Emotional Intelligence for managers

Is it fair to say that we’d all like to think we score quite high on the emotional intelligence scale?! But the truth is, when it comes down to it, there will always be times where our emotions get the better of us. And the risk of this happening while you’re in the throws of starting out in your new management role increases significantly, as you’re trying to balance new responsibilities with increased workload and the requirement to develop new skills. 

Here we’ll look at what Emotional Intelligence (EI) is, how it can help you in your new role and most importantly, how you can increase your levels of EI.

What is Emotional Intelligence?

Goleman and Boyatzis define Emotional Intelligence as the ability to recognise and understand emotions in yourself and others, and your ability to use this awareness to manage your behaviour and relationships.

Four components make up EI:

  1. Self awareness; knowing what we’re feeling and why we’re feeling it
  2. Self management; being able to handle distressing emotions in effective ways
  3. Empathy; knowing what someone else is feeling
  4. Relationship management; being able to induce desirable responses in others
Components of emotional intelligence

The concept and importance of EI in business began picking up traction in 1995 when Daniel Goleman published his bestselling book on the topic. In the book he shares his findings that beyond a certain point, there is little or no correlation between IQ and high levels of professional success; it is in fact EI which becomes the differentiator. You can start to see why business leaders started to sit up and take notice…

The good news is that we can increase our levels of EI over time but it requires high levels of commitment and a motivation to want to do so. In essence, our responses to situations are almost like over rehearsed practices, so much so that they almost become automatic. For example, if you really dislike being late, you may automatically feel yourself getting stressed when you’re running late – or similarly, it may frustrate you when others often arrive late to meetings. The reason that developing EI requires commitment and motivation is that we have to work hard to unlearn these automatic responses that we have developed over a long period of time. But it is possible; just remember, with awareness comes choice!

Often, there are things we need to unlearn before we can learn

Setting the foundation with self awareness

Increasing levels of self awareness is an absolutely crucial component of EI; so much so that I would argue that it underpins the other three areas which is why this is always the first area I work with my managers on.

Without being aware of your own thoughts, beliefs and behaviours, it’s almost impossible to know how to handle distressing emotions or to empathise and gain a true understanding of others; which in turn reduces our ability to build trust and respect with our team. Self awareness opens us up to being able to approach people and situations without any prior judgement or limiting beliefs. 

To increase levels of self awareness, it can be useful to have a basic understanding of how the brain works when it comes to rational thinking vs emotions. Our ‘thinking brain’ is called the Neocortex; this is where our IQ and working memory sit. The amygdala (part of the limbic system) is the centre of our emotions and feelings. These two parts of our brain are constantly fighting for control, whether we’re aware of it or not. 

The challenge comes when something triggers us and causes an Amygdala hijack. Because the amygdala kicks in far quicker than the neocortex, our emotions suddenly take control and we can lose our flexibility and moral reasoning. The slightest provocation can reduce our ability to apply reason and logic by 75%! Think about the last time you were feeling under pressure and you snapped at someone, only to feel guilty about it 5 minutes later. This is the effect of our emotions overriding our thoughts. 

Neocortex and limbic system

The reason I am telling you this is that by being aware of what is happening in the brain can help us to become better at regulating our emotions. It allows us to understand our emotions and then use that information to guide our next step, rather than letting our emotions dictate a reaction.

Make a list of all of the triggers you can think of that tend to cause an emotional reaction in you (if you get stuck, think about the last time you experienced high stress or a negative emotion and try to pinpoint what the trigger was). Think about your reaction and the impact it had on you, or another person. 

Now, we’ll have a look at ways in which to redress the balance quickly and thus develop your effectiveness in your role as a manager.

Strategies for regulating emotions

Before we can use a strategy to regulate emotions, we first have to notice what’s happening; awareness is the crucial first step in emotion regulation. Noticing the emotion you are feeling or the reaction you are having and then developing the skill of being able to choose your response is what this is all about. 

This takes proactivity and there are three key parts to this process:

  1. Observe; you observe how you tend to react in a given situation
  2. Decide; you decide that this is not the way you want to behave
  3. Change; you proactively change what you do in order to get a more desired result. 

"With awareness comes choice"

- Eckhart Tolle

The practice of mindfulness can be a very effective way to help regulate emotions by bringing non-judgemental awareness to the present moment. By practicing mindful techniques, we are more likely to recognise and accept when our emotions take over and rather than act on them, simply let them pass and allow our rational brain to ‘catch up’. Apps like Headspace, Calm and Balance are great tools to support this practice. 

Another strategy to regulate emotions was coined by Dr. James Gross as ‘Reappraisal’. Because our ego is hardwired to protect us from danger, when we are faced with a situation that triggers a reaction in us, our brains, if left unmanaged, automatically go to the worst possible outcome. This is why, when your organisation announces a restructure, you might automatically worry about redundancy. Or when you receive a calendar invite from your manager for a ‘catch up’, you might start panicking that you have got something wrong. 

"Energy flow where attention goes"

- Tony Robbins

Reappraising a situation is simply a more positive way to think about it. This does not mean to repress your emotions, it simply allows you to find a way, in the moment, to be able to cope so that you can bring your best, ‘thinking’ self to the situation. Dr. Gross explains fours ways in which we can reappraise a situation:

  1. Reinterpreting; finding a way to take the threat out of a situation. In social situations, assume positive intent.
  2. Normalising; acknowledging that it’s okay to feel the way you do, it’s a normal response. 
  3. Reordering; understanding the value you are putting on the situation and adjusting as needed.
  4. Repositioning; looking at the situation from another point of view. In Neuro-Linguistic Programming, we use a technique called Perceptual Positions to help people view situations from different places. This can be hugely effective in helping people to reframe their patterns of thinking around a person, experience or event.

Relating to others

The topic of Emotional Intelligence in the context of management and leadership can’t be complete without considering in more detail the difference between sympathy, empathy and compassion.

At the most basic level, sympathy is having an awareness of another’s feelings and experiences (‘I feel for you’). Empathy takes the feelings and experiences of others and internalises them (‘I understand you’). Compassion takes this another step further so that empathy leads to a desire to take action (‘I want to help you’).

Research in Neuroscience has shown that too much empathy can cause stress and burnout for the empathiser. In comparison, compassion (which produces feelings of concern, warmth and motivation) can lower stress hormones, boost immunity and even reduce your risk of heart disease!

So how do you transform empathy into compassionate action?

Ask, don’t assume: if a member of your team is displaying signs of stress or anxiety, ask them how you can help. Never assume that you know what’s wanted or needed.

Encourage cooperation, not competition: I have been in situations where managers think the best way to motivate their team is to make performance a competition. For some people, this may work. But for many, this simply causes more stress. Cooperation on the other hand helps to cultivate compassion, not only in yourself but also in others around you which leads on to…

Lead by example: if you treat people with compassion, those around you are more likely to act the same way.

Be curious: show a genuine interest in your team members and really listen to what they have to say. Approach every conversation you have with the mindset, ‘what will I learn from you today’.

And a final word of caution, be mindful of boundaries. As managers, it’s easy to fall into the trap of becoming an emotional sponge. This isn’t sustainable and it’s certainly not productive. Don’t be afraid to refer someone to resources or professional help if you feel it is appropriate. Or, if people simply enjoy telling them all your problems, try to move the conversation along to avoid it becoming a habit. 

Want further support in your role as a manager?

Our Intentional Manager Programme, developed for new and aspiring managers, or for those with up to 3 years’ experience is a unique, year long partnership to help maximise potential and deliver effective, lasting performance improvements.

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