Do your leaders have the emotional intelligence needed to retain your top talent?

18 August 2023

It’s hard to forget a good manager. It’s even harder to forget a bad one. As the saying goes, “People quit bosses, not jobs”. Chances are, the leaders who leave a bad taste in our mouths were not bad people. They might have even been great at their jobs. But they likely lacked the emotional intelligence needed to connect with, engage and inspire their people.

Developing strong emotional intelligence (EQ) is one of the most important leadership skills for the modern workplace. Here’s why.

Managers matter to emotional wellbeing

The average person spends 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime. That’s roughly 10.2 years of our lives. So it’s understandable that we come to rely on the people we work with for more than just career-related support.

One study of 3,400 people across 10 countries found that managers have a major impact on employees’ emotional and mental wellbeing – 70% of respondents said their manager has more impact on their mental health than their doctor or therapist.

EQ is a key differentiator between a ‘manager’ who simply oversees a team and a ‘leader’ who can positively influence wellbeing, drive engagement, and inspire their team to do great things.

What is emotional intelligence (EQ)?

EQ refers to how well you recognise, respond to, and adapt to your own emotions and the emotions of others. Our level of EQ affects how we manage behaviour, navigate complex social situations, and make decisions that achieve positive results.

Psychologist and author Daniel Goleman popularised the concept of EQ in his 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence, which has sold more than 5 million copies worldwide.

He separates EQ into four components. These are then divided into whether they relate to ourselves or others and what we must ‘know’ and how we ‘act’.

1.Self-Awareness

Includes:

  • Awareness of your emotions including thoughts and physical sensations
  • Allowing emotions to be present and labelling emotions
  • Recognising how your behaviour impacts others
  • Paying attention to how others influence your emotional state

2. Self-Management

Includes:

  • Keeping disruptive emotions and impulses in check: acting in alignment with your values, handling change flexibly, pursuing goals and opportunities despite setbacks
  • Choosing how to respond to emotions: thinking before acting, separation of emotion from logic

3. Social Awareness

Includes:

  • Picking up on the mood in the room
  • Caring what others are going through by cultivating empathy
  • Hearing what the other person is really saying
  • Inferring emotions from verbal and non-verbal signs (e.g. body-language, facial expressions, etc.)

4. Relationship Management

This is a culmination of elements 1-3 and includes:

  • Using positive emotions to enhance performance and manage difficult circumstances
  • Using emotions to influence the social environment
  • Getting along with others
  • Being courageous enough to have difficult conversations instead of avoiding conflict
  • Clearly expressing ideas and information
  • Managing interactions sensitively by using empathy

Benefits of building EQ

Organisations with leaders who have higher EQ see better:

  • Retention: Workplace experience (which includes support from leaders and co-workers) was ranked #3 in PwC’s What Workers Want survey. Those leaders who are able to connect with and inspire their employees through emotional connection find it easier to retain talent.
  • Engagement: As the divide between work and home becomes more blurred than ever, we’re seeing a shift to bringing your whole self to work. Creating an environment of acceptance, belonging and psychological safety is crucial to engaging today’s employees.
  • Job performance and satisfaction: Leaders with higher emotional intelligence are found to have higher job satisfaction and better organisational commitment.

Despite these clear benefits, workplace empathy seems to be declining. According to the 2022 State of Empathy report, 69% of employees say their organisations are empathetic, down from 72% in 2021.

Our leaders are not trained for emotional agility

Many leaders in our organisations today were promoted for their technical expertise and sharp business skills. Few are formally trained in managing people, and even fewer had emotionally intelligent role models to aspire to.

The notion of “bringing your whole self to work” is a relatively new concept for leaders, many of whom were told by their own bosses to leave their home life at the door and that displaying emotions in the workplace was a sign of weakness.

More often than not, we don’t become aware of our lacking EQ until something brings it to the forefront: an awkward interaction with a teammate, an unexpected reaction to something we said, or exit interview feedback that shows a pattern of behaviour that points to a certain person with low EQ.

The good news is, once we’ve recognised the need for stronger EQ, there are things we can do.

Flexing your EQ muscle

Unlike your IQ, your EQ is not set in stone. Like any skill it can be developed but, just like building muscle at the gym, you have to work at it.

Build awareness of yourself: Your ability to self-reflect is crucial. Daniel Goleman calls this the ‘keystone’ of emotional intelligence.

  • Identify and name your emotions
  • Understand your motivations, fears, limitations and strengths
  • Reflect on how you manage your own emotions

Be proactive: Build emotional connections with teammates early on.

  • If you suspect someone has an issue, start a conversation earlier than you think you need to. This will not only help with building a strong connection, but it can also avoid the situation from getting worse (and people leaving the organisation).
  • Understand and respond to the needs of others. This includes listening (actually listening, not preparing your response or thinking about what’s for dinner!). Sometimes the things that aren’t said speak louder than anything so be attuned to non-verbal cues as well.

Be open to the idea of changing: Adaptability and flexibility are key.

  • Take information from performance reviews, 360 degree feedback processes, stay surveys and exit interviews and self-reflect in order to improve your EQ.
  • If you’re an HR manager and you see a pattern emerging from this data, start a conversation with the person involved to bring it to their attention and make a plan for strengthening their EQ.

EQ in the age of AI

Amid the AI revolution we find ourselves in, emotional intelligence is becoming one of the fundamental human skills we can build to differentiate ourselves from the machines.

Emotional intelligence separates good performers in the workplace from great ones. While IQ might help you land the ideal position, it’s your EQ that will sustain it. After all, a brilliant brain is rather useless if we don’t know how to read our own emotions and lack the social awareness to connect with others to get the results we want.

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