This article originally appeared in CEOworld Magazine.
Emotional intelligence has been in the leadership spotlight for decades, but that doesn’t mean today’s leaders are any better at identifying, evaluating, controlling, or perceiving emotions in themselves or others. Despite a TalentSmart study that linked high emotional intelligence with strong workplace performance (and Google’s statistical findings that depict EI as more important than technical skills), executives continue to lag behind in the empathy department.
What’s behind the C-suite’s struggle to understand colleagues’ feelings, needs, and expectations? As one Harvard Business Review article explained, the higher up in the corporate ranks someone is, the higher his or her tendency toward inflated ego and self-interest. Not surprisingly, this leads to a disconnect between managers and employees, which can directly affect engagement by up to 70 percent, according to Gallup.
While I’ve always had a strong logical understanding of EI, I assumed it simply involved me telling others how I was feeling. I was mistaken. What I’ve come to understand is that EI isn’t based on being transparent with your initial emotions but on diving beneath the surface to find out what’s motivating those emotions. It can be difficult to stop from lashing out automatically, as leadership involves wielding power and making immediate choices. But when emotions are involved, executives must learn to hold back.
The ABCs of building better EI
Wherever you are on the journey toward true emotional intelligence, you can enhance your progress with these three strategies:
- Recognize anger as an alarm bell.
The next time you find yourself disappointed in your employees, pause and take a moment to assess your emotional state. Which emotions are you actually experiencing? Fear? Frustration? Confusion? You need to flesh out the true cause of your primary reaction. Think of anger like an alarm bell; it isn’t a primary emotion, after all.
It can be hard to admit when you’re terrified that a client will jump ship because a project wasn’t finished on time. Sure, you may be mad, but you’re more worried than anything. It’s more constructive to communicate that worry than to simply lash out without addressing the root cause of your ire.
Anger disconnects people, whereas primary emotions like fear or shame connect people. Most people don’t want their boss to be afraid or embarrassed, but being honest about those feelings make you more human and relatable. Your workers will appreciate your candor.
- Beef up your emotional vocabulary.
There is research that part of improved emotional intelligence is simply having a deeper vocabulary to describe our emotions. For example, frustration and disappointment are variations of anger. An important element of EI is knowing the nuances.
We all understand basic emotions — happiness, anger, sadness, and so on. What separates those with high EI scores from people who struggle to empathize is the ability to identify secondary and tertiary emotions such as sentimentality, fascination, and skepticism. After all, how can you truly feel an emotion if you don’t have the words to describe it?
Being able to pinpoint precise emotional reactions in yourself helps you clarify your own feelings, but it also enables you to recognize them in others. If you aren’t able to acknowledge situations that make you feel hurt, then you’re more likely to say hurtful things to others and not understand the consequences of those actions.
- Practice sensing how others feel.
If you aren’t an innately intuitive person, you might have trouble predicting others’ emotions. Therefore, you need to use trial and error to educate yourself in this arena. Need some help? Read “Nonviolent Communication,” a book written 50 years ago by a peace activist who created a communication technique to help defuse race riots. One of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s first orders of business upon taking the helm was to recommend the book to his leaders so they could practice spotting and validating others’ emotions.
The language of nonviolent communication looks like this: “You are feeling _______ because you are needing _______.” By filling in the blanks here, we can experiment with identifying others’ emotions. People are more likely to correct us and tell us the actual emotion they are experiencing when we use this language.
Over time, you’ll get more accustomed to stifling knee-jerk emotions and controlling potentially negative impulses. Taking a moment to understand others lessens the likelihood that you’ll unconsciously say something that could potentially ruin a good relationship forever. Something you say in a split second of frustration can stick with a person for years; it’s not worth the risk.
The fundamental definition of “empathy” is the ability to understand another person’s emotions, and that’s the key to emotional intelligence. Fortunately, you don’t have to be born empathetic to develop the EI skill set. You simply need to recognize your need for improvement, actively pursue emotional knowledge, and pay attention to the reactions of yourself and others. In time, you’ll unravel the mystery of EI success.