Emotional intelligence is an essential skill of leaders and the cornerstone of most leadership development programs. There’s a reason for this. People do their best work when they’re in a positive emotional state. They think better, are more energetic and creative. And they get better results. Multiple studies have shown this –we are 31% more productive, sales improve by 37%, even doctors make better diagnoses. Bottom line, leaders need these skills not just to be nice; they need them to be effective. As Shawn Achor observes, “Happiness is an incredible competitive advantage.”
And we all know what happens to our focus when something happens to anger or upset us. There’s a physiological explanation for this as well. Stressful experiences trigger the “fight of flight” response which was evolved to deal with physical threats, but is terrible when it comes to the kind of threats that we more commonly experience today. These are threats to our self-esteem, to our need to feel in control, to feel connected and cared for by others. Managing these threats requires a cool head and higher level thinking functions we simply can’t access when we’re in the stress state. When we are triggered, we have difficulty thinking straight, are more likely to fly off the handle or retreat in terror – generally, to behave in ways that sabotage our relationships and ability to achieve our goals. As Dan Goleman puts it, “This is when smart people get really dumb.”
Given what we know about the relationship between mood and performance, the important questions that leaders need to ask themselves are:
1) How do I manage my own emotions so I can perform at my personal best?
2) How do I create the conditions that my employees will feel good and can do their best work?
Let’s start with the first question. How do I manage my own emotions? The critical emotional intelligence skills here are self-awareness and self-regulation.
Self-awareness is about knowing what you’re feeling in the moment and why, and how this effects your performance. Self -aware leaders are able to tune into the physical sensations of their feelings and see the warning signs. They have an accurate sense of who they are – their strengths and weaknesses – and are comfortable with this. They are realistically self-confident. They are able to observe themselves objectively and seek feedback from others to ensure that their self- perceptions are accurate.
With self-awareness comes the possibility of self-regulation. Leaders who are self-aware and know their triggers can prepare themselves with strategies to manage them– to take a deep breath, take a time out, remind themselves of their objective in this situation. They’re conscious of their body language as well, aware that these signals can undermine their relationships even more than those expressed through words. And leaders who are strong on this skill take care of themselves. They acknowledge the heightened stress and responsibility that comes with their role and implement strategies to manage this.
Assuming you have your own emotions in check, the next questions for leaders is, “How do I create the conditions so that my people will feel good, and so they can do their best work?” The critical skills to develop here are social awareness and relationship management.
Socially aware leaders are able to read the emotional state of others, understand how they are feeling and why. They pick up on subtle social cues, are able to read the room and understand the political realities of the organization. They possess the all -important skill of empathy. They acknowledge all feelings without judgment and seek to understand by asking questions and listening attentively.
Most of all they know what makes people tick. Brain imaging studies have brought greater clarity to this. David Rock has developed the SCARF model for understanding the social and psychological needs of people. When any of these needs are threatened, the brain automatically goes into defence mode. When they’re met, they are perceived as rewards, triggering positive emotions and enabling higher level thinking and performance. These needs include:
Status – This is about where people feel they fit in the “pecking order” both socially and organizationally. People need to feel that they have a role, that they are important and what they do matters.
Certainty – People want to know what’s expected of them and where they stand. They also want to feel secure. If change is inevitable, they want to know what to expect and how things will play out.
Autonomy – People want to feel they have control over what they do, or at least some part of it.
Relatedness – People feel safe when they form social groups and build trusting relationships. They have a huge need to feel cared for and connected to their leader and to their team.
Fairness – People need to feel that they are being treated fairly – that they are fairly compensated, that they will be judged on their merits and have an equal chance for opportunities.
Emotionally intelligent leaders are skilled in meeting the SCARF needs of others. This is apparent in the way they interact on a day to day basis, in their ability to listen, show interest and caring, provide praise and recognition and have respectful conversations in all situations. It’s apparent in the systems and processes they implement that address people’s needs for fairness and certainty. It’s apparent as well in the spirit of trust and collaboration they create both within their team and in their relationships at all levels.
So there you have it — Emotional Intelligence 101 for leaders, or anyone who wants to create positive relationships and be at their best in all aspects.
How well are you doing in managing your own emotions and setting a positive example for others? How well are you meeting the SCARF needs of your employees so that they can do their best work?