Java with Joe: So You’re Not an “Emotional Genius.” Relax, You Can Get Better.

If you’re already in, or about to take on, a leadership role, chances are you already have the intellect, the business expertise, and the technical skills to do the job. But what about the so called “soft skills?” What about your Emotional Intelligence?

While the concept of EI has been around for over 50 years, Daniel Goleman really popularized it in his 1995 best-seller, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, in which he argued that EI actually accounts for as much as 80% of success in life. Over time, Goleman’s work has certainly been subject to debate, but in my experience, the basic concept holds up. Are people correct to say that some leaders, notably lacking in Emotional Intelligence, have been successful? Of course. Just think about Steve Jobs. But in my view, leaders with well developed emotional intelligence—as well as the other necessary skills and traits—will generally be more successful at building organizations that tap the full potential of their people. And over time, that’s what leads to higher levels of performance.

When I talk about emotional intelligence, I’m talking about our ability to recognize and understand our own emotions and those of other people—and to manage our emotions to minimize their negative and increase their positive impact on others.

Underlying this whole discussion, of course, is the assumption that the leaders actually care about the way they are impacting people.  I have worked for and around leaders who knew their behavior had a negative impact on others, but who really didn’t care. This is, to say the least, a terrible combination.

Some critics of Goleman’s work have argued that it’s impossible to measure EI with rigorous scientific validity. But as a long term HR leader and practitioner, I think there are common sense ways to tell if you or someone else has EI issues. If someone is frequently involved in negative interactions with others, if those interactions clearly leave the other person upset, angry, or resentful, there’s an EI problem.  And since the leading driver of employee engagement is how a person feels about their leader, you can see how that EI problem can ultimately lead to a broader problem of organizational performance.

Ok, but if someone is EI-challenged, are they—are you— stuck with that problem, or can a person develop a higher level of emotional sensitivity?  In my experience working with leaders at all levels, the answer to that last question is definitely yes, although like any other form of personal development, success takes commitment and work. For an excellent book on the subject, check out Annie McKee’s Becoming a Resonant Leader, and in the meantime, let me offer a few thoughts of my own.

Find time for management reflection. As we’ve already discussed, emotional intelligence starts with being aware of, and understanding, our own emotions. One of the best ways to develop this self-awareness is to keep a simple record of your interactions with other people. I know: you’re really busy.  But trust me, this will be time very well spent.

So take 5-15 minutes, a couple of times a day, to write down the specifics of interactions you’ve had. Include both positive and negative interactions in these management reflections. Try to capture briefly what you said and what the other person said, what you were feeling as the interaction unfolded, and how the other person reacted, not just verbally but in their body language. Believe me, over time, the physical act of writing this stuff down (preferably the old fashioned way, with a pen on paper) will make you much more sensitive to what is going on as you engage with others.

(For a compelling discussion of how great leaders, both contemporary and historical, have drawn on the power of solitude and reflection to guide their most important decisions, and how you can develop the same discipline, see Lead Yourself First by Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin.)

Focus on your core values. Closely tied to emotional awareness is a deep understanding of our core values—what matters most to us as human beings, as leaders and how were those values formed?  Unfortunately, many leaders haven’t done the work of digging down and really figuring out their core values. In my work with leaders right up to those in the C-suite, I often ask them to articulate those values—and I’d say that at best one out of three can do so with any real depth.  Frankly, it’s so rare when someone can do it that I almost feel that it’s an unfair question.

So, think about the leaders you most respect. Why do you respect them? What values do they consistently demonstrate? Then look at your EI journal, and ask yourself what values you have demonstrated in those interactions. What seemed to really matter most to you? Finally, make a list of your top values, and for each one, write a brief behavioral definition.

Identify your emotional triggers. Being predictable, as an individual and certainly as a leader, is key to building trust with people. And a key to being predictable is managing your own emotions, which in turn requires an ability to deal with your emotional triggers. These are the things that put you in a problematic state—the things that set you off, that push your emotional buttons. And here’s where the understanding your core values is crucial, because those triggers generally set us off because in that moment we feel that someone has crossed a line when it comes to one or more of those values.

One of my core values, for example, is respect. I think it’s crucial for me to treat others with respect— and for me to be treated the same way. I know that whenever someone says or does something that seems disrespectful to me, my gut reaction is to get angry. In that moment, if I’m not very careful, I’m in danger of saying or doing something that only makes the situation worse. But knowing that, it’s a little easier for me to take a deep breath and mentally, if not actually physically, to just step away. That way I can come back later and have a more meaningful conversation.

Create an outlet. Much of my time spent in the HR function was to serve as a sounding board so leaders could vent before they engaged another leader with whom they had an issue.  I strongly suggest you find a confidant with whom you can share your thoughts and feelings, someone who will listen supportively but also give you honest feedback.

Manage your expectations. Developing your emotional intelligence takes time. If you work at it, in a conscious way, you will learn from both your positive and not so positive interactions. You’ll get better at recognizing—and not reacting reflexively to your emotional triggers. You’ll learn to read the emotions of other people and treat those emotions with empathy.

So why not start that journey today?

Some key questions: Can you articulate your personal values and how they were developed? What are your triggers? What are you doing on a regular basis to reflect on them?