The definition of what makes an effective leader is changing. While a top-down approach has been a traditional trademark of an effective leader, successful leadership in a post-pandemic world puts a greater emphasis on emotional intelligence (EQ) and the ability to tap into the experiences of your employees.
EQ is essentially one’s ability to recognize and understand emotions in oneself and others, and to use this awareness to manage one’s behavior and relationships. From the trend of employees quitting enmasse in what was dubbed “The Great Resignation” to “quiet quitting,” high EQ is needed for leaders to be able to attract and retain talent and drive engagement. That’s because leaders with high EQ are more likely to create psychologically safe environments where employees feel safe speaking up and like their voices are being heard. They are more likely to listen, demonstrate empathy and effectively communicate, all of which helps build more inclusive workplace cultures. Moreover, employees of all levels benefit from cultivating EQ: EQ has been shown to have a bigger impact on success than even IQ, and having high EQ has been linked with increased innovation and job satisfaction.
The good news is that EQ is a set of skills and behaviors that can be learned. While there are many different dimensions to EQ, here are three types of EQ that leaders of all levels can practice to help drive inclusion.
EQ Trait #1: Self Awareness
In a nutshell, self awareness is the ability to clearly and accurately see your personality, strengths and weaknesses, and behavioral tendencies, as well as how other people perceive you. The research consistently shows that people who master self awareness are more creative, build stronger relationships, and are more effective leaders and communicators. It’s also good for business: Companies with strong financial performance tend to have employees with higher levels of self-awareness than poorly performing companies, according to Korn Ferry International.
The journey to greater self awareness is both an inside and an outside job. That’s because you can’t work on your own self awareness in a bubble, since most of us can’t accurately see ourselves. In fact, although 95% of people think they are self aware, the research shows that only 10 to 15% actually are.
People close to us are often able to see us more clearly than we are able to see ourselves, so one practice to help improve self awareness is to regularly ask for honest feedback from colleagues you trust. You could make a habit of checking in for feedback from direct reports, your boss or co-workers with whom you collaborate. To get the most benefits, ask for concrete examples and be prepared to just listen with an open mind without getting defensive. Here are some sample thought-starter questions.
- In what ways do you think I could be a better listener?
- What are some situations or triggers you’ve seen that make me stressed?
- Is there something I’m avoiding that you think I need to address?
- What communication habits do you think might be making me less effective?
EQ Trait #2: Mindfulness
The scientific definition of mindfulness is “the self-regulation of attention with an attitude of curiosity, openness and acceptance.” To break that down, self regulation is about being in control of where you focus your attention, and the attitude part is about being open to whatever it is you’re focusing on and curious about what you might discover.
The truth is that you have more control over what happens in your inner world than what happens in your outer world. Controlling your mind can also have a real-world impact. Mindfulness increases your social perception because you are present in the moment and more attentive to the needs of others. Mindfulness takes us out of unconscious auto-pilot so we’re more likely to respond to people and situations from a more centered, rather than reactionary, place. Not to mention it also makes you more productive and less stressed, improves your relationships, and boosts your overall happiness.
Neuroscience shows that, in a nutshell, practicing mindfulness works by shrinking the flight-or-fight center of your brain that switches on during stress (also known as the amygdala) and increases connections in the part of your brain that’s in charge of good stuff such as emotional control, attention, self awareness, planning, problem-solving and creativity (also known as the prefrontal cortex). Mindfulness also changes the part of the brain linked with empathy and compassion (known as the insula). These brain-changing results are tied to the concept of neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to rewire, and therefore, reprogram itself.
To help cultivate this dimension of EQ, you might begin a daily practice of mindful observation. There is power in a pause, so make a habit of mindfully slowing down for five minutes at the same time each day and fully observe what you’re doing and how you’re feeling in that moment. Any activity can become a mindfulness exercise. Some everyday examples include walking (pay attention to the feeling in your legs, the sound of your feet landing on the floor or the warmth of the sun on your face), eating (slow down to savor each bite of your food and notice the texture, smell and flavors) and even talking with others (notice how your body feels around the person you’re interacting with, what you’re thinking, and whether you talk more or listen more).
EQ Trait #3: Openness
Openness is a dimension of EQ that allows us to be curious and seek out new information, to listen to and receive feedback and be open to differing opinions and points of view. Openness is important for uncovering opportunities for growth. How do we accept people with different mindsets or information that contradicts our current beliefs? Our mindsets dictate our thinking patterns. (The opposite of openness is confirmation bias, which is a tendency to only seek out information that confirms your viewpoint and to discount perspectives that don’t align with your beliefs).
A lack of openness hinders inclusion because, when you are thinking only of proving your point, or about being heard, or shutting down another’s point of view who you don’t agree with, it literally makes you more closed minded. It narrows your attention and perspective, pushing you to focus on right versus wrong rather than seeing multiple perspectives. When people lack openness, it can deepen divides. The ability to cultivate openness offers an opportunity to create greater connection and understanding.
The human mind loves to categorize, label and sort things into groups. This can lead to binary thinking, such as sorting things into “this” or “that,” “us” versus “them,” “right” versus “wrong,” and “good versus “bad.” While these binaries seem to be concrete foundational elements of the world we know, it is important to truly understand that these binaries are often based in our perceptions rather than concrete reality, says Eric Bailey, author of The Cure For Stupidity: Using Brain Science to Explain Irrational Behavior at Work.
To expand your viewpoint and practice greater openness, try picking an issue you have strong opinions about that’s causing a debate. Make two lists, one with all the arguments that support your view, and another with all the arguments you can think of on the other side of the issue (or ask someone who thinks differently from you why they believe in the other viewpoint). Read over both lists, trying to set aside your current beliefs on this topic. Notice if you see any overlaps in motivations for why people might believe what they do, or if you find any common ground or alternative approaches. Even if you stick to your original viewpoint, the simple act of considering other, different viewpoints can help you approach people and issues with more open-mindedness.