Emotional intelligence: a core leadership skill

Emotional intelligence: a core leadership skill

Leon Gettler

Leon Gettler Business and management journalist

Published

Emotional intelligence - the ability to identify your own emotions and those of others - is now regarded as a core skill for leaders who want to get the best out of their teams.

People with emotional intelligence can harness emotions and apply them to tasks such as thinking and problem solving. They know how to regulate their own emotions, which gives them the ability to cheer up or calm down another person and connect with them.

In an oft-cited article,  Peter Salovey from Yale University and John D Mayer from the University of New Hampshire, described emotional intelligence as “the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions".

According to Salovey and Mayer there are five categories of emotional intelligence.

The first is self-awareness, the ability to recognise an emotion when it happens. Self-awareness allows people to tune into their feelings.

This involves recognising one’s own emotions and their effects, and also having the self-confidence about one’s self-worth and capabilities.

The second involves having self-control, maintaining standards of honesty and integrity, taking responsibility for one’s behaviour, being adaptable in the face of change and being innovative and open to new ideas. All this requires a certain level of self-regulation.

The third trait is having a high level of motivation. Your passion for work should not just be about money and status.

This means having a drive towards achievement, an ability to align with the goals of the group or organisation, having the initiative to take opportunities and pursuing goals persistently despite obstacles and setbacks.

The fourth trait, and probably one of the most important, is the ability to empathise. The more you are able to pick up signals when people are responding the greater your ability to control the signals you are sending.

These sorts of managers have tremendous skills. They can read an organisation’s power dynamics, emotional currents and power relationships, while sensing what people working for them need to progress their careers and what they are looking out for.

They know how to recognise, anticipate and meet client needs, they know how to work with a diverse group of people and get the most out of them and they understand the feelings and needs of others.

The final trait is great interpersonal skills. This means they need effective persuasion tactics, the ability to communicate clearly and unambiguously, great leadership skills to guide and influence people, they should know how to negotiate and resolve conflicts, they know how to collaborate and co-operate and work towards share goals and how to create group synergy in pursuing collective goals.


Reading people

“For me [emotional intelligence] about being able to read people, being able to adapt your communication,” says Sue Langley, the CEO and founder of the Langley Group of companies which works with corporate executives and companies developing emotional intelligence.  

“If you can’t do that, if you can’t manage stakeholder needs.”

Teaching managers emotional intelligence is important. But how does one teach it to a team?

A team of emotionally intelligent people is not necessarily an emotionally intelligent team. The group has its own dynamic.

The team is now an important part of every organisation. In the old days, direction came top down. Now the direction is coming from the customer base which demands teams are self-managing, flexible, and adaptable to changing customer demands. That requires teams with high levels of emotional intelligence.

David Ryback, a US consultant who works as an advisor to corporate president who trains executives in using emotional intelligence through his Georgia-based company EQ Associates, maintains it call comes down to the team leader.

“The new type of leadership is actually more like ‘followership’, in the sense the best team leader is sensitive to group consensus so the team members feel understood,” Ryback writes in his book Putting Emotional Intelligence To Work.

“The self-managed team leader neither leads nor directs, in the conventional sense, but acts as a monitor of communication, to ensure any breakdowns in the communication process are quickly repaired.”

“She must be highly emotionally intelligent, an expert in conflict resolution and sufficiently secure to fade into the background until called upon.”

Rachel Green, the director of the Emotional Intelligence Institute in Perth, says developing a team’s emotional intelligence starts with leadership.

“The first thing is the leader of the team is really important and they need to role model emotionally intelligent behaviour because if they’re not, then there is not much chance that the rest of the team will be an emotionally intelligent collaborative group,” she says.

“What the team leader or the manager does makes a huge difference. The leader of the team needs to be open to emotion. They need to feel comfortable with emotions and they need to be willing to talk about emotions.”

“Not all leaders do that. They think they should be left outside the workplace or should be controlled.”

Comfort in discomfort

Leaders need to be comfortable with uncomfortable emotions, Green says. If they run away or attempt to suppress, all parties are worse off.

Indeed, the best leaders will be able to read the emotions of those under their care. They need to be able to know what is happening in the team.

“Let’s say they are instigating change,” Green says. “How is the team feeling about the change? They need to read so that they can work what the best way is to communicate change to the team.”

She says teams need to explore the emotional terrain to develop these sorts of skills.

“One thing that I get people to do is have a discussion with the whole group on setting emotional ground rules,” Green says.  

“What do we do if a member of the team gets angry with the rest of us? What do we do if we’re feeling tense and we need to be in a more positive mood so we can create solutions? What do we do if someone goes silent on us because they feel isolated?”

“You actually have a conversation with the team about what do we do with our emotions.”

That, Green says, will affect the emotional intelligence of individuals within the team.

“There’s an emotional culture within a team,” she says. “If the team doesn’t feel they’re in an emotionally safe environment then you’re not going to get the best out of those that are emotionally intelligent. Emotionally safe environments will facilitate a higher level of emotional intelligence in a team.”

Can be learned

Green says it is especially helpful if leaders in the C-suite are switched on to emotional intelligence.

“If the executive team and the CEO are emotionally intelligent then what everyone else sees is this is how we’re supposed to behave,” she says.

People can be trained in emotional intelligence, according to Green.

“I use the analogy of coaching a football team,” she says. “If you already have talent at emotional intelligence or football, it’s easy to coach you to be even better.”

“But even players who haven’t got a lot of skill can improve with coaching so the research is quite clear, people can develop their emotional intelligence.”

“One of the things I say to everyone is just all of us when we went through our education system didn’t learn anything about emotions. A lot of us have a completely unrealised potential.

“At the moment, a lot of us have innate ability that we’ve never had fostered. People can definitely develop.”

Leon Gettler is a business and management journalist

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.
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