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Stuck at a leadership plateau? Break out with emotional intelligence

Shefali Misra
15th Jun 2018
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As workplace engagements increase and silos break down, leaders find themselves exposed to greater scrutiny and must display adaptive leadership capabilities and break personal stereotypes.

When Kavita, a programme lead with a large size multinational exceeded results year-on-year and scored high on team dynamics, others wondered what her secret sauce was. She was honest and approachable as a manager, clear about the results she wanted, and provided ample feedback.

What, however, set Kavita up for success was the manner in which she conducted her business. Her work-style, body language, and communication indicated a genuine interest in her team. She infused motivation, made decisions based on diverse viewpoints, and played off the strengths of each team member. Overall, she was a transformational leader.

Many of us have worked under one such person in our lives! Someone who stands out and extends themselves to the point that it changes our perspective and empowers and transforms us into better professionals. Emotionally intelligent leaders are an extension of this lineage.

Image: Shutterstock

This rare category of leaders is much in demand today. With market risks looming large, businesses want to hire leaders who can juggle multiple hats, deal with uncertainty, leverage team skills, and be consistent in success. More importantly, they want people who can drive an ecosystem towards excellence, while keeping motivations up even when the chips are down, teams fail, and need to recover quickly.

When Daniel Goleman first claimed in 1995 that emotional intelligence transforms work cultures, many scoffed at the idea. However, several years hence, EI has become an acceptable predictor of good performance the world over. With a modified workplace DNA, emotionally intelligent leaders increasingly apply tailored skills and transcend traditional work behaviours with more personal attributes that are needed to break a leadership plateau.

Over the past 20 years, I have seen the transformational impact emotional intelligence has had on dissolving deadlocks and in propelling careers. This article categorises three real-life examples of plateauing leadership and analyses how they transformed themselves with EI.

Hyper leaders

Meet Kirti, the ‘hyper’ leader – all set to maximise targets and results. Kirti was focussed and driven, often loaded with spreadsheets, willing to excel and optimise targets. He was all blazing guns and efficient, but tended to push his team so hard that colleagues burnt out, performance suffered, some quit, and finally, his hyper style became a topic of discussion at performance reviews.

The appraisal board eventually decided to place him on a performance improvement plan despite the excellent targets he had met. With inducement of EI, a ‘hyper’ such as Kirti eventually self-trained himself to adopt a more accommodative style, entrusting subordinates and showing faith in their ability to take responsibility. Over time, and once his latent anxieties stopped manifesting onto teams, he was able to communicate effectively, and the stress metre dropped while performance remained above par.

Kirti was eventually evaluated and selected for a regional management role covering 14 countries.

Soft handlers

Then there was Deepa, a ‘soft handler’ who wanted to be respected and admired by teams. Deepa avoided most conflicting situations, and resorted to soft management tactics to keep appeasement high. Since no leader can be a softie all the time, the EI doctrine enabled a soft handler such as Deepa to astutely assess what her team needed.

She began to stay on top of things, while ensuring project ownership stayed decentralised when team motivation was high. In circumstances such as when work quality suffered and teams were unclear of mandates, Deepa began to accelerate sufficient toughness, control, and command to ensure alignment. This on-and-off leadership style was initially confusing for some, but enabled Deepa to adapt to changing situations and team dynamics with tailored leadership traits.

Her ability to adapt to changing circumstances, evaluate risks, and manage people enabled her to be eventually placed as the general manager of a risky mid-market country managing a staff of 200 people.

Do-it-yourself leaders

Finally, there was Vinod, the ‘DIY’ (do-it-yourself) leader. He is part of a growing breed and very common in consultancies, legal, and medical professions. This genre needs to display their personal expertise and judgement to stay successful. For people like Vinod, life becomes a constant struggle of spreading oneself too thin, largely because they want to ensure that everything is done perfectly.

The reason why Vinod, despite being overwhelmed with work, did not delegate was because he either did not trust people or saw delegation as an absolute – either giving up control entirely or holding onto an output all together. He eventually burnt out. With an EI coach, Vinod came back and changed his worldview.

In this new scenario, delegation began with an intent to develop people. It required Vinod to trust and learn to balance heavy lifting with catalysing available talent. Beginning with a reasonable scale of delegation, he learnt the art of balancing outputs with coaching, teaching, and recognising the contribution of interns and juniors. Once recalibrated, Vinod transformed to a respected teacher and mentor, and moved upwards as a partner in his law firm.

All these cases reached a pivot point in their leadership curve that enabled them to recalibrate and grow. Adoption of ‘mindfulness’ – the new corporate fad du jour[1] quality of shifting one’s attention inward and observing one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions – enabled them to bounce back.

These cases also demonstrate that an emotionally intelligent leader is almost always more capable in breaking a plateau or complex situations. However, the approach itself is no magic bullet.

Emotional intelligence to the rescue

It is not easy managing one’s emotions on a day-to-day basis. Aspiring leaders, for example, can easily decide to peak quickly and flow with popular leadership traits such as toughness, determination, and forcefulness and get into the immediate limelight.

An EI-driven leader may evaluate the impact of these actions on the work ecosystem and teams, and prioritise things differently. While on one hand, self-promoting leaders plateau quicker, on the other hand, an overtly low-key leader can be seen as disfranchised, propelling teams to find parallel authorities to align with.

In today’s brisk and giddy-paced times, where each day results in the creation of opinions around one’s calibre, impact potential, and success or failure down the line of hierarchy, there is no clear formula, and solutions need to be situational. Irrespective of which side of the leadership hill you are on, your engagements create microcosms of impressions, generating residual feelings, perceptions, assumptions, and decision patterns which need to be managed.

The existential question for the emotionally intelligent leader is thus always the same – are they creating an acceptable environment that works best in their context? EI helps them find the appropriate pathway.

[1] Goleman Daniel, Lippincott Matthew, Without Emotional Intelligence, Mindfulness Doesn’t Work, HBR 2017.

Shefali Misra has over 19 years of public policy, advocacy and strategy development experience spanning non-profits, corporate and political domains across India and South Asia.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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