Emotional intelligence isn’t just about one-to-one conversations
It can also play a critical role in helping leaders connect with the wider organisation and deliver lasting change, says Axiom founder Chris Carey
The hallmark of effective leaders is their ability to transform an organisation. That takes vision, strategy and powerful ideas, of course. But, as Daniel Goleman and others have shown, it also requires emotional intelligence (EQ) – the ability to understand the emotions of others and channel them in a new direction.
It’s pretty easy to see how this is done on a small scale. In the crucible of one-to-one interactions, emotionally intelligent leaders can tune into the feelings of another, understanding their needs, concerns and values. They then use that insight to guide what they say and do. Most of us who’ve been on the receiving end know how powerful that can be. Early in my career, a leader listened very carefully to my ideas for inspiring a group of 400 managers – a community I’d recently been part of before my move into internal communication. The conversation left me feeling hugely valued. Emotionally intelligent leaders seem to understand what makes us tick, and we come away freshly engaged – and motivated to do more and be more.
But it’s a much bigger challenge to deliver that kind of emotionally intelligent leadership to an organisation of thousands of people, often spanning multiple national borders. Helping executives secure the genuine, felt commitment of large workforces – truly engaging people in what the organisation is trying to achieve – has been my professional raison d’être for 20 years. And one of the big lessons I’ve learned is that most leaders benefit from some practical help in understanding and responding to the feelings and concerns of a diverse employee base.
I’m going to focus on two approaches to involving employees in the process of change communication – approaches that amplify the impact of EQ.
The sounding board
In communicating important strategic messages, it’s vital you first know the hot topics in the business. One way to do this is through a sounding board – a representative group of frontline people who are encouraged to express their views to leaders in a safe and trusting setting. Their input can be vital in helping hone change communication – the messages and the tactics – so it meets the needs of their colleagues. The sounding board is one way to implement the ‘Build a Guiding Coalition’ step in Kotter’s 8 Steps for Leading Change.
Such a group saved my bacon when they told me the top five things staff were actually talking about in the run-up to a major conference. We compared their feedback to the leaders’ top five messages – the overlap was zero. With the help of the sounding board, we found common ground and terrific ways to get messages across, meeting the needs of all.
Done well, a sounding board provides invaluable insight into life in the field or on the shop floor. It gives leaders the intelligence they need to adjust what they say and do – and allows the organisation to shape initiatives and communication that make a real difference.
Truly interactive events
Another great opportunity to facilitate emotionally intelligent leadership on an organisation-wide scale comes with conferences and events. These are often the best way to kick-start major change or engagement campaigns because you can make a big impact with a relatively large group and then cascade that out globally.
But it’s not going to happen if you’re rehashing the same old show-and-tell PowerPoint fest of executive presentations that have participants dozing off by mid-afternoon. Instead, what’s needed is a genuinely interactive forum that exposes leaders to the heartfelt concerns and burning questions out there in the organisation – and gives them a platform to respond in the moment and in a highly visible way.
In our approach to designing and facilitating conferences, we always look for ways to generate this kind of dialogue. At a recent event for the R&D arm of a major pharma, we asked participants to note on Post-Its the barriers to success that kept them awake at night. Live on stage, we put these barriers into categories and voted for the top five. We then formed impromptu work groups, each including a member of the top team, to define the essence of the problem and develop solutions. This triggered some frank and lively debate. Importantly, a common theme emerged: a serious lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities. This was put right and the results communicated throughout the organisation.
In this digital age, we also use the latest audience interaction technology to facilitate dialogue. In partnership with Crystal Interactive, we get participants to use iPads to voice their concerns and questions, as well as identify and prioritise potential solutions.
The data generated can form the basis of some powerful engagement between leaders and participants. Such openness can create a bumpy ride for leaders, but the emotionally intelligent ones are comfortable in this edgy environment and relish the opportunity to understand – and then be understood.
In a recent event we ran for a client in the Middle East, the chief executive dropped his normally unflappable and reserved demeanour after hearing the candid views of his colleagues through an open forum. He got very passionate about what the organisation had achieved and the direction it needed to go; and asserted some home truths about the perils of the status quo. What he said was very challenging to some of those present, but even so was welcomed as honest and heartfelt.
I saw his response as highly emotionally intelligent; discovering the reluctance and caution among his colleagues prompted a heated – and effective – response. For me, EQ does not mean skirting difficult issues or treating people with kid gloves for fear of hurting their feelings. It can mean being robust and direct – even if that does take others out of their comfort zone.
Helping leaders engage with EQ
Sounding boards and interactive events are just two ways of helping leaders tap the often hidden thoughts and feelings of others and of facilitating the emotionally intelligent leadership so crucial to engaging employees in implementing change. There are, of course, other ways, too. Whatever approach you take, the principle is the same: Help leaders to attune to the real-life problems and concerns of employees and to address them in an honest and credible way.
A version of this post by Chris Carey first appeared in The e.MILE People Development Magazine