Emotional Intelligence – that’s the fluffy stuff, isn’t it? It turns out to be quite the opposite. The most prominent researcher in this space, Daniel Goleman (well-known for his business psychology insights) paved the way for us to see the personal traits and behaviours that really make leaders successful.
But first, what is Emotional Intelligence? (Or EQ as I will refer to it). Goleman has evolved his model on EQ to be quite specific about the skills that we observe in successful leaders. He defines EQ through four key areas: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. These areas are further identified by various ‘hallmarks’. For example, a hallmark for self-awareness is a ‘self-deprecating sense of humour’ and is found in people who will seek out feedback and work on themselves. Another is self-regulation as defined by hallmarks of ‘trustworthiness’ and ‘comfort with ambiguity’—this is someone who will suspend judgement or control their impulse to react.
EQ and measurable business results
The key here is that Goleman found direct ties between EQ in leaders and measurable business results. He studied ‘competency models’ (competencies of leaders) and analysed data from over 188 companies (mainly large corporates such as British Airways and Credit Suisse) to determine which of the leaders ‘personal capabilities really drove performance’ in their particular companies and teams over others.
His results were striking:
‘Cognitive skills such as big-picture thinking and long-term vision were particularly important. But when I calculated the ratio of technical skills, IQ, and emotional intelligence as ingredients of excellent performance, emotional intelligence proved to be twice as important as the others for jobs at all levels. Moreover, my analysis showed that emotional intelligence played an increasingly important role at the highest levels of the company, where differences in technical skills are of negligible importance’.
Goleman found that EQ was critical for those in the senior ranks of an organisation. Nearly 90% of the difference that leaders from high-performance departments had was attributable to EQ factors over IQ (cognitive skill). Let’s take a slightly deeper look at one of the EQ aspects. If a leader can manage their own emotions and self-regulate, they can create an environment of trust and fairness. Here, productivity is high and politics and gossiping are reduced because the team believe in their leader and see them follow through fairly. This builds an effective work environment. Thus, talent will flock to a team like this as people will talk highly of their team culture and productive space. Furthermore, these skills in self-regulation are also crucial in the world of change in which we live. The work environment can be highly ambiguous and change can occur rapidly. Leaders need to be able to hold that change skilfully for themselves and others. Goleman goes further to say that that self-regulation enhances the integrity of a leader. He comments that this isn’t ‘only a personal virtue but an organisational strength’.
So, can these skills be learned?
Are leaders born or made? That’s the fundamental question here. Science shows that there is a genetic component. There is also evidence that people develop their EQ skills with age. Goleman also calls this ‘maturity’. But EQ skills don’t necessarily come with age.
EQ is developed largely in the neurotransmitters of the brain’s limbic system, which governs feelings, impulses and drives. Research indicates that the limbic system learns best through motivation, extended practice and feedback. Whereas most traditional training focuses on analytical skills involving logic which build the neocortex, training should in fact focus on leaders’ impulses, habits – how to reduce bias and judgement, how to self-reflect on a regular basis.
What does Mindfulness practice have to do with it?
Mindfulness training has been shown to increase EQ competencies, over the long term. This personal and professional development is shown through a combination of taught programmes and independent practice (Reitz & Chaskelson, 2016) and is directly related to significant growth in areas such as empathy, collaboration and agility in the face of complexity.
As someone who coaches and trains leaders in Mindfulness, what I notice is that EQ skills are essentially about creating new habits. This is about our brain’s wiring and this rewiring takes a new approach.
It’s about learning to watch your patterns and habits so you have more distance from them. These patterns then become less fixed and less ‘you’. We can then grow a ‘muscle’ of awareness that develops over time. This is the route to freedom. You realise that you don’t have to get angry at that person or wind up in an anxiety loop. Through a process of mental training, you can build awareness and distance between you and your thoughts which gives you space to choose. Your thoughts are not facts and they’re also not you. They can feel powerful, which is why stress, anxiety and anger as well as self-righteousness can feel very real. The truth is, they’re just programmed habits. We can improve the distance between impulse and response by training in Mindfulness. Meditation is one of the key tools we use to train in this way.
What can be challenging for some leaders is that their achievements have been about moving fast and striving their whole lives. I reflected on this in my recent blog, Will I lose my edge? as adrenaline is addictive. Some worry that somehow, through this self-reflective journey, they’ll lose their edge. When in fact, we know the evidence shows quite the opposite.
This work IS the difference-maker.
There is a fundamental route to furthering leaders’ success: not in the fast lane, but instead following a more tuned-in, responsive and reflective path.