I get a lot of really smart participants in my leadership training workshops: doctors, chemists, engineers, architects, lawyers, and, (yes) rocket scientists. Often there are many very creative people as well: artists, designers, musicians, teachers and so on. It is not uncommon for people to fall into more than one category. These are highly capable people with immense cognitive capacity. They are really smart. Some are good leaders and some are not. There have been countless studies done to unravel the mystery of why really smart people are sometimes terrible leaders. We have all seen this. An excellent engineer gets promoted to a management job because she is an excellent engineer but she fails as a manager because she does not have the leadership skills she needs. A brilliant scientist cannot lead his team of brilliant scientists, etc., etc. Why does this happen? It is certainly not because these people are not smart enough. They are indisputably intelligent. What are the elusive “people skills” that are often cited as their weakness? Some say that it is a special kind of intelligence. The idea that there is more than one kind of intelligence has been around a long time. Daniel Goleman, building on the work of John Mayer and others , popularized the term Emotional Intelligence. The idea is that to be successful as a leader, you need to be smart in more than one way. In 1995, the cover of Time magazine proclaimed, “It’s not your IQ. It’s not even a number. But emotional intelligence may be the best predictor of success in life, redefining what it means to be smart.” Probably an exaggerated claim! But, despite the scientific controversy over whether EQ is a separate, measurable ability or not, the idea that understanding and dealing “intelligently” with emotions is an important skill in life.
According to Goleman, there are five major components to emotional intelligence: knowing one’s emotions, managing emotions, motivating oneself, recognizing emotions in others, and handling relationships. Whether this represents one scientifically defensible kind of intelligence or simply a restatement of a number of attributes we have long known to be important to success in building and sustaining relationships may not be important. What is important is that those who fail in leadership roles are often deficient in one or more of these abilities. And, even more crucial, with deliberate effort, people can improve in their ability to deal with emotions. So, why is this important to leaders in organizations? For decades (centuries?), we have gotten away with treating any discussion of emotions in the workplace as taboo. Feelings were hushed up, suppressed, mocked, locked away in the attic. This strategy posed little threat to the company’s bottom line as long as every other company did the same. But, when some companies started dealing more directly with this issue (i.e. Cummins Engine, W.L. Gore and Associates, Proctor and Gamble), the idea moved from the ivory tower to the real world.
If it is important for leaders to handle emotions effectively, how do you go about learning those skills? Management consultants like Frederick Herzberg, Ken Blanchard, W. Edwards Deming, and others offered their advice. As their ideas caught on, leadership training became more and more important. Understanding that organizations are systems of relationships and that to be successful, a leader needs to develop good relationships with his or her team members and manage the interrelationships among all of them. Early approaches mostly asserted that this was important. “People skills are important. Do better.” But, pioneers like Thomas Gordon offered systematic skill building processes that helped participants learn these skills in a very practical way.
What Goleman did for business and industry was to provide an intellectual framework for all of this. Suddenly, all of the work that had been done previously was seen in a more serious light. If a leader wants to improve his or her emotional intelligence, the methods for doing so are available. The most effective approaches offer lots of practice with communication skills; both sending and receiving messages more accurately. A major part of these communication skills involves developing your vocabulary of words that describe emotions. In a recent class, I was leading a discussion on this topic when a supervisor offered this comment. “I have two emotions. Either I am happy or I’m ****** off.” Well, those words certainly describe emotions but there are many others. Most participants have a somewhat richer lexicon than this supervisor but it is no exaggeration that, in general, we have an impoverished vocabulary for describing human emotions. One group became stuck on “frustrated.” “Gosh, that sure is frustrating. How frustrating for you. What a frustrating assignment.” Etc. After challenging them with, “You know there are other emotions,” they replied, “Not if you work here.” Well, that may be but in most organizations, the range of emotions is quite broad. Leaders fail to recognize this at their peril.
Leadership training like Leader Effectiveness Training leads participants through a series of steps in which participants learn a concept, observe a demonstration, try it out, get feedback, and repeat until they are comfortable with the new skill. The most important of these skills are:
• Active listening. When another person is trying to describe a problem they are having, you learn to recognize the opportunity, focus on the content and feelings of the other person (rather than formulating a response or forming a judgment) and translate your understanding into words that you say aloud. This gives the sender the opportunity to confirm or disconfirm you interpretation. The better your vocabulary of words describing emotions, the more likely that you will be successful with this skill.
• Constructive confrontation with I-messages. The ability to talk about unacceptable behaviors while minimizing defensiveness. The I-message includes a description of the observed behavior, its effects on your ability to meet your needs, and a word describing your emotion. After the other responds, you follow with active listening to understand fully the other’s reaction.
• Resolving conflicts. Systematic problem solving to find mutually satisfying solutions to disputes. This process also requires considerable skill in dealing with the emotional side of the conflict.
All of these skills help participants in leadership training improve their “emotional intelligence.” There are no magic solutions to a lifetime of poor communication but such leadership training can, at least, set the stage for sustainable changes in organizations. When preceded by clear objectives from senior managers and when followed with good coaching and facilitation, there is room for optimism. Many companies have demonstrated considerable success in changing their organizational culture. But, all of them have paid attention to these skills as a part of the process.