How to Help Managers Develop Their Emotional Intelligence

Although it’s now widely accepted that emotional intelligence (EI) is vital for managers, people still tend to assume that two of the most fundamental EI competencies, self-awareness and empathy, are deeply ingrained and not amenable to change. The idea is that we all have a certain level of each by the time we are adults, and that’s that.

But mentors, coaches, and trainers have found that with managers who are open to improving their performance, these competencies can be developed.

First step to grow self-awareness

First, managers can be encouraged to try these time-tested recommendations:

Asking for feedback — It’s best to turn initially to people they trust and think would be receptive, using either very specific questions (“Was I throwing around too many sharp elbows? Did I talk enough in the meeting?” etc.) or going for more open-ended feedback if they’re fishing for blind spots.

Assuming positive intent and listening without justifying — The two go together. If managers tend to see negative feedback as an attack, they spend their “listening” time formulating a reply. Sensing this, the other person will be less candid. Being really open to criticism isn’t easy — I doubt anyone totally “gets used to it” — but it’s the key to getting valuable feedback and understanding how others see us.

Moving past issues that limit self-awareness

A prerequisite for growing in self-awareness is that people need to show at least some willingness to take a look at their own actions. But there are degrees of willingness. And even when managers are strongly motivated to find out more about themselves and how they impact others, natural resistances still arise. To move past this, I often use one or more of the following approaches:

Presenting a compelling reason for trying something new. Managers who are firmly attached to one way of doing things may be willing to try a new way if they can be made to see its value. They can take it on as a test and examine the results. If they find it works well, they’re more likely to look at other patterns of behavior.

Helping managers identify current strengths to increase their motivation to inspect and reassess their assumptions. Seeing that there are positive things to discover can give them the confidence to explore new territory.

Creating space for self-discovery. A neutral party, like a mentor, coach, or trainer, can help managers experience “being heard” without judgment, and encourage them to bring out more of their real concerns, which can be reflected back to them.

Often the “acceptance paradox” comes into play, where mindsets and reactive patterns that managers harbor but might consider to be “wrong” in some way are allowed to surface without judgment, and, when accepted, are, paradoxically, easier to move past.

Managing the emotional response

Self-awareness plays a major role in helping managers deal with their own strong reactions when they encounter pushback or disagreement from one of their direct reports. They may show their irritation by being abrupt or dismissive, and the negative consequences can be substantial.

The first thing managers need to do is recognize is that they ARE angry, that something the other person has done (or even that they may not have done yet but the manager habitually expects them to do) triggers their own reaction. Instead of just seeing the person who disagrees with them as having another point of view, they often personalize the person’s actions and ascribe negative intent (e.g., “Ray always likes to make things difficult for me because …”). So the manager is in no mood to deal with the person’s response in an objective manner.

Mentors or coaches working with managers prone to this kind of response need to help them identify situations where they get angry or dismissive and then to express what they’re feeling about this real or hypothetical interaction.

There are several ways to facilitate the process, including questions, role playing and mindfulness exercises where managers are encouraged to look at everything they are thinking and feeling in this moment, and then in the next moment, and then in the next as a way of developing self-awareness.

When the issue at hand is conflict management and self-management, the goal should be for managers to recognize that they’re personalizing the other person’s response and ascribing negative intentions when, instead, they could be asking questions to really understand the basis of the other person’s concerns.

Developing empathy

As with self-awareness, we tend to assume that by the time people reach adulthood, they have a certain amount of empathy and it’s never going to change. But it can be developed. When working with an issue like conflict management, for example, I sometimes ask managers, “What if you assumed that Ray was positively inclined toward you and was only looking to improve on the process you were proposing?”

The goal here is not to get managers to believe this is true. Instead the goal is to get them to be willing to try behaving as if this were true as an exercise.

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It may take some doing. I look for compelling ways to show the immediate and ongoing benefits that might result from this alternative: Ray’s going to be easier to engage in the future, more candid, more willing to work with you and go the extra mile to see that your initiatives succeed.

Once managers are willing to give this a try, allow them a few weeks to complete the exercise, as homework, and have them note what happens in a journal.

While we tend to think we have to change our attitudes before we can change our actions, the reverse is equally true — new actions can change our attitudes. In fact our attitudes change whenever we try something new, like another flavor of ice cream, and then decide we like it. Of course it’s more of a leap when that “something new” involves the way we interact with other people, especially if we aren’t totally sold on the new approach.

If managers do try it, however, they experience firsthand the value of assuming positive intentions, listening more actively, and encouraging candid feedback. When dropping their defenses and assuming others’ good intentions has become a habit, managers have indeed developed their empathy, and others feel it and respond positively.

Given the number of studies linking higher EI with positive workplace performance outcomes, companies can expect an array of benefits to flow from helping managers develop their emotional intelligence.