Ally Yates: How leaders can balance rational thought with improved emotional intelligence

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Most people live in their heads. The education system has, by implication, taught countless generations that logical, rational thought trumps emotion. We learn how to analyse information, critique someone’s work, apply decision-making rules and follow instructions.

In decision-making alone, the majority of the population use rational thought as their guide over their values, beliefs and emotions.

Appreciating the world in this one-dimensional way has many limitations. We lose out on a whole other world of data related to feelings – ours and others’. Emotions are, more often than not, the roots of behaviour. According to Dr Travis Bradberry, co-author of “Emotional Intelligence 2.0”, we have 400 emotional experiences a day. That’s one every 3.6 seconds, or every 2.4 seconds in a 16-hour day. On the basis of calculation alone, there’s merit in deepening our understanding of emotions in organisations. The successful serial entrepreneur and businessman, Richard Branson, is famously quoted as saying: “Engage your emotions at work. Your instincts and emotions are there to help you.” And the better you handle emotions, the better you do.

Over recent years, the balance is slowly being redressed through an increasing body of research. But our workaday practices have yet to catch up with what figures in the findings. Bradberry and Greaves’ study in the HBR article “Heartless bosses” showed that emotional intelligence (EQ) in work rises up to manager level and tapers thereafter. Our leaders are lacking.

Leaders can, at the two extremes, be either emotionally detached or expressively abandoned. Both conditions may stem from self-control – either too much, or too little. They also arise because, like parenting or marriage, no-one teaches you how to survive and thrive emotionally. You learn through an openness to modelling, mimicry, experimentation and practice.

One important piece of research is Amy Edmondson’s work on psychological safety. Whilst its roots are firmly grounded in the late nineties, it’s only just growing into the lexicon of business, boosted by well-documented studies, such as Google’s work on team effectiveness. Working teams and groups need to be able to speak up without fear of humiliation, listen without judgement, disagree without censorship and learn from mistakes.

Ed Hesse adds to the groundswell in his enlightening and challenging book: “Humility is the New Smart”. He endears himself to the reader through sharing his own story of emotional enlightenment, balanced with a rigorous research-basis for his claims. The picture is clear for all to see – leaders and workers alike face increasing uncertainty, unprecedented change and decreasing job security. In many industries, automation is replacing and will further replace humans. People power will grow through developing qualities that distinguish us from machines: humility; transparency; emotional intelligence; self-reflection; otherness.

The emotional tone is set by the leader. An emotionally intelligent boss creates a team that succeeds, learns and enjoys work. Whereas the curmudgeonly so-and-so and the technical autocrat can create fear, avoidance and distrust. What’s worse, he can have five times more impact on the employee’s moods than his more skilful colleague.

So, what’s to be done to develop more balanced leaders in your business? Here are some ideas for you and your business to experiment with:

Chart your emotions

Help people understand the breadth of emotional expression by introducing emotional charts depicting the range of possible emotions. Bring them into the practice of daily work by encouraging people to ask themselves: “How am I feeling today?”

Change your state

Changing your posture has an impact on your emotional state. If your mood is counter-productive, stand up, raise your hands above your head, lift your eyes to the heavens and smile. It’s an instant state changer. Use the opportunity to create movement in your work. Have walking meetings, use the stairs, have fit stops – five-minute stretching activities that are especially beneficial for desk-based staff.

Integrate emotions with processes

Create spaces for expressing feelings in typical work process. For example: after a meeting, ask people to use a descriptor to convey how they’re feeling; create what my colleague, Susan Kuepfer, calls ‘STOP moments’ when the pressure is rising –

S          stop what you’re doing

T          take a deep breath

O          observe how you are feeling physically and emotionally

P          proceed with whatever emotion is appropriate to the situation

Take a baseline

Collect feedback from others to understand how you score on the emotional Richter scale. Are you dormant or explosive? What about your range of emotional expression? Limited or expansive? A tailored 360° questionnaire can provide a powerful basis for discussing how an individual’s emotional intelligence is impacting others, and ultimately, performance.

Develop your emotional intelligence

Working with a coach is a safe environment for exploring how you can expand your emotional bandwidth and improve your emotional regulation. Experimenting in the one-to-one setting can build confidence for taking emotional risks in your daily work.

Award and reward

Since the need for developing emotional intelligence is growing – at least until the machines can catch up with us – why not reward people for situations where emotions are embraced? Recognise teams where psychological safety is established and encourage others to learn what goes on to achieve this? Introduce an award for EQ leadership. Make EQ a criterion for promotion.

Create moments of stillness

The pace of work and the pressure to do more with less often leads to cultures that have an attraction to action. Yet the brain needs periods of quiet to do its best work. Give yourself a break. Replace the stimulation of chatter and coffee with intervals for reflection and mindfulness. Introduce simple breathing exercises, keep a journal of worries and concerns or a gratitude diary.

Trying any one or combination of these ideas will help leaders to create equilibrium between thought and feeling.

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About Ally Yates

Ally Yates is author of ‘Utter Confidence: How what you say and do influences your effectiveness in business’ and an expert on Behaviour Analysis and the interactions that define us. She combines a deep understanding of people and how to achieve results, based on her many years’ experience working with large corporate clients around the world.

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