Emotional Intelligence and leading through uncertainty

Right now, more than ever, we need leaders with emotional intelligence (EI). It’s the seemingly natural ability to empathise with what other people are feeling and use that to communicate, to reassure and to build trust. We all know it when we see it: Rishi Sunak is a good example, along with Jacinda Ardern. (There are plenty of examples of people in public life who display little or no emotional intelligence, but I’ll let you fill in those blanks.)

Lockdown has required an extraordinary response from business leaders. They’ve had to encourage and motivate remote teams of people working at home, help colleagues remain focused and productive away from the office, plus look after their own emotional wellbeing. (We know the advice: put your own oxygen mask on before helping others.) It’s not easy. There’s huge commercial uncertainty and everyone has been working under pressure. But in this environment, those with a more strongly developed emotional intelligence can thrive, and their teams will have felt supported throughout the disruption.

EI (sometimes EQ – Emotional Quotient) is about recognising and managing your own emotions, and those of other people. To put yourself in others’ shoes, see things through their eyes and act with empathy. Daniel Goleman, whose book (1995) introduced emotional intelligence to the mainstream, sums it up as self-awareness and self-regulation. Characteristics of EI include:

> Knowing how to manage your negative emotions

> Being mindful of your vocabulary and tone of voice

> Responding to others with empathy

> Understanding what you find stressful, and how to control that stress

This last point is especially important: knowing how to bounce back from setbacks and disappointment is essential to positive and resilient leadership.

EI on the corporate leadership agenda

Before the pandemic, EI was already moving up the corporate leadership agenda.

There’s clear evidence that links EI to performance. A study by Johnson & Johnson found that the highest performers in the workforce were those that displayed a higher emotional intelligence. Johnson & Johnson subsequently introduced emotional competences into its leadership model.

The rising generation of young people coming into the workforce are not prepared to live with old school ‘command and control’ models of leadership. They value emotional intelligence and will seek it out. If employers want to attract and retain the brightest and best, then they will need to create a workplace culture that nurtures emotional intelligence and appoint leaders who model it.

Looking ahead, Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England, has said we could see a future world of work in which “EQ rivals IQ for skill supremacy” as AI and robotics eliminate many traditional professional jobs.

What’s your EQ?

Often, when clients talk to us about finding a candidate who will be a ‘cultural fit’, further questioning reveals they are really looking for an emotionally intelligent individual.  But how do you identify EI? There’s no formal test, like the IQ test for intellectual capability and potential. But you can undergo EI evaluations, which will grade your emotional strengths and indicate areas for improvement. This is something that we have all been through at Eton Bridge Partners and found helpful. Like any skill, emotional intelligence can be learned, and refined. (If you need a crash course, the Brookings Institute has a quick primer on how to create “a level of respect and calm for yourself and others”.)

When we evaluate candidates there are some useful lines of inquiry that will help us judge an individual’s EI. We might ask them to describe their leadership style. Or, how do they develop and promote people in their team? Soft references are valuable: we speak to people whom a candidate has worked with in the past. How did they feel when he/she left? What was day to day morale like in their team?

I think it’s fair to say that the finance sector (my specialism) has not traditionally prized emotional intelligence as much as hard numbers, but that is changing. The contemporary, collegiate boardroom increasingly wants a Chief Financial Officer who can influence, can collaborate across the business and get the best from a team that may well be dispersed in time and place.

Building on a shared experience

COVID-19 has made us look more closely at the way we organise society and accelerated the debates around diversity and inclusion. What’s more, #WFH has given us wider insight into our colleagues’ personal lives: the kind of home they live in, their family situation: we’ve all had an opportunity to become more emotionally attuned to each other. As business picks up the threads again, emotionally intelligent leaders will build on this shared experience to successfully carry their people and their company forward.

Baldeep Bains-Toor

Associate Partner
Executive Search
CFO & Finance


Baldeep is a Associate Partner in the CFO & Finance Practice at Eton Bridge Partners.