By John Hackston, Head of R&D, OPP Ltd

We all know what makes an effective leader in business, don’t we? Leaders are forceful, go-getting, and can be aggressive or abrasive when they need to; they don’t suffer fools gladly, and for them it’s “my way or the highway”, right?

Wrong. In some (but not all) companies, such leaders may prosper as individuals – but to the detriment of the organisation. There is now a great deal of evidence to show that organisations employing managers and leaders who can behave in a collaborative, agreeable way actually perform better – not just in terms of staff morale or public opinion, but also when it comes to the bottom line of financial performance. And the key to unlocking these behaviours in leaders is emotional intelligence.

You’ve probably heard phrases like ‘emotional intelligence’, ‘EQ’ or ‘EI’ before; it’s a concept that has been around for quite a while. Sometimes the definition if EI is stretched so far that it becomes a catch-all term, so wide that it doesn’t mean anything at all. But if we get back to basics, the application of emotional intelligence can be incredibly useful. Simply stated, emotional intelligence is a set of abilities, competencies and traits that enable a person to notice, understand, and constructively act on the information that emotions provide. The effective use of EI can help an individual to better perceive, understand and manage both their emotions and those of other people, enhancing their performance as leaders, managers or simply colleagues.

In practice, I have found that the first step in helping leaders to apply emotional intelligence typically involves building their levels of self-awareness. For some, developing the skills of noticing one’s own feelings can be a valuable insight that allows them to modify unhelpful habits of behaviour; for others it may mean developing different strategies to handle conflict, such as being clearer and more direct in expressing expectations and needs. Beginning with noticing, understanding and constructively applying their own emotions, the leader then has a foundation to notice, understand and effectively work with the emotions of other people. Developing emotional intelligence will allow a leader to be more self-aware, and thereby improve their self-management, and also to be more socially aware, and thereby improve their relationship management.

In our work with clients, we often use a tool called the Emotional Judgement Inventory (EJI). This looks at seven aspects of EI, covering both the intrapersonal and interpersonal areas:

• Being aware of emotions• Identifying our own emotions• Identifying others’ emotions• Managing our own emotions• Managing others’ emotions• Using emotions in problem solving• Expressing emotions adaptively

It’s important to emphasise that EI certainly isn’t just about asking leaders to play nicely; used effectively, emotional intelligence can be a powerful leadership tool. Flatter teams, complex environments, devolved decision making and ambiguous role boundaries all mean that the ability to read others accurately and adapt one’s behaviour appropriately is key to organisational and individual success. Research also shows that emotional intelligence is associated with higher levels of job satisfaction and work performance, better staff retention, and can lead to less biased decisions. For leaders, identifying and developing their own strengths and development areas in relation to emotional intelligence (and exploring those of their team) can lead to real benefits.

We live in an age where everything is connected and information is easily available. The impacts of a leader’s decisions are wider than they ever were before and it is easier, and quicker, to see the results. Not surprisingly, some decisions have been found wanting, and it is often the more overconfident, less emotionally intelligent leader who is at fault; research articles warn of the dangers of ‘hubristic leadership’. None of us are free from the many biases in the way we make decisions, but by increasing self-awareness around emotional judgement, and recognising and managing the emotions of others, leaders are more likely to make good, informed, thought-through decisions.