Emotional intelligence is critical – Ralph Ward and Dr. Muneer Muhamed

The terms ‘corporate boardroom’ and ‘emotional intelligence’ don’t usually go together. Do we visualise the board chairperson convening a group of Type A personalities and suggesting a group hug?

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is a crucial aspect of board effectiveness and the chairperson who brings it to the table nurtures power­ful governance productivity. So what are the secrets of an emotionally wise board leader?

Although Daniel Goleman is considered the guru of EQ, it was actually Clinical Professor of Psychology in Psychiatry at Cornell University Dr. Michael Beldoch who had coined the term in 1964.

EQ is the ability to identify and manage one’s emotions, as well as the emotions of others. It includes three sub-skills: emotional awareness; the ability to harness emotions and apply them to tasks, such as creative thinking and problem solving; and the ability to manage emotions.

Among the many skills that were tested in workplaces, EQ was the strongest predictor of performance. Some 90 percent of top performers have high EQ while only 20 percent of bottom performers have it.

In truth, every decision we make is done through our emo­tions. If you aren’t mastering your emotions, you’re ignoring 20 percent of the data in decision making. Building a career as a strong business achiever – especially in finance or operations – typically rewards the ability to ram ideas through in spite of opposition.

In the boardroom however, you’re competing with similar alphas who are all legally equal. Good EQ then becomes the difference between boardroom success and dysfunction.

So how do you build emotional intelligence? The first step is self-awareness and we recommend an assessment of one’s personality type to gauge emotional self-awareness. What marks the emotionally intelligent board leader? Diplomacy (actively seeking feedback from others and respecting it) and active listening (valuing intuition).

This is an exercise for leaders. Go home tonight and listen to your youngest child for five minutes straight sans any inter­ruptions and comments, and without checking your phone. Force yourself to listen. Then try this with coworkers, bosses and ultimately in the boardroom.

Here’s another exercise. When a matter has been discussed, instead of voting and moving on, pause and ask for other perspectives… request feedback from dissenters.

Seek clarification before the meeting. Establish the main deliverables and priorities. What are the objectives of the meeting and specific areas of input needed? Go beyond simply ticking off everything on the agenda or even delivering on the handful of top ‘musts.’ Ins­tead, reach beyond working through the agenda and key approvals. Make board members feel their voices are heard and that they make a positive difference.

The chair comes to a meeting predisposed to do something, and assumes he or she knows the right and wrong answers. They need to understand their biases and assumptions. Step one in active listening is an honest, objective take on one’s communication style. Ask others if you seem open or discouraging in discussions. Seek criticism – even if you may not like what you hear.

A good way to achieve this is by keeping silent. For the inner aspect, all of us conduct a constant dialogue with our thoughts, priorities and outside distractions, and mentally prepare our responses to what another speaker is saying.

Work to silence and simplify this inner dialogue – especially waiting for the other speaker’s lips to stop moving so that you can jump in. Focus on the here and now, and on each word being said to you, and shut out your inner chatter.

Then try external silence. Definitely avoid interrupting the current speaker. When he or she stops, give yourself a few seconds and learn to pause. Don’t feed into the need to respond instantly. Alpha business leaders often find this first step their toughest.

In active listening, both parties in a discussion are always communicating – even if you’re not aware that you are. Work to observe the person’s body language and unconscious messaging. Make it clear that you’re attentive by maintaining eye contact and an open posture, and nodding when appropriate to indicate affirmation rather than dissension.

When you do respond, put your active listening skills to work. Paraphrase what was said with cues such as: ‘You’re saying…’ and ‘That would mean…’ And don’t be afraid to say that you’re not clear on some aspect of the message.

Seek clarification and ask valid questions, which show that you as the chair aren’t taking a side on the matter. You simply want to make sure that everyone is hearing the same message.

Now, it’s your turn to imprint this approach on the rest of the board. Seek further comments from attendees using the same process while focussing on the main issues – active listening, smart pauses, restatement and reflection. You can set the tone for good EQ across the board.