The executive in this article’s title is me. Former executive I should say. I spent 20 years in charge of various departments, programs, work teams and budgets. For most of that time, I believed that part of being an effective leader meant being thick-skinned. Not letting on in the workplace how I was actually feeling, particularly in difficult situations. It also meant that I was not interested in hearing other employees express their emotions. I viewed the act of sharing feelings as counterproductive to getting work done, achieving results and respecting personal boundaries. What I didn’t understand was that workplace leadership that values and encourages the sharing of emotions leads to higher employee trust, performance and results.
I remember a meeting I had with a department manager some time ago, which still affects me today. In one of our weekly supervision meetings, he said he was not happy with my management style and that he needed something more from me. He was having a hard time describing what that thing was exactly and the more he spoke, the more confused we both became. And then he just blurted out, “I need you to give me more of that chick thing.” I thought, wow, okay, what does that mean? In his own inelegant way, he was asking me to bring more feminine qualities to our relationship, namely more awareness, sensitivity and understanding to how he was feeling in his job. He wanted me to be more empathetic with him.
In all honesty, that conversation did not change my leadership style. I continued to approach this particular relationship with my thick-skinned mentality. I didn’t see how bringing what is now called “emotional intelligence” to the relationship would add anything of value. My focus was on a simple question: Are you getting the job done or not? We didn’t speak again about the issue, which was unfortunate. Doing so might have saved me some headaches down the road. I definitely experienced that manager as growing more distant after our conversation.
Much later in my career, I learned, through more hard lessons, that emotional intelligence is an essential skill for an effective leader. In short, emotions heavily influence our behavior, thoughts, decisions, actions and motivations. To ignore our own and our employees’ emotions is to ignore essential information that daily affects job performance and satisfaction.
Reflecting back on my previous executive experiences, I’ve come to appreciate that without emotional intelligence, leaders are challenged to form healthy and productive relationships with employees. Without these relationships, employees and organizations will function, even grow, but chances are they will not soar.
Just recently I spoke with a client/executive about a problem she was having with one of her managers. She had sent the manager an email asking him to look into complaints she was receiving about his department. The executive and manager had a conversation about the situation but it didn’t go well. She said the manager had very little to say about the email and only said he would look into the complaints. The executive, however, could tell that the manager was angry but she let it go. That was a mistake. She said that since the conversation, things were a little “chilly” between her and the manager. I asked the executive to follow up with the manager and specifically explore his feelings about the email, criticisms and their conversation. She did and heard how much anger and resentment the manager felt about the email and how the executive handled the entire situation.
The executive was able to listen to the manager’s feelings without judgment. In doing so, she was able to ease the tension and understand how she could have communicated more effectively with the manager.
Occasionally leaders have to be thick-skinned to handle particularly difficult problems. But based on my experience, I advise leaders not to make a career of it.