance of leadership leave managers? Are all managers leaders, or only some?
The two terms should not be regarded as alternative ways of looking at the roles people play, but rather as two sides of the same coin, according to David Pardey, development consultant for the Institute of Leadership and Management, and author of the book Mindchange, which explores the role of emotional intelligence in leadership development.
“Management is about the technical aspect to do with organising work, people and resources, and about making sure things happen in the way they are supposed to, whereas leadership is more concerned with energising people to achieve the goals of the organisation,” says Pardey.
“Management is the rational part of the process; leadership is the emotional part, about your ability with people, and communicating your vision of where you want to be.”
Leadership should not be viewed as “something that happens at the top of organisations,” says Pardey, for in practice, it can be equally important right at the bottom – say, for supervisors who’ve risen through the ranks, and continue to work alongside their reports. “That personal set of skills that get people to want to listen are very important.”
Globalisation means new methods and approaches to cross-cultural communication are required, and the move to incorporate emotional intelligence into leadership development is one way that organisations are addressing that need.
“Managers working cross-culturally will find that the principles of emotional intelligence help to sharpen their antennae to the nuances of other cultures,” says Godfrey Owen, deputy chief executive officer of Brathay Hall Trust.
“The ability to empathise with others and to develop appropriate social skills must surely be a universal requirement, whatever the cultural context.”
No matter how well a leader working abroad may speak the local language and know the local etiquette, they will require a depth of self- and social awareness if they are to lead successfully.
“It’s about real time behaviour,” says Nathan Hobbs, head of leadership development at OPP. “Yes, you need to have respect for others’ traditions, but it’s more than that. You must also be able to motivate a team when things you instinctively do might not fit.”
Professional services firm KPMG’s approach to leadership development is long-term, spanning years rather than weeks or months.
“We’ve said it will take time, maybe five or 10 years,” says Krys Grudniewicz of KPMG’s learning and development team. “That’s one of the things that makes our programme really unique.”
KPMG’s Emerging Leaders programme has been running for three years for assistant managers to partners, and participants are selected on an annual basis. This gives kudos to the programme and motivates high-flyers. Participants are organised into groups with colleagues in similar roles from different parts of the UK, with each group attending a learning event on a particular theme.
The leadership behaviours that KPMG has made a priority of developing – such as ‘facing the fear of getting it wrong’ and ‘giving up the need for approval and looking instead for respect’ – reflect the general principles of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, interpersonal sensitivity and emotional resilience.
“It’s creating much more capable, confident people who are comfortable with complexity, challenge and motivating others,” says Grudniewicz.
Participants are then put into learning groups that work together over the coming year.
“Feedback shows that it gives them enormous self-awareness and support from peers through the year,” says Grudniewicz. “It’s a continuous programme of development over time.”