It’s a paradox that the people who have the greatest strategic influence on an organization — senior leaders — often don’t develop the leadership skills that can have the greatest impact on performance. Consider emotional intelligence, or EQ, which has been shown to result in increased sales, better recruiting, more effective leadership and higher customer service. Senior leaders often don’t get frank feedback on their emotions or their behaviors simply because of their seniority.
Fortunately these skills can be practiced and developed, and the latest research on brain function shows that focusing on just a few EQ behaviors can have a significant impact on overall performance. Here are seven ways to boost leadership EQ.
1. Control behavior by understanding emotions. Everyone has emotional triggers — things that result in losing behavioral control — but many people don’t know what they are. Those who learn to recognize and understand these triggers are better prepared to head them off. This is invaluable to understand the situations and emotions that precede losing control. Understanding emotions is crucial to learn how to manage behavior. Simply writing a short description of an emotional situation or doing a mental debrief will help identify a person’s triggers.
2. Mentally rehearse common situations that set off emotional triggers. When people mentally rehearse scenarios, it activates the same neural circuitry that is activated when actually in the scenario. Instead of responding in the way the person did in the past, he or she imagines acting in a more productive way. Developing a mental “movie” of and clearly imagining different behaviors will help prepare people for these situations. It provides a script to follow.
3. Force the brain into action by solving a problem. People can fool their brains. Actively distracting oneself is an effective way to maintain self-control. When a person starts feeling anger or frustration, shifting focus from the other person or situation to a mental problem can help. For example, work out the solution to 14 times 19. This forces the brain to focus on math rather than the stressful situation. The adage of counting to 10 is not effective because it is too easy and therefore does not actively engage the brain. Further, it is not important to solve the problem correctly. The point is to engage the brain region that solves problems, thereby preventing the emotional center of the brain from flooding the bloodstream with adrenalin and other stress hormones that cause emotional reactions.
4. Engage in healthy escapism. If it is too hard to find a mental problem to solve, another form of distraction is to shift attention to a pleasant memory. Sing a song in your mind or think of your favorite place or activity. Similar to solving a problem, this engages the mind and prevents the amygdala from taking control and causing a strong emotional reaction. Think of this as a healthy form of mental escapism.
5. When it comes to email, the “send” button is not your friend. Ask a friend or trusted colleague to review questionable emails before sending. Research shows that as many as one-half of all emails are misinterpreted by the recipient. If something sounds neutral, it might be interpreted as offensive or rude. Consider the message and the recipients. What type of people are they? What are their behavioral styles? How are they likely to interpret the email? Times of anger and frustration are poor times to send any email. Develop a habit to always wait 30 minutes before emailing when feeling emotional.
6. Walk away from tense situations. When in an emotionally heated conversation or situation, say, “I need time to think about this before I respond,” or another appropriate response that allows you to leave the situation. Not everything has to be dealt with immediately, especially if tempers are high. Allow adequate time to pass so everyone can calm down. Respond when you feel more controlled. Remember that in these situations the amygdala is in control of the mind. It takes time to calm down and for the prefrontal cortex to resume control. Leaving the situation is not escapism; it’s a healthy and productive action that results in a better outcome.
7. Make a conscious decision to speak clearly and with decorum in emotionally charged situations. This is an effective strategy to avoid the urge to blow up and lose control. Think of the language to use and make sure it is respectful and calmly delivered. Like all habits, advance practice or rehearsal helps.
Executives don’t need to suppress their emotions to be effective. But they do need to understand their emotions and practice appropriate behaviors. The result is a more emotionally intelligent leader.
Casey Mulqueen is director of research and product development for The TRACOM Group, a social intelligence training and assessment company. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.