Drop those bad leadership habits:

unlocking the key to EI


Published on: February 2020

Written by: Jacqueline Brodnitzki

Chuck, a merchandising executive for a global retail company, received feedback that while he was generally a calm and rational person, his anger at mistakes and unpredictability during stressful situations were limiting his career growth. Additionally, those at the level above him felt his presentations were too “in the weeds” and not strategic enough. This meant he wasn’t being included in succession plans for higher level roles.

Chuck’s behavior was causing many challenges within his group. His unpredictability made his team hesitate to let him know about problems right away, as they were hoping to figure out a solution before having to approach him. By the time he did find out, the problems were much harder to resolve. This was causing larger supply chain issues and downstream revenue hits that most likely could have been avoided if Chuck were able to address the problems sooner.

You might be thinking that you know a few leaders like Chuck. Unfortunately, we find that feedback like this is all too common. In fact, the data we’ve collected through the thousands of executive leadership assessments, using the ExPITM, reveal that three of the four lowest rated leadership qualities are:

  1. Restraint
  2. Composure
  3. Resonance

Restraint points to a leader’s temperament and predictability. Composure is about how well a leader handles crisis situations and Resonance is about how a leader connects with others and positions him/herself to notice what others are thinking and feeling.

These three facets of leadership are key to emotional intelligence (EI) – the ability to notice our own emotions, manage our reactions, notice others’ emotions, and respond appropriately – because they point to our ability to remain even-tempered, to take the heat out of crisis situations, and to address others’ emotions.

Why do leaders have such a hard time demonstrating EI?

Usually, it’s not that these leaders don’t have emotional intelligence. Rather, it is often a result of a couple of habits that get in the way.

  • A strong ‘action’ bias. What has gotten these leaders to senior levels is this action: their ability to make quick decisions, act with speed, and respond efficiently to tactical questions. Therefore, when a situation requires thoughtfulness or a pause in the action, these leaders are not practiced in how to stop, slow down, think, and then act. And, if they are highly emotional their team will hesitate to reach out to them when thoughtfulness is required.
  1. Easily triggered. When a leader’s core value or deep belief is being challenged, they can be easily triggered. For example, a leader who has very high Integrity can quickly overreact when a team member seems to make a poor decision, even if it might be within the realm of a good decision to another leader. Or a leader can be triggered if a peer promises to send information by a certain date and doesn’t deliver.

Take Chuck, for instance. In prior roles, he made quick decisions regarding what customers would want which led to great buying decisions. He was able to change course rapidly and resolve problems when confronted with supplier issues. He was known as the guy who knew exactly where to go to get the right merchandise in the right stores. All great qualities, for a single contributor. And, arguably great qualities in lower level leadership positions. However, they are not great qualities for this executive leadership role. He was acting so quickly that his organization couldn’t keep up. And because he was so hot headed, his team didn’t let him know this was happening.

An African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,” holds true for many of the leaders we work with. When their action bias is front and center, they are often alone. And when they take a moment to look in the rearview mirror, they see that their teams are floundering. Alternatively, we see that when leaders slow down, they can rally their teams to get on board with their vision. They create engagement and synergy within their team that leads to real business results.

What can you do?

If Chuck’s story hits close to home, or if you tend to react when you wish you’d thought the situation through instead, then building your mindfulness muscle might be the answer. Mindfulness, or the act of noticing our own emotions and creating a gap between the stimulus and our response, builds emotional intelligence. It also strengthens the qualities of Restraint, Composure, and Resonance.

The challenge is that it requires noticing habitual reactions, pausing, and choosing to respond differently instead. This is easier said than done. However, once we begin choosing a new response and do so consistently, over time, we create powerful new habits and begin demonstrating greater emotional intelligence.

How to incorporate mindfulness into your leadership

Here are some simple things you can do to begin building your mindfulness muscle.

  • Assess your speed and slow down to bring others along for the ride
  • Keep distractions to a minimum to ensure you are truly connecting with people and noticing what might not be spoken
  • Notice when you are triggered and take a few deep breaths before responding
  • Respond with curiosity to inquire about the other person’s perspective, as opposed to responding from your triggered, reactive frame of mind
  • Prepare for a challenging meeting or conversation by anticipating what might trigger you and deciding how you will respond differently this time
  • When things get heated, defer or postpone the topic by suggesting discussing it off-line, after the meeting, or after more information is gathered

You create your organization’s environment and your demeanor sets the tone for your team. Do you want to nurture a hectic, chaotic environment or a thoughtful, innovative organization?

It can often feel like there’s absolutely no time to pause. However, we know through working with thousands of leaders, that powerful and effective leadership resides in both the pause and the thoughtful response.

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