Leadership Emotional Effectiveness: The Starting Gate

As businesses are stressed to compete in a sea of financial and innovation ambiguity, the need for leaders to provide a sense of stability and workability, though seemingly counter intuitive, is essential for a healthy and productive workforce. Recent studies of neuroscience and tried and true common sense have proven that everyone works best in an environment of high trust. Social and emotional effectiveness are the cornerstones of a foundation of trust.

I work with the EQi Emotional Intelligence Assessment which characterizes emotional effectiveness through the following scales and subscales:

As you can see, they range from what might be considered pragmatic factors like Decision Making and Problems solving, to less tangible factors including Empathy, and Emotional Self-Awareness. In actuality all of these characteristics (skills!) are extremely practical and powerful when put to conscious use. The most successful leaders don’t just use them, they live by them.

Without getting into a full explanation of the instrument and its use, I’ll cut to the chase. Emotional and social effectiveness start with your Self-Perception. And the crucial element of self-perception is Emotional Self-Awareness. In order to be effective, leaders (and all of us are leaders) need to be aware of the feelings that drive our behaviors. Before we can begin to be aware of how our behaviors affect others, we have to understand our own internal workings.

Psychologists use a term for the result of strong Emotional Self-Awareness: Theory of Mind. It means that when we have a clear and compassionate understanding of how we feel and how those feelings drive our behavior, we gain the skill to have a clear and compassionate understanding of what motivates others. We become more naturally aware of how others are feeling; in relation to themselves, their work, a given situation or relationship. We can “imagine” where they’re coming from and more easily “stand in their shoes.” Empathetic emotional self-awareness builds empathy for others.

In the realm of building emotional effectiveness (using the language and statistical findings of EQi), Empathy is the key factor in balancing other factors (EQi subscales) and enabling high emotional and leadership effectiveness.

Empathy is a simple and amazing skill. It provides the basis of that sense of stability and workability – trust – that is so needed in our current work environments. It’s the antidote to ambiguity; the essence that allows us to navigate fast and incessant change and stand with courage to consistently face the unknown. In spite of all of our amazing technology, people are behind business results, and success and innovation emerge from the primordial soup of healthy interpersonal exchange.

Empathy is not ‘hand-holding,’ ‘touchy-feely,’ or any form of emotional indulgence. It does encompass respect, giving-a-damn, willingness to communicate authentically, and a commitment to seeing people and situations as “workable” until they’re not and then releasing them with grace.

A contact recently told me a story about when he accepted a job in a “tough” environment. The organization maintained a strong hierarchy in which employees were generally not extended the courtesy of authentic, open communication. When interviewing his new manager, he asked a common question – “How do you like to work with people.” The manager furrowed his brow and responded – “We’re all adults.” The sentiment of “We’re all adults,” though old-school and familiar constructs an insurmountable battlement to the tone of communication that gets work done, enables viable relationship, and denotes mutual respect. My contact did excellent work for a year, and finally left the organization (with grace) exhausted from the cultural lack of stability and workability that initial comment had denoted. The organization lost a committed and creative professional. It’s interesting to imagine the emotion that drives “We’re all adults…”

Working with emotional self-awareness is best done with “mindfulness.” Mindfulness may be a misnomer because the definition of mind (according to neuroscientist Daniel J. Siegel) includes awareness that encompasses the brain, the nervous system, the body, and relationships. Daniel Rock (Your Brain at Work) terms mindfulness, “Direct Experience.”

Neuroscience studies have proven that simple mindfulness meditation – sitting for ten minutes focusing on your breathing, noticing when your thought distract you from focus and your breathing and choosing to return to focus on the breath – increases the intentional power of the brain by using focus, while also increasing awareness of internal and external direct experience. This can also increase Emotional Self-Awareness, and thereby Empathy.

Here’s another quick and effective process- It can be good to use when you are clearly aware of nervousness, fear, irritation, etc. Feelings we may have daily in at the top of meetings or when presenting.

  1. Notice you’re having a feeling and label it. “I feel frustrated!” Labeling brings in the Left Pre-Frontal Cortex of the brain (rational brain) and helps dampen the Limbic brain (Emotional brain).

  2. Have an attitude of accepting the feeling. We have a tendency to punish ourselves for having many of the feelings we have – which is why we so often choose to ignore them.

  3. Notice where you feel the “frustration” in your body. This also incorporates the Right Pre-frontal Cortex and distracts your from your story about the feeling. Noticing bodily sensation puts more space between you and the feeling and relieves the limitations it may give you.

  4. Breathe into that area of your body and as you release the breath have a sense of letting the feeling go.

  5. Increase “direct experience” – in other words get your focus off yourself – notice the faces of others in the room, notice the temperature of the air, the texture of the table, or the spaciousness of the room (right pre-frontal cortex again, and you’re using the left pre-frontal cortex every time you choose your focus.)

  6. Smile and stay present. – “Rinse and repeat.” Use often through-out your day!

Putting Empathy to practical, conscious use is an expression of leadership and emotional effectiveness, and will help create an environment (and culture) of positive attunement and productivity. It’s the simple things that count. Things you know but tend to slough-off as insignificant. I often reference a resonant scene from Erin Brockovitch in which she tells her attorney boss to “Have the #*@$%&+ cup of coffee….” Take the time to connect, listen and see things from another’s perspective:

  • Try doing an appreciation audit. How often do you walk around your area and casually check-in with employees and offer appreciation for what they do. Treat them like human beings and explore their interests? It only takes a few minutes. Keep a record. Make notes of what you learn. Watch productivity improve.
  • Be aware of writing people off. Once you’ve designated an employee a “lame duck” in your mind, they’ll perform like one. Commit to seeing the situation as “workable.” It will focus you on how to respect the individual and give them a motivating sense of relationship and stability.
  • Listen. No, really. Listen. As you listen imagine how that person feels and notice physical cues that reveal their feelings. You’ll come to know them better, and they’ll develop more of a sense of stability in your relationship and in their job.
  • Consider thinking the phrase “Just like me” when you think of your employees and especially when you’re criticizing them or writing them off. To get where you’ve gotten you’ve surely felt what they may be feeling. This approach keeps things “workable.”

It’s important to realize that exercises that increase emotional effectiveness are not “techniques.” They’re practices. That means we have to practice them in order for them to work. Genuineness is essential to working with any practice of emotional effectiveness. The point is to create a deep change, not simply get a utilitarian result.

Organizations are deeply defined by the behaviors of their leaders. Neuroscience teaches us about the powerful the effect of “mirror-neurons.” Human beings are wired throughout brain and body to respond to and mimic the behaviors they see in others, and we pay particular attention to our leaders. When leaders and organizations take on the challenge of creating a culture of emotional effectiveness, they embrace the possibility of a producing sea change, and sending out waves of increased capability and assurance to traverse the riptides of change ambiguity.

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