Emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability to recognize, understand and manage emotions—our own and others’—in order to successfully accomplish goals. Of several advantages EI brings to workplaces, two that virtually all law departments and law firms could use more of are effective leadership and a productive culture.
Effective Leadership. Research has established that EI skills “are more important to job performance than any other leadership skill”—even more relevant than a leader’s IQ or personality traits. A leader’s EI predicts how well steps are planned to accomplish goals, how well those goals are ultimately accomplished and also how manageable the process feels. In addition, EI score is also the most accurate indicator of who will emerge from a group as a leader, whether formally or informally. As former General Electric General Counsel Ben Heineman notes, “leadership [in law] today is often not command and control but persuasion, motivation, and empowerment of teams around a shared vision.” By being able to both manage one’s own emotions and understand and manage those of others, leaders can inspire innovation, build their influence and effectively manage change.
Innovation. Emotional intelligence empowers us to recognize and shelve distressing emotions that block innovation and also gives us access to constructive feelings that can generate creative solutions. Influence. According to a Harvard psychology professor, we make judgments about our leaders based primarily on two characteristics: first their warmth and then their competence, in that order. Suppressing or failing to access emotional warmth, while banking on giving an impression of competence instead, which lawyers often naturally do, can actually lower our influence. Change. The prospect of change stirs a progression of emotions that slows actual change, starting with shock, anger, fear and resistance, moving to skepticism, resentment, frustration and low productivity (while internally holding on to the old but trying to adapt to the new), and ending in excitement and hope once there are early gains. Those with low EI, as are many lawyers, suffer higher levels of stress and other negative emotional reactions in the face of change and are also more likely to exhibit negative behaviors. Critical to selling and accomplishing change is acknowledging and managing your own emotions and the emotions being experienced by others during the process.
Building a Productive Culture
One reason that emotional intelligence is so pivotal to effective leadership is the decisive role leaders have in shaping the culture of their workplaces, whether by intention or not. Leaders’ competence in emotional intelligence sets an example, is projected throughout the workplace, and their skills build and sustain the kind of emotionally supportive culture that produces loyalty, collaboration and better conflict management and raises personal well-being, productivity and profitability. On the other hand, stated expectations and implicit norms that can develop in a low EI environment can lead to an excoriatingly stressful climate that depresses performance, reduces collaboration, and raises attrition, with frustration and anger eventually turned toward colleagues and clients.
Triggers that can ratchet up stress include (1) condescension and lack of respect, (2) unfair treatment, (3) lack of appreciation, (4) failure to listen, and (5) setting unrealistic deadlines. The recent spotlight on bullying and harassment, often generated at least in part by low EI, puts pressure on our legal cultures, particularly as more Millennials arrive, to promptly and actively oppose insensitivity to others.
Raising Emotional Intelligence in Legal Workplaces
How do we raise emotional intelligence in our workplaces? While leaders are critical to building emotionally intelligent cultures, the irony is that many leaders have lower EI than their charges, in part because they were chosen for having other skills or simply for being senior. So we can start at the top by increasing feedback to our leaders to help them raise their self-awareness and by investing in leadership development.
Another step is to revisit the roles of those who are natural leaders but aren’t formally recognized as such. Women and other diverse candidates who are unheralded leaders can bring a different perspective to problems and often have a demonstrated ability to effectively shepherd their colleagues.
Leaders should use emotional contagion to build a high EI culture. Leaders telegraph their emotions, whether or not intentionally, throughout the organization, and they can affirmatively use their EI skills in accessing and projecting emotions to spread optimism, resilience and warmth, attributes that contribute to stress management and productivity.
Workplaces can also screen for EI and related competencies in new hires and include those attributes in professional development training, which can be reinforced with coaching, mentoring, and other types of feedback.
Finally, we should compensate, reward, and promote emotional intelligence and clearly articulate the intention to do so, all of which are avenues to engaging the “keepers.”
Finding the Magical Balance. Does this sound like too much emotional “coddling”? Jack Welch admits that managing talent with “just the right push-and-pull” is one of the hardest tasks for leaders to get right. How do we set and enforce a standard that doesn’t spoil or coddle weakness, but rather recognizes and fosters achievement without being harsh and uncompromising? An important study undertook “to address some companies’ fears that managers trained to be more emotionally intelligent would become sentimental and incapable of taking ‘hard decisions.’” The results show that “emotional intelligence has nothing to do with sentimentality . . . Emotionally intelligent managers are not just nicer . . . [they] make better managers, as reflected by greater managerial competencies, higher team efficiency and less stressed subordinates . . .Actually, it is managers with low EI who have the greatest difficulties to put their emotions aside and not let them interfere when inappropriate.” As one pundit put it, “There’s a big difference between being a hard ass and just being an ass. You can have zero tolerance for failure and excuses, and connect with and care about someone at the same time.”
In short, for the lawyers in our legal workplaces to flourish, we must recognize the significance and complexity of their emotions. That does not mean that we lower our standards or reduce the quality of our work. We can insist on excellence and still value the consideration of people’s feelings so that we are all loyal, productive, and constructively engaged.