Emotional intelligence (EI) has always been relevant to effective leadership. In the post-pandemic world, where work still continues to be remote and the challenge to engage and build trust remains, it is, all the more, a vital ability to enhance and practice.
People Matters spoke to leadership experts on how a lack of emotional intelligence in business leaders can be devastating for the workforce, the top characteristics of emotional intelligence that leaders need to build on and how emotionally intelligent leaders can act as a retention lever for people in the ongoing talent war.
What is emotional intelligence?
Emotional intelligence is deeply rooted in self-awareness. It starts with the ability to understand (in real time) the emotions a person is experiencing. “But the crux is to understand how those emotions can tend to affect how a person behaves, reacts and decides/makes choices based on the impact of the emotions.
"The second level of emotional intelligence is social awareness i.e., being conscious of how others feel and how those emotions can impact their behaviours/choices,” says Gurprriet Singh, managing director, APAC Regional Leader of Leadership & Succession, Russell Reynolds Associates.
Why emotional intelligence is crucial to effective leadership now
Emotional intelligence has always been relevant to effective leadership, but in a post-pandemic world, it is a vital ability for a number of reasons.
During the pandemic, when everyone was going through a really tough time, there was an increased need for leaders to be “present” for their team members, to be able to connect and engage with them much more. More importantly, to be able to listen to them intently.
The need of the hour was empathetic leadership, which allows safe space for employees to express what they are feeling, and also offers the right level of support needed in the circumstances.
Executive and leadership coach Harsh Johari says in the post-pandemic world, where work still continues to be remote, the challenge to engage and build trust remains.
“When people are not physically around, the social interaction and camaraderie is missing. This can sometimes create a trust deficit between a leader and the team. So, leaders need to be authentic and genuine. You need to be clear on your intention as a leader.
"If at the end of the day, you are just looking for process output and business results and don’t really care about people, it will not work. But if you want to trust your team members because you really want to build strong relationships with them, you really want to help and support them, you really believe that your success is linked to their success, then you have a really good chance to build a high performing team who trust and respect each other. Business results will follow eventually. That’s the sign of an emotionally intelligent leader,” he contends.
While the earlier projections of 100% work from home have been unfounded, we are definitely headed for hybrid work-life, says Singh.
“As a result, managers won’t have as much face time with teams. More with some, less with others. Dialling up connectedness, empathy, engagement is going to be vital to ensure teams continue to be aligned emotionally and cognitively. Managers are going to have to be consciously inclusive, communicate more and sense more across distances than ever before,” he adds.
The pandemic has caused many people to reflect and reconsider life choices.
“Some are heading closer to their hometown and parents, others are taking risks and heading out. The talent market is hot and there are attractive jobs and salaries to be had. In the midst of all this, the role of managers in keeping teams engaged becomes vital,” he adds.
Lack of emotionally intelligent leadership devastating for workforce
If leaders don’t have a high level of emotional quotient, they will not be able to connect authentically with their teams and build meaningful relationships.
Johari says if leaders are not self-aware and are not able to manage their emotions, it could lead to sub-optimal decisions both from people and business point of view.
If leaders don’t create a safe environment for people to express themselves, then employees will always feel unheard and left out. They will feel that no one cares for them and that. in turn, will impact their morale and motivation, eventually impacting their productivity and performance.
5 emotional intelligence traits leaders need
The first is self-awareness.
“To be aware of how their emotions are affecting them and then to self-regulate them, in order to ensure they are able to remain balanced and poised through high pressure situations. Self-awareness will result in self-regulation and leaders would have an opportunity to be vulnerable and know when they need help. Through all the uncertainty the world is going through, leaders are experiencing more stress than ever before,” says Singh.
In fact, awareness and acceptance are the key.
“The more self-aware you are as a leader - about your values, your beliefs, your strengths, your weaknesses, what really drives you etc, the more you can influence your actions and decisions to be in alignment with what you truly want for yourself and your teams. Another aspect of awareness is your emotional awareness as a leader - being aware of your own emotions, understanding the cause and impact of those emotions and having the ability to express and regulate your emotions. Equally important is to be aware of other’s emotions,” adds Johari.
Empathy is another very important aspect of emotional intelligence. And the key is to recognise the “need” for empathy, he says.
“Your ability to be there for your team members, coupled with deep listening skills. Some of the best conversations happen when you are silent. You are present and you are listening intently to your team members. When people feel heard, they can trust you. Being an effective listener means managing your emotions, managing your own urge to react immediately,” Johari adds.
Singh says as leaders become self-aware and realise how they are being affected, the next step is to recognise that others must be experiencing similar emotions.
“This helps leaders dial up how they engage and show up with others whether it is their bosses, peers or direct reports. There are two facets to empathy: emotional empathy and cognitive empathy.
"Emotional empathy is being tuned into how others must be feeling. Cognitive empathy is being tuned into how others must be thinking.
"For example, if an employee’s parents are both recovering from a bad bout of Covid, you know there is emotionality here about responsibility, love and being there for parents. The employee might be thinking of relocating and moving to the same city as their parents or moving the parents to their city. Knowing this as a leader, helps you engage and support your employees at a deeper and a human level,” he says.
Purpose is the next. Singh says knowing your “Why” helps you stay anchored during times of stress and uncertainty. It also helps you inspire others and keep them on-track and maintain balance.
Pragmatic assertion - In the midst of all this, leaders still need to deliver results and hold people accountable for performance. “Ensuring that you keep your team members engaged, enabled and also held to account is a key balance a leader must maintain,” says Singh
Another mark of an emotionally intelligent leader is the ability to be vulnerable, adds Johari.
When you open up, the world will start opening up to you. Of course, this is easier said than done. It needs courage and goes back to true intent.
“Behind that façade of a strong and powerful leader, you are ultimately human. You make mistakes, you feel hurt, you struggle. Admitting your mistakes, acknowledging your feelings and emotions is not easy. You expose yourself to potential risk and harm. But here’s the key – when you expose yourself and people don’t hurt and harm you, that’s when trust is built,” he notes.
Emotional intelligent leaders as retention lever in talent war
Emotional intelligence can help boost individual performance. Emotionally intelligent leaders can help improve communication, collaboration, and trust between team members.
“They show greater compassion and respect for colleagues – that, in turn, creates a better work environment and stronger culture leading to higher productivity and engaged employees. It creates an organisation where people would like to work,” says Johari.
Singh says empathy and self-awareness are a bedrock. A leader who is aware and is able to empathise, will be able to show up supportively and understand the motivations, concerns, and needs of their team members and will therefore be able to support them effectively.
“Showing up, communicating in multiple forums, one to many, one to one etc. will ensure leaders maintain high-touch engagements with their team members. This is a vital shift leaders need to make, especially as the world of work becomes more hybrid,” adds Singh.