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Building Emotional Competencies In Our Leadership


Over the past decade or so, there have been numerous studies and books that have helped us to better appreciate the emotional nature of successful leadership, a fact that has helped to bring about a transformation in leadership attitudes from the old command-and-control approach to one that’s more outward-focused and collaborative.

Unfortunately, while we’ve become more aware about the importance of emotional intelligence in today’s leadership, the truth is many of us continue to grapple with this issue and in the past few years, it has only become worse thanks to the changing realities of leading in today’s faster-paced, 24/7 work environment.

It’s an issue that I’ve addressed in some of the talks I’ve given this year, where I discussed the challenge leaders face of how to balance the increasing pull to simply get things done against that critical need to build and nurture a workplace environment that brings out the best in those they lead.

The necessity and importance of addressing this balancing act can be best appreciated when we consider the findings of a recent American Management Association (AMA) study which found that stress in the workplace is fast becoming the most critical issue organizations face today, with more than 50% of the study’s respondents stating that their organization suffers from above-average stress levels.

The major challenge this workplace issue presents comes from the fact that our ability to address workplace stress depends not on our technical capabilities, but on the emotional competencies we bring to our leadership.

After all, creating an environment where employees thrive is an emotional construct, not a technical one [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

It’s also why in today’s current workplace environment, where all of us are being bombarded with increasing demands on our time and attention, we can’t afford to let what gets our attention to determine what we focus on and where we put most of our efforts. Rather, what we need to do is build our emotional competencies to ensure that we are promoting an organizational culture that ensures our collective success, growth, and evolution.

So how can we build our emotional competencies in order to be more successful in guiding our employees towards achieving our vision or shared purpose?

The first critical step we need to take is to gain a better understanding for how we show up in those daily interactions with those we lead.

Specifically, when we walk into those meetings, or when we have those impromptu conversations with our employees, do we have a genuine interest to listen, learn and understand? And do we have that presence of mind to recognize what our current emotional state is and how that colours how we interpret and respond to what our employees are telling us?

Now to better understand why this is so critical to building our emotional competencies, we have to remember two things. The first thing is that emotions are contagious – something that’s becoming easier for us to appreciate in this social media age where ideas, videos, and even photographs can become viral events because of the emotions they give rise to.

The second thing we need to be aware of is that our brains are hard-wired to subconsciously pick up the non-verbal cues we all give off in our everyday encounters with those around us. What this means is that the minute you walk into that meeting room, your employees will have read those non-verbal cues you’re giving off and that will serve as the point of reference from which they will interpret everything you say and do.

The impact these two neurological factors have on our employees can be best appreciated in the findings made by researchers from Simon Fraser University. These researchers found that when managers felt stressed, exhausted or had a negative outlook about their work, their emotional state gave rise to negative work attitudes among their employees, leading to increased levels of employee burn-out in their organization.

Conversely, when managers had a positive work life, they were more energetic and engaging in how they approached their roles, and this positive mood also impacted their employees. In this case, however, the manager’s positive emotional state lead to both higher engagement levels and overall productivity.

In yet another study, researchers found that within those areas of our brain that deal with emotions, there’s a neurological circuit that’s involved in playfulness and when this circuit is activated, we’re able to discover creative combinations between disparate items.

What this means is that if we go into those meetings or conversations with our employees with a positive emotional state, we’ll actually be able to prime this neurological circuit in their brains which will facilitate their ability to discover novel ideas or solutions.

What these studies reveal is the importance of us having a clearer understanding of our emotional state and how we show up in those daily interactions. That as leaders, we need to recognize the power our emotions have on shaping our employees’ realities [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

With this greater level of mindfulness for our emotional state and how it impacts those we lead, the next thing we need to do to build our emotional competencies is to gain a better understanding for what matters to our employees.

Two years ago, I collaborated on a study with Phillips North America where we looked at workplace engagement and employee attitudes about work. One of the more interesting findings that came out of that study was how over half of the respondents said they’d be willing to take a pay cut so they could do meaningful work.

When asked what differences doing meaningful work would have on their performance, over 90% of the study’s participants said it would motivate them to work harder, that they would care more about their work, that it would reduce their stress levels, and it would make them feel more successful.

What these findings demonstrate is just how important it is for us to understand what matters to our employees so we can create opportunities for them to contribute in a meaningful fashion to our organization. It also reinforces the fact that to be successful in our collective efforts, we have to care about what matters to those we lead [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

We need to have a greater awareness for what would compel our employees to commit their talents, creativity, and insights to our shared purpose. And we need to understand what would encourage them to see the obstacles they face as an opportunity to stretch themselves, something that we can only discover by building emotional competencies in our leadership.

By becoming more mindful of how we show up in those daily interactions, of how much we’re really paying attention to better understand what matters to our employees, we can ensure that we’re not simply working on the things that get our attention, but on creating those opportunities where our employees can do work that matters, not just for our organization, but for our employees as well.

Of course, for us to better connect the work our employees do with what matters to them, we need to nurture relationships at a deep emotional level with those under our care.

Granted, most of us tend to think we have good relationships with the majority of our employees. But in light of the increasing demands and distractions we face in our workday, it’s easy to put relationship-building on the back-burner in favour of dealing with those tasks or responsibilities that garner a greater sense of urgency and importance.

However, as the study by the AMA reveals, workplace stress is becoming a critical obstacle in our workplace not only in terms of improving productivity, but also to our ability to tap into the native talents, experiences, and insights of those under our care.

And for those who might think that their employees are fine with this reduction in their leader’s efforts to nurture relationships with those they lead, consider the findings of a recent Ken Blanchard Company study that found that more than 70% of employees stated that they want to have conversations with their bosses to discuss their future goals and career aspirations. And yet, less than 30% of leaders actually make the time and effort to have these conversations with those they lead.

What’s more, this study also revealed that more than 80% of leaders were criticized by their employees for not listening to them.

Taken together, these findings reveal that today’s employees – regardless of what generation they belong to – are not motivated or driven to excel in their performance by leaders who focus more on the various tasks or processes they have to oversee or are responsible for.

Rather, what drives us to succeed is knowing that what we do matters; that it makes a difference [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter] and creates a sense of value and meaning, both for ourselves and for those who benefit from our collective efforts.

Ultimately, what these numerous studies on emotional intelligence, employee engagement, and improving workplace productivity reveal is that the key to being successful in our leadership roles stems not from our technical knowledge or abilities.

Rather, the key to our success lies in how well we’re able to understand the emotional environment we create in our organization and how much that serves to fuel the collective efforts of those we lead to bring their full selves to the work they do.

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Building Emotional Competencies In Our Leadership
While we’ve become more aware about the importance of emotional intelligence in today’s leadership, the truth is many of us continue to grapple with this issue and in the past few years, it has only become worse thanks to the changing realities of leading in today’s faster-paced, 24/7 work environment.

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