Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Can Emotionally Intelligent Leadership Be Learned?

The words "emotional" and "leader" together in the same breath could conjur up some pretty negative images, mostly because the word emotional is often used to describe someone overly emotional, and at least slightly out of control. The truth is that we all possess a range of emotions and knowing how these feel, what some of our triggers are for some of the less desirable ones, and being able to show appropriate emotion are all the attributes required of great leaders. This blog explores whether Emotional Intelligence (EI) can be learned or is it more an inate skill? Also, what sort of qualifications should we look for when wanting to hire a professional to assist in developing our EI?

Working With Emotional Intelligence
Daniel Goleman Ph.D, visiting Harvard lecturer, author, pyschologist and science journalist, has written extensively on the subject of EI starting in 1995 with his book, aptly entitled "Emotional Intelligence". He argues that emotional maturity is a more important factor than IQ for determining workplace success, ("Working with Emotional Intelligence", 1998). Goleman draws heavily on the landmark work of Salovey and Meyer, psychologists who previously defined EI as: “the ability to monitor one’s own and other’s emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use the information to guide one’s thinking and actions” (1990, p.189). Goleman is one in a long line of thinkers and writers who have proposed that we must first be able to empathise with others in order to help them and lead them. As early as around 300BC , Sun T'zu (if he existed) wrote in "The Art of War" that victory starts with empathy.

Inate EI?
Goleman's most recent best-seller is "Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships" (2006). Goleman explores a person's individual attachment style, shaped as an infant, this having a critical impact on EI abilities in adulthood. Attachment styles are due in part to individual temperament and also largely shaped by social and parental influences in infancy and early childhood. "Our childhood leaves its stamp on our adult ardor nowhere more clearly than in our "attachment system" ... As we have seen, children who are well nurtured and feel their caretakers empathize with them become secure in their attachments, neither overly clingy nor pushing away. But those whose parents neglect their feelings and who feel ignored become avoidant, as though they have given up hope of achieving a caring connection. And children whose parents are ambivalent, unpredictably flipping from rage to tenderness, become anxious and insecure." So these attachment styles of anxious, secure and avoidant usually follow us into adulthood and impact upon our ability to be emotionally intelligent. The "secure" attachment style (centered and grounded) is the more effective of the three when it comes to EI. The two extremes of clinginess (anxious) and aloofness (avoidant), are large hurdles for some to overcome and in extreme cases, will likely not be overcome. The secure attachment style allows enjoyment of both intimacy and solitude. The anxious person as an adult might continue to be overly dependent upon others, try too hard to please others and not cope well alone; or even overcompensate by showing traits of arrogance and narcissism; while the avoidant person is unable to fully experience intimacy; has difficulty with empathy; does not allow others to get close; is probably much more of a loner; and does not demonstrate high levels of emotion, even where warranted. The secure person embraces both intimacy and solitude because he/she has little investment in self-protection or mistrust. Authentic emotional expression is fundamentally important to being a good leader; without the mixed messages that come from someone overly people-pleasing or emotionally redundant. In other words, when those around us see us over or under-reacting emotionally, they do not feel the same level of trust in our abilities to lead, and probably rightly so. It is clear then that those with an inate secure foundation, are more equipped for EI than others.

Security and Social Awareness
"Social awareness" is a key skill of the emotionally intelligent and encompasses abilities such as being a good judge of people, having developed an emotional literacy, generally holding a positive regard towards others and possessing a healthy "trust radius". These are fairly esoteric criteria and also internally determined to each and every one of us. Clearly if someone is preoccupied with protecting himself from the evil intentions of others then he will not be predisposed to being highly socially aware. The same applies to someone with a strong dependency upon others for self-worth. "For leadership positions, emotional intelligence abilities account for up to 85% of what sets outstanding managers apart from the average” – Daniel Goleman, Working with Emotional Intelligence (1998).

EI Assessments and Development
It is with this in mind that various EI assessment tools have been developed in order to determine the areas of improvement for our leaders; given very few people in the world are perfectly secure! These tools are available for pretty much anyone to administer, once undergoing a few days of EI training, usually under the broad label of "coaching". Of much more importance than administering the test and getting the EI result however is what can be done once the tests have been administered. Is this an area that will respond well to some training, coaching or is something altogether deeper and more psychotherapeutic needed?

Craig (identity changed) is a high ranking director working in an extremely dynamic and competitive industry in the city of London. Craig approached me on Harley St to work with him privately to achieve improved EI. He was finding that all his appraisals were coming back with the same feedback - Craig delivers extremely well on his deadlines and organisational objectives but his soft skills are below average. He is liked by his superiors but not by many of his subordinates. The area that most people would like Craig to improve on is being less arrogant and more empathic. During our first session together, Craig admitted that he found this feedback overwhelming. This is usually the case when feedback is about something that is fundamental to the person. How could he possibly adjust these habits of a lifetime, particularly when most of his reactions were unconscious, automatic and seemed to get the job done? This is a valid concern and if left unaddressed, the individual is caught between wanting to deliver against objectives and wanting to please others, resulting in neither being done, with stress mounting for the person in question. Craig needed safe ways to test letting go of some of his more competitive traits in order to rehearse more empathic ones, and so a plan was put in place for him to begin to gather new evidence to support new ways of behaving. Upon deeper exploration with Craig, we also uncovered that Craig was "predisposed" to being competitive, having been encouraged to do so from a very early age, beginning with competing to be heard in an extremely noisy household! Under the bold exterior, Craig also experienced high levels of anxiety and insecurity about himself in relation to others. He could attribute this to various factors such as growing up feeling like a square peg in a round hole at school, with parents who were themselves frequently shouting and stressed, and generally not receiving sufficient attention other than when achieving remarkable results.

In examining Craig's main complaint against him, that of being too arrogant, an underlying fear of incompetence emerged. This fear was something that drove Craig to excellence in almost everything he did. Again, this was one of the reasons that Craig had been promoted so quickly and was viewed as a bright, young star. He agreed that this was a main "pro" to him holding on to this fear. It was important however that we unearthed the "cons" of this fear and in doing so, it brought to light the fact that Craig's personal relationships as well as those with subordinates who relied upon Craig for guidance and knowledge generally suffered. He admitted to being more intent on achieving than listening, on teaching others how to do things his way rather than attempting to understand others' points of view (frequently putting other people's backs up!) as well as not being sufficiently tolerant with those less experienced than he. At worst, when Craig's fear of incompetence was fully activated, Craig found it extremely difficult to control his temper and unsurprisingly this really worked against him, both at home and at work. Craig and I worked on modifying his existing beliefs about what he needed to do to be truly successful, and not just in work. In order for these to become automatic, he needed to rehearse them in session, role-playing situations in order to then go out and practice them, and to receive fair and helpful feedback from those around him who support him. His underlying feelings of anxiety and insecurity reduced through balancing his views of what would make him a great boss as well as a husband and father; and importantly, practicing a set of relaxation and stress management techniques helped address when he was likely vulnerable to triggers. In working with hypnotherapy Craig modified his mental image - to that of someone more mature and empathic rather than arrogant and anxious, strengthening the links between positive outcomes and the traits of EI being rehearsed.

Having used these tools and worked with some fairly high-profile individuals with these sort of challenges, my opinion is that it is not an area that one should be expecting a coach with fairly limited psychological training to assist with, as areas such as the client's learned expectations about him/herself in relation to others; his/her abilities to trust others; and automatic, learned responses, particularly when under stress, need to be adapted. This requires a coach with a breadth of training and experience in psychotherapeutic methods as well as simply holding a coaching certificate and EI assessment certification. Exploring someone's inner world, their belief system and also modifying behaviours - perhaps overly passive or overly aggressive - which have in fact served the individual very well, are not changes to be attempted lightly nor can they be worked on superficially.

What Are The Qualifications Needed to Coach EI?
Modifying the areas of a person relating to their self-worth, attachment style and ability to trust and then rebuilding them in a way that does not threaten the individual's hard won successes; will not likely be achieved in just a few sessions, nor with a coach trained in applying goal theory (the standard coaching cetification which teaches coaches to hold the view that one must identify the goals and coach a client in accordance with them, in order to motivate the client to learn new skills) and a bit of NLP (neurolinguistic programming, a poorly validated and misused collection of behavioural techniques that make some quite extravagant claims to deliver swift behavioural modification). EI is a term to cover a variety of skills deriving from very fundamental beliefs that we hold about ourselves and the world as we have learned it to be, from our earliest moments onwards: it is not just about developing emotional self-control, nor in learning more about the skills of motivating and managing others. For a highly successful leader wishing to further develop their EI skills, psychotherapeutic experience in the EI Coach is essential, in my opinion. The case study of Craig sounds pretty straightforward but it is precisely the steps highlighted there that are the most problematic for a coach with insufficient training and experience: what are the predisposing factors to the problems being demonstrated - and how entrenched are they?; how can risk be managed in adapting some of the maladaptive behaviours that have served the individual very well, in the organisation that they operate?; what is a realistic improvement for this individual?; and even more importantly, how can tolerance to trial and error learning be improved, usually in someone used to learning new things and getting results extremely quickly? The skills required of a coach with this calibre of leader are complex, psychotherapeutic but also requiring strong organisational experience, particularly in appreciating the influence of the organisation and group on the individual. My advise to any leader seeking EI coaching is to avoid coaches who do not have an organisational development background coupled with formal training and experience in psychotherapy. Specifically find a coach trained in administering EI assessments and also Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), the most effective therapy for linking behaviour with emotional development. Without this blend of experience in handling the organisational influences as well as changing the individual ones, coaching could be highly damaging to a leader's chances of survival and improvement, particularly in the complicated environment that he or she likely exists.

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