The Importance of Emotional Intelligence to Good Leadership

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Sep 14, 2016

Developing the ability to tune in to how a diverse group of people feel about a situation is one of the most important tools that a leader can develop, because all decision-making depends on having reliable information. The problem is that the definition of “reliable” can vary wildly from individual to individual. Despite our innate sense that our point of view is the most accurate representation of reality, our own experience of the world is only one of many valid modes of understanding.

It is often the case that the way we make sense of the world, take in information, and make decisions, is not the same as the way coworkers do. We are all diverse in our thinking and understanding, and it enriches and strengthens conclusions to have many voices included. According to an article in the Harvard Business Review leaders should not only look to recruit teams with a mix of skills and experiences, but also with “…a blend of different preferred thinking styles…” In fact, severe problems can arise for leaders who are unaware that the way they see and react to situations is not the end-all and be-all of understanding. Perspectives that go unheard can leave employees feeling alienated and pose a threat to their overall happiness, and ultimately retention and the bottom line. Moreover, the decisions leaders make too often carry the effectiveness-killing anemia of lacking the support of relevant information.

Over the past century, an array of tools have been created to address the challenge of “getting in the head” of others in business, understanding how their thoughts and feelings work, in order to better communicate, take in information, and make effective decisions. At the core of each of these tools is the truth that, regardless of one’s leadership style, understanding the style of others is critical in developing an accurate picture of a situation. The combination of self-awareness and “other-awareness” is the key that unlocks the trove of otherwise unknowable information that is vital to effective executive decision-making.

Emotional intelligence

Since the term was coined in 1990 by Daniel Goleman, the concept of “emotional intelligence” has grown to become one of the most popular tools for developing the so-called “soft” leadership skills: collaboration, conflict management, adaptability, and so on. Although it’s often said that these soft skills are undervalued in leaders, it is clear that their indispensability for supporting “hard” leadership skills actually makes their benefits highly valued.

The emotional intelligence framework posits four general areas of work:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Managing less useful emotions for a positive outcome
  3. Empathy
  4. Assembling this in relationships

Two of these areas — self-awareness and empathy — are dependent on one’s ability to “read” a person. Developing self-awareness and empathy can be aided significantly by combining additional tools and perspectives with the emotional intelligence framework.

What I’ve seen in my own organization

I head CPP, Inc., the company that publishes the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® instrument, and since I’ve had the privilege of being part of an organization that is highly in-tune with the perspective that this tool affords, I’d like to share what I’ve learned: how having a common language for understanding how others take in and process information can affect the flow of valuable information to the executive decision-making engine.

The Myers-Briggs instrument has about as much complexity and insight to offer as one has the time to spend delving into it, but at its core is an understanding that each individual prefers a view that is either abstract or concrete, paired with a preference that is at home either with logic or with people-centered concerns. (For those familiar with the Myers-Briggs assessment, I am describing the  Sensing/Intuition and Thinking/Feeling dichotomies here.)

It is often not difficult to identify from which perspective someone is approaching a problem. Is the natural instinct to first identify the practical problems with a plan, or to point out how it will affect employees individually? Do we start with a blue sky brainstorm or a survey of performance over the past year? Knowing where your mind immediately jumps can be invaluable in not only avoiding accidentally shutting out other perspectives, but as the emotional intelligence framework suggests, also in recognizing that where the minds of others are jumping is just as important.

Leaders, know thyself

When a leader understands this and develops his or her skill in effectively identifying the perspectives of others, decisions become well-informed. When an entire organization can understand and communicate this with a common terminology, as is the case at CPP , the effect multiplies. Every interaction is colored with a deeper understanding of where the other is coming from.

Whether or not you buy into the old wisdom that “there are as many truths as there are people,” all leaders are tied to the reality that each member of their organization has a slightly different perspective than every other member, and sometimes wildly different ones. It is the purview of a chief executive to not only make wise decisions, but to do so in a way that integrates all the information available, including the beliefs and concerns of each member of their team. Making decisions closed off from others, or with misinterpretations of their perspectives, is a gamble, and one that doesn’t need to be taken with practice of awareness and understanding.