New Leadership through the Lens of Emotions

Emotions and specifically emotional intelligence are synonymous with effective leadership in today’s organisations. How leaders manage their emotions, mange their relationships and make changes to their emotional style have been topics of conversation for some time. Recent studies about the benefits from positive emotions offer new insights.

Daniel Goleman’s pioneering work tells us that whilst IQ is the best predictor of what kind of job you will be able to hold. It typically takes an IQ of 115 or above to handle the cognitive complexity, facing a professional or top executive. The paradox is, once you’re in a high IQ position, intellect loses its power to determine who will become the most productive and effective leader. How you manage yourself and your relationships – your emotional intelligence matters more.

In a high IQ job pool, Goleman says that soft skills like discipline, drive and empathy mark those who emerge as outstanding. EQ (emotional quotient) typically accounts for 80% of this leadership success. This finding holds as true for CEO and board level leaders as it does for any other leader, according to research from Mullwood Partnership.

Given the critical role emotional intelligence plays in leadership success, surely mastery of how we manage ourselves, manage our relationships and adapt our leadership style to increase effectiveness must be at the heart of every leader’s development?

Negative Emotions: Narrow Choice and Develop Specific Action Tendencies

Most readers of this blog will have had some leadership coaching on how to manage their own emotions and the emotions of others in the workplace. The mantras, ‘take the heat out’, ‘keep a cool head’ and ‘don’t let your emotions interfere with business’ are probably familiar to you.

The problem with this advice is that it only helps us to manage negative emotions. For our ancestors, negative emotions helped them to narrow in on a specific set of actions, saving their skin in the moment. (Often, in life and death situations.) Whilst our operating environment has changed, we still rely on this ancestral script. For example, if we are fearful, we want to escape, if we are angry we want to attack, if we are sad we want to withdraw and if we feel shame we want to disappear.

Leaders learn early on that letting rip with the full power of our negative emotions isn’t required, except in emergencies, and it doesn’t necessarily produce the best results in the workplace. Through self-management we learn to constrain our negative emotional spectrum and help others to do the same. We become masters in the art of emotional neutrality, able to block out our hard-wired action tendencies and do what is required in the moment to take the heat out and keep a cool head.

Emotional management is an important skill. When you need to have difficult conversations, make tough decisions, close facilities or make people redundant, ‘keeping your powder dry’ is essential. However, being able to manage negative emotions won’t make you an emotionally intelligent leader. For that you also need to understand positive emotions and how extraordinary performance requires focus on both negative and positive psychology in the workplace.

Positive Emotions: Broaden and Build

Professor Barbara Fredrickson from the University of North Carolina one of the world’s leading scholars in emotion science says that positive emotions open us up. They broaden our momentary thought-action repertoires and widen the array of thoughts and actions that come to mind.

For example the experience of joy creates the urge to play, to push the limits and be creative. Interest creates an urge to explore, take in new information and new experience, pride encourages us to dream big and achieve more and inspiration aspires us to excellence. This broadening builds enduring personal resources such as creativity, learning and change agility, resilience and the capacity to get out of the weeds and see the big picture. These resources function as reserves that can be drawn upon when you need them.

Our day to day experiences of positive emotions function like a daily diet, which can be rich in all kinds of nutrients like eating five or ten fruits and vegetables a day. We need a variety of positive emotions and a steady diet to keep us learning and growing and becoming the best versions of ourselves over time. It’s not the case that eating one piece of broccoli this year is going to make you healthy! You and those who work with you need a steady diet of positive emotions, day in and day out.

In the Future of Management, Gary Hamel says that for organisations to be fit for the future they need to be fit for human beings. He identifies the biggest challenges facing organisations today as:

    • Accelerated change: Building a company that can change as fast as change itself.
    • Hyper-competition: Building a company where innovation is the work of everybody, everyday.
    • Creating new knowledge: Building a company where people are willing to bring the ‘gifts’ of their initiative, creativity & passion.

To meet these challenges we need leaders who can unleash and mobilise the full potential, imagination, initiative and passion of every employee, every day. If you want to inspire, engage, even elevate people and produce extraordinary performance in the process you need to become a positive ‘climate engineer’. The tiny engine that will power your leadership climate is positive emotion.

Psychology Insights for Extraordinary Organisation Performance

Back in 2005, I was HR Director for BAE Systems Air Support. Looking for new ways to drive the extraordinary performance required to execute the business strategy I turned to the new field of positive psychology.

The business was doing well with a solid order book, £1 billion turnover and profit in line with expectations. We also had a superb management board with a shared ambition to double the size of the business in the next five years. Our strategy was to move beyond the design and development of military aircraft and provide new services, namely maintenance work and capability upgrades for in-service aircraft.

This was unchartered territory, we needed approaches that would help us engage our workforce with the new strategy, encourage extraordinary performance from our people and build from our leadership strengths during a time of significant change.

Positive Psychology

Scouting for ideas I discovered the fledgling field of positive psychology. This offered a profoundly different approach to the way organisations, manage and create value through people. Positive interventions are unique in that they are aimed at optimal functioning rather than just functioning.

Imagine a person recovering from surgery and visiting a physiotherapist. The physiotherapist engages the client in physical activity with the goal of recovering ‘normal’ functioning. In other words moving along a scale from say a -3 to a zero.

Now think about a person visiting a personal trainer at the gym. The trainer engages in many of the same activities, running the client through repetitive physical exercise, but this time with the aim of taking an already healthy body and making it perform even better. For example this time moving from +3 to +8.

This simple explanation gave me the light bulb moment I had been looking for.  I realised that many of the approaches in use within organisations for leading and managing people stop short. They deliver neutral levels of performance at best. Not bad but not that good either.

I began to believe that there was as much, or more to be gained from capitalising on strengths and positivity as there was in trying to overcome weaknesses and fix problems. We needed to generate extraordinary levels of performance. It was time to try a different approach.

It was a risk, it could have gone badly wrong. However positive psychology is built on a foundation of careful study and empirical evidence, so the risk didn’t feel so large.

By 2007 we had a number of ‘first of their kind’ availability contracts under our belt and had doubled business turnover to £2 billion sooner than anticipated. In addition the leadership development, strategic change and employee engagement approaches we used were awarded a Gold Chairman’s Award for outstanding contribution to business success.

If you are looking for new approaches on how to improve leadership effectiveness, employee engagement and the execution of organisational and behavioural change, positive psychology offers impactful tried and tested solutions.

The Science of Emotions

At the heart of positive psychology is the science of emotions. Professor Barbara Fredrickson from the University of North Carolina is one of the world’s leading scholars. I recently had the opportunity to learn directly from Barbara in a cutting edge masterclass packed with insights on how positive emotions boost energy, relationships, performance and health. Of particular note, they provide the key ingredient for sustaining behavioural change.

Look out for future blogs where I will be talking about some of the leading edge ideas from emotion science and positive psychology and how they can be applied in the workplace.

Read more about the BAE Systems case study.