The importance of emotional intelligence in leadership is not a new concept. It has been talked about for years. But at a time when the pace of change and rate of uncertainty seems to be accelerating worldwide, the need for leaders to develop their EQ – short for emotional quotient – has never been more important. And it’s only going to increase, with McKinsey Global Institute Workforce Skills Model analysis showing that demand for emotional intelligence skills will grow by 26 percent by 2030.
Whether it’s industry transitions, corporate shake-ups, or the aftermath of natural disasters and a global pandemic, it’s a time of big feelings, emotions, and reactions as people grapple with the unknown. Uncertainty is unnerving and our brain often perceives it as a threat. This triggers our primitive fight, flight or freeze response, which can play out in a host of damaging ways in the workplace. Your team may get bogged down in gossip, rumour and conspiracy theories, which can lead to anxiety, confusion, distraction and resistance.
As a leader, you must embrace the role of a steady guide even if you find yourself just as uncertain as your team about what lies ahead. To do that, you must draw on your own EQ to help your people remain focussed and productive despite the challenges. The ability to steer your team through volatile times has become essential.
What is emotional intelligence and why is it the leadership superpower we need right now?
The term “emotional intelligence” was coined by Jack Mayer and Peter Salovey in 1990, and then catapulted into the spotlight by psychologist and journalist Daniel Goleman in his 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More Than IQ. Emotional intelligence (also known as EQ) essentially refers to your self-management, interpersonal and communication skills. Skills often referred to as “soft” but in reality, are hard. There’s nothing soft or easy about them.
EQ is about understanding your own emotions and being able to express them effectively and appropriately while also understanding the emotions of others, and how to best deal with and work with them. At times of uncertainty, a high EQ is more valuable than a high IQ – for good reason. A leader with high intellectual intelligence is of little use if they can’t control their frustration, anger and aggression, steady the ship, or engage with and influence their people.
Emotionally intelligent leaders have high self-awareness and adjust their communication to work with the emotions of other people, creating connection with those around them. They stay calm under pressure, regulate their emotions and empathise with other people, even if that other person’s response is different to their own. That makes them much better placed to deal with the barrage of reactions likely to come their way during times of uncertainty.
Developing your emotional intelligence – your self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management – is one of the most impactful ways to enhance your leadership effectiveness.
Can’t they just get on with it?
Despite research about the importance of EQ being clear (for example, emotional intelligence was found to be the strongest predictor of performance out of 34 workplace skills by TalentSmart), some leaders still struggle to accept that they have a role in dealing with the feelings and emotions of their staff. There are those who firmly believe that emotions don’t belong in the workplace and insist that people just need to be logical, get the job done, and not get caught up worrying about what they think is and isn’t going to happen. The problem is, “just get on with it” during uncertain times doesn’t work.
As Dale Carnegie wrote in his classic book How to Win Friends and Influence People way back in 1936: “When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion.” Whether we like it or not, emotions underpin and drive human behaviour – our choices, decisions, performance and actions. We may think we’re rational beings who make rational decisions but we’re not, and the more we try to ignore or suppress our emotions, the worse the outcomes often are.
Leadership is about people and it requires dealing with their feelings. We ignore them at our peril. People drive performance but if you don’t pay attention to how they feel during uncertain times, they’ll drive problems instead. If you don’t invest time and energy addressing the fears and feelings of your team, it will cost you time, money and productivity as you try to manage ineffective and unproductive behaviour, conflict, disagreements, safety risks due to distraction, stress leave and resignations. Ignoring the emotions of your people will only see these problems grow.
By honing your EQ, you equip yourself with the tools to understand and navigate the emotional landscape, fostering resilience, trust, and growth within your team. In an era marked by uncertainty, leaders who embrace emotional intelligence will not only weather the storm of change but will steer their people through the rough seas to calmer waters.
Written by Leah Mether.
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