Some people managers struggle with being good leaders and cannot understand why: They are experts in their fields, work hard, and communicate with their direct reports in a comprehensible and explicit manner. And yet, those direct reports don't seem to be happy, engaged, and most importantly: productive. Something seems to be missing.
In many cases, the problem starts with the selection criteria for new leaders: Often these individuals are selected because of their job performance and their expertise. Those criteria, of course, make perfect sense - but they are not enough. There is a third requirement that is often neglected but crucial for good leadership: emotional intelligence.
Have you ever witnessed someone lose their cool at work? How suddenly facts, arguments, and reason become irrelevant because a decision maker has a meltdown? Or how, at a meeting, the moderator is holding a monologue rather than engaging with the other participants and encouraging different viewpoints and ideas? Those behaviors are signs of a lack of emotional intelligence. And if leaders lack it, the consequences for their teams can be devastating.
Emotional intelligence is important for being able to control your emotions because it requires a high degree of self-awareness. When you are able to look at your actions and words from an outside perspective and see how they impact other people, you are much more likely to deliberately control your conduct towards others and therefore avoid negative consequences of your behavior. This is especially important in conflict situations or when you feel under pressure.
The famous quote from the novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" says it all: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it." Empathy skills are crucial for good leadership. If you are able to empathize with others, you'll be more connected to those people. This will lead to a higher level of trust, performance, and engagement - and not just obedience and compliance. There is even solid evidence that empathy will not only make you a better leader, but also boost your own performance: For example, the study "Empathy in the Workplace" shows that empathetic leaders are viewed by their bosses as better performers.
Emotional intelligence can be learned
This is the good news for people who feel disheartened because they're afraid they just don't have significant emotional intelligence. There are three behavior sets you need to acquire, all of which are connected with empathetic listening:
- Recognizing cues, verbal as well as nonverbal (e.g. tone, facial expressions, body language). Pay attention to what people are saying - and what they omit saying.
- Deciphering cues, which involves understanding the meaning of the said and unsaid messages and making educated guesses about underlying motivations and emotions.
- Responding adequately, which involves showing others that their message was received and encouraging them to keep speaking their minds.
Good leadership is about connecting to your direct reports, about understanding their motivations, aspirations, interests, and fears. This will enable you to support their individual professional development which in turn will lead to more engagement and higher productivity. There are professional leadership coaches who specialize in this field. If you feel you could benefit from an expert showing you the ropes in this regard, find one. It could make all the difference.