Right Now Is the Perfect Opportunity to Grow This Critical Leadership Skill

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May 21, 2020

What’s the biggest predictor of leadership success? It’s not having a world-changing vision or a brilliant new idea. It’s emotional intelligence (EQ). A global study of over 15,000 leaders found that leaders who master the EQ skill of listening and responding with empathy will perform more than 40% higher than their peers in overall performance, coaching, engaging others, planning and organizing, and decision making.

Now, more than ever before, empathy is the number one thing that is being asked of leaders. This global pandemic has revealed how vulnerable and interdependent we are as a species. Everyone’s life has been disturbed, and we’ve all had to adapt in some way.  Most people are trying to cope with feelings of anxiety about the future.  Empathy is showing people you understand them and care how they feel. It addresses the basic human need to feel seen and heard.

After all, no matter what industry we work in or company we work for, we’re first and foremost in the people business. At its core, leadership is a relationship between a leader and someone who chooses to follow.  The quality of that relationship is based on the quality of connection that exists. The EQ skill of empathy is the main ingredient in forming a high-quality connection.

Yet, as important as empathy is, it’s in short supply.  Especially in the workplace, empathy is easier said than done. Businessolver’s 2019 State of Workplace Empathy study finds that only 49% of employees believe their CEOs are empathetic, and 58% of CEOs admit struggling to consistently demonstrate empathy. It’s not as if the CEOs don’t recognize the value of EQ:  91% of them agree that empathy is tied to financial performance.

It turns out that the higher one climbs in an organization, the more emotionally un-intelligent they become.  Research by Dr. Travis Bradberry at Talentsmart has found that CEOs, on average, have the lowest EQ scores in the workplace.

However, climbing the organizational ladder isn’t a guaranteed EQ death sentence.  There are many emotionally intelligent CEOs, and Bradberry’s research finds that the top-performing CEOs are those with the highest EQs. What do these high achievers do that other CEOs ignore?

The foundation of EQ is self-awareness.  Can you look in the mirror and accurately see what’s staring back? Dr. Tasha Eurich, in her bestselling book Insight, explains that there are two types of self-awareness: Internal and External. Internal is an inward understanding of yourself. External is an understanding of how other people see you.

Most people shy away from self-awareness. Personal development takes effort. It’s an uncomfortable process to voluntarily put yourself through.  Unless there’s some wake-up call that compels you to work at overcoming your blind spots, it’s much easier to hit the snooze button and stay in your comfort zone.

Eurich describes such wake-up calls as “Alarm Clock events.” One of the biggest of these is “earthquake events”: Intense events that shake us to our core.  This coronavirus crisis certainly meets that requirement.

Undoubtedly, you’ve heard some of these wake-up calls over the past month.    As a result, some things you may have experienced include:

  • Reflecting more deeply on your personal values. What’s truly important to you? What’s worth your time, focus, energy, and money? Is what you’re doing aligned with who you want to be?
  • Comparing intentions to outcomes. Because about your “normal” day is different, you’re more mindful of how what you set out to do each day either works or doesn’t work.  You may also be reflecting at the end of the day and/or week to notice what to stop, start, or continue doing in the future.
  • Having more honest, unfiltered conversations. The question “How are you doing?” has gone from a social pleasantry to a statement of genuine concern. You’re probably more aware of your own changing emotional states from moment to moment, and you may be speaking with others at a deeper level than you’d previously done.
  • Asking for feedback. Amid all the upheaval right now, you may be checking in more consistently with others to see how you can support them. You may be asking them what you’re doing that’s working well and what you could change in the future to make things even better.

If you reflect on these wake-up call responses you’re having, you’ll find some good news: they’re the same behaviors needed to develop internal and external self-awareness.  In other words, if you want to become more empathetic and emotionally intelligent, you’re already doing it.

Now your challenge is to stop doing it accidentally and start doing it intentionally.   How can you build these EQ-building behaviors into leadership habits that will sustain you through this crisis and beyond? Or, as Rahm Emanuel put it, “Never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

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