Old ways of doing business no longer work. The increasingly intense competitive challenges of the world economy force everyone, everywhere, to adapt in order to prosper under new rules. In the old economy, hierarchies pitted labor against management, with workers paid wages depending on their skills, but that is eroding as the rate of change accelerates.
Hierarchies are being replaced by networks; labor and management are uniting into teams; wages are coming in new mixtures of options, incentives and ownership; fixed jobs melt into fluid careers.
As business changes, so do the traits needed to survive – let alone excel. All these transitions put increased value on emotional intelligence. Competitive pressures put a new value on people who are self-motivated, show initiative, have the inner drive for outdoing themselves, and are optimistic enough to take reversals and setbacks in their stride. The ever-pressing need to serve customers and clients well, and to work smoothly and creatively with an ever more diverse range of people, makes the ability to empathize all the more essential.
At the same time, the meltdown of old hierarchies increases the importance of traditional people skills, such as building bonds, influence and collaboration. And that is as true for employers as it is for employees. The task of the leader draws on a wide range of personal skills. Research has shown that emotional competence makes the crucial difference between mediocre leaders and the best. Indeed, emotional competence makes up about two thirds of the ingredients of star performance in general, but for outstanding leaders, emotional competencies – as opposed to technical or cognitive cues – make up 80 to 100% of those listed by companies as crucial for success.
Star performers show significantly greater strengths in a range of emotional competencies, such as the skills of persuasion, team leadership, political awareness, self-confidence and achievement drive. Empathy, one of the key elements of emotional intelligence, is central to good management. It is difficult to have a positive impact on others without first sensing how they feel and understanding their position. People who are poor at reading emotional cues and inept at social interactions are very poor at influencing others in the workplace.
Empathy has become more relevant as the whole world of work changes. These are troubled times for workers – it seems that no one is guaranteed a job anywhere any more. The creeping sense that no one’s job is safe, even as the companies they work for are thriving again, means the spread of fear, apprehension and confusion. An attitude of self-interest is, understandably, growing more common for employees confronting downsizing and other changes that make them feel their organization is no longer loyal to them. This sense of betrayal or distrust erodes allegiance and encourages cynicism. And once lost, trust – and the commitment that stems from it – is hard to rebuild.
If employees are not treated fairly and respectfully, no organisation will gain their emotional allegiance. Sensing others’ development needs, and bolstering their abilities, is emerging as second only to team leadership among superior managers.
For sales managers, developing others’ abilities is even more important – indeed, it’s the emotional competence most frequently found among those at the top of the field. This is a person-to-person art, and the effectiveness of counseling hinges on empathy and the ability to focus on our own feelings and share them.
Research suggests the best ‘coaches’ show a genuine personal interest in those they guide, and have empathy for and an understanding of their employees. Trust is crucial – when there is little trust in the coach, advice goes unheeded. This also happens when the coach is impersonal and cold, or the relationship seems too one-sided or self-serving. Coaches who show respect, trustworthiness and empathy, are the best. One way to encourage people to perform better is to let others take the lead in setting their own goals, rather than dictating the terms and manner of their development. This communicates the belief that employees have the capacity to be the pilot of their own destiny.
Another technique is to point to the problems without offering a solution – this implies the employees can find the solution themselves. And people hunger for feedback, yet too many managers, supervisors and executives are inept at giving it or are simply disinclined to provide any.
Virtually everyone who has a superior is part of at least one vertical ‘couple’ in the workplace. Every boss forms such a bond with each subordinate. Such vertical couples are a basic unit of organizational life. Therein lays the blessing or the curse – this interdependence ties a subordinate and superior together in a way that can become highly charged. If both do well emotionally – if they form a relationship of trust and rapport, understanding and inspired effort – their performance will shine. But if things go emotionally awry, the relationship can become a nightmare and their performance a series of minor, even major disasters.
While vertical couples have the entire emotional overlay that power and compliance bring to a relationship, peer couples – our relationships with co-workers – have a parallel emotional component, something akin to the pleasures, jealousies and rivalries of siblings.
If there is anywhere emotional intelligence needs to enter an organization, it is at this most basic level. Building collaborative and fruitful relationships begins with the couples we are a part of at work. Bringing emotional intelligence to a working relationship can pitch it towards the evolving, creative, mutually engaging end of the continuum. Failing to do so heightens the risk of a downward drift towards rigidity, stalemate and failure.