How I (Finally) Learned to Be More Emotionally Intelligent as a Boss

I’m the first to admit that I’m not always the easiest person to get along with. I can be abrasive. I frequently interrupt and occasionally instigate. I’m often impatient, and bad at reading the room. In my salad days, it was much worse. (Don’t believe me? I quit my last corporate job by telling my boss to “go f*ck himself.”)

Popular wisdom used to be that incidents like the above were nothing to worry about. Some of society’s most famous leaders were notorious assholes, after all. Take Steve Jobs, whose innovative and strategic genius is often conflatedwith his reputation for tearing employees (not to mention family members) to emotional pieces.

But the tide is turning. The world is waking up to something I’ve always known to be true, if only because, at times, it has made me profoundly uneasy: Emotional intelligence is the cornerstone of true leadership. There’s a fine line between positive leadership qualities like decisiveness, passion, and unswerving vision and being abusive or hurtful to others. Emotional IQ is needed to tell the difference.

Over the years, I’ve consciously worked to get better at recognizing and managing my own shortcomings in this department. These strategies have helped me create an emotionally intelligent workplace despite not being a naturally emotionally intelligent person.

Know that you can’t fix what you can’t see.

I’ve found that too few leaders take the time to truly take stock of what they do -- and don’t -- bring to the table.

Personality tests are often dismissed as pointless or airy-fairy. But the reality is we all have blind spots, and self-knowledge can be both eye-opening and empowering. The most popular test is the Myers-Briggs, which categorizes people into 16 personality types and is used by huge corporations including General Motors and McKinsey. Personally, I’m a fan of the StrengthsFinder assessment, which quantifies skillsets into 34 distinct talent patterns.

At Ronin8, all employees (leadership included) fill out an online questionnaire to determine the areas in which they naturally excel. According to StrengthsFinder, I’m good at taking action, making decisions, and seizing command, and not so great at empathizing with others and creating harmony. While this information certainly didn’t come as a shock, seeing it all laid out—quantified and “objectified”— was sobering. Ignoring my weaknesses was no longer an option.

Create your own language.

At my company, we keep a public spreadsheet that lists everyone’s top and bottom five talent patterns. By publicly codifying our strengths and weaknesses, we’ve created a rich, common language that we then use to set expectations and manage conflict. For me, it’s a kind of proxy for emotional IQ, helping me understand what drives the people around me. For others, it’s a map to navigate (and counter) my own anti-social tendencies.  

For example, my second-highest strength is “command,” which involves making leadership decisions without fear of confrontation. For a leader, command is obviously an important quality. But when left unchecked, it can result in dictator-like behavior. Or, to put it more bluntly: In our office, command is affectionately known as the asshole gene. When I’m being particularly authoritative or brusque, someone will call out, “Your command is getting out of hand!” Because the comment is part of a shared language, it reads like constructive criticism rather than an insult. It’s a reminder that I want a collaborative workplace and starts with me as a role model.

Compensate by communicating.

I’m not someone who easily picks up on the emotions of those around me. And when I start a task, it's all I think about. These two traits mean I can come across as overly forceful and unconcerned about other people's opinions. Co-workers have described me as a category 5 hurricane.

And yet I want pushback, particularly when my ideas are misguided (which they often are.) To avoid steamrolling other people, I encourage employees to “hit me on the head with a 2x4.” (Subtle cues -- even not-so-subtle cues -- rarely register.) I respond best to brutal honesty, and I deal it back in kind.

Over the years, I’ve learned to be upfront with new employees about this, rather than let them figure it out on the fly. Other CEOs go so far as to give out one-pagers to new staff on their personality quirks and expectations. Ultimately, I’ve found that transparency about expectations can preempt a lot of drama and bruised egos.

Surround yourself with emotionally intuitive people.

Mark Zuckerberg isn’t known for his emotional intelligence. And yet he managed to transform Facebook from a dorm room startup to a Fortune 100 company in less than two decades. How? A good part of Facebook’s recent success can be attributed to its chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, who scores very high on the emotional intelligence scale.

Similarly, I’ve compensated for my own lack of emotional intelligence by consciously bringing on emotional savants. Our global brand ambassador, Bob Molle, is an ex-Olympian and professional football captain: a natural genius at reading people, not just on an individual level but also how they will fit in with the team.

He supplies the social IQ I lack, and he also lets me better leverage the emotional skills I do have. While I’m not great at reading emotions in a group setting, I am able to form deep connections with people on an individual basis. Bob lets me know when someone is feeling overlooked or neglected (something I’d rarely pick up on my own), so I can seek them out for a one-on-one discussion.

Even with the strategies I’ve outlined above, I’m never going to be a naturally patient, understanding or emotionally perceptive leader. But that doesn’t mean I’m destined to be an authoritative asshole, either. I think this is a critical distinction. Ultimately not having emotional intelligence as a leader doesn’t mean you don’t have emotions. To me, this is the cornerstone of all great companies. Despite what the Church of Steve Jobs would have you believe, it’s incredibly difficult to be an effective leader without genuinely caring about the people around you.

This post was originally featured in Fast CompanyStay up to date with my latest articles by clicking the "Follow" button above. Or follow me on Twitter or Facebook.

Article Written by Peter Holgate
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