Leadership EQ: a Critical Element in Transformational Change

It’s easy to stand back and talk about the IQ required in leadership, but to effect meaningful change and deliver successful projects, it’s the soft skills of emotional intelligence, or EQ,  in leadership that create the safe, successful, and resilient cultures.

There’s little doubt that a high intelligence quotient (IQ) is an important driver of successful and high-performing business leadership, particularly in project delivery.

However, what is less well appreciated is that many successful leaders thrive in their respective industries due to their emotional quotient (EQ) – not just their IQ.

Also known as emotional intelligence, this important leadership characteristic is often overlooked, yet is a common trait found in the best business and project leaders and is especially important when it comes to leading and driving long-lasting, positive change within organisations.

EQ as the ‘Missing Link’ in Successful Business Transformation

Contrary to popular belief, high levels of traditional intelligence, translated to hard skills, don’t necessarily flow on to better results in the context of business change management and transformational change.

Indeed, even though skills linked to IQ like budgeting, technical tasks, staffing and developing a change strategy, are commonly given priority in business transformation projects, 75 percent of change efforts still fail.

This persistent fail rate has led to a reappraisal of the importance of EQ and an appreciation that EQ-related soft skills are a critical “missing component” of organisations’ training portfolio.

To this end, recent research has shone a light on the results of poor leadership EQ, with Emergent Performance Solutions data finding that underestimation of complexity and misaligned expectations are two of the biggest factors leading to failure.

In addition, failing to see another’s perspective – another core EQ skill – has been shown to be a top fault in human interaction and a key factor in stakeholder misalignment, which can mark the death knell of transformation projects. It’s just one of a host of soft skills that come under the banner of EQ, such as situational awareness, that are critical elements to effectively communicate and engage change conversations.

In the wake of the growing body of research into EQ, it is clear that, as Turnaround Management’s Ran Ancho puts it:

“Leaders must be aware of their internal human factors, their personality, the nuances of their own internal thinking process, behaviour and way of engaging and influencing others whilst conducting a change process”.

“Even the most talented and experienced executive will fail unless [they are] very aware of … how [they approach] a process that involves complex group dynamics.”

How to Develop Better EQ

With the verdict in on the benefits of EQ, the challenge for leaders becomes how to develop emotional resilience for effective responses to change, events, people, setbacks and failure.

Indeed, a higher EQ can fundamentally shift the way leaders perceive failure. For instance, while “fail fast” is a mantra in information technology circles, leaders with strong emotional intelligence tend to be better able to use failure to their advantage because they understand that not all experiments succeed and they instead stay motivated on long-term outcomes.

Here, the development of “soft skills” is essential – and highly valuable. These include listening and personal management skills, empathy with colleagues and employees and relationship management skills to enable leaders to have difficult, but constructive, conversations with staff – in particular, project teams as they seek to drive change.

In the context of change leadership, several personal emotion-based attributes also emerge as significant, such as self-awareness, self-management and social awareness. Also critical is an ability to display genuine empathy for those impacted by transformation.

On a practical level, tools to boost EQ also assist. The EQ Change MAP, for instance, provides a methodology on how to transform organisations based on emotional intelligence using  three distinct phases to integrate the rational/logical with emotional/human for organisational, team, and individual change management. However, methodology is only one part of the equation.

Insight about nurturing EQ as a business leader can also be gleaned from thought-leaders in the space such as University of Houston professor, Brené Brown.

Professor Brown, in her bestseller Dare to Lead, takes a anecdotal approach to emotional intelligence as it applies to leadership based on research with 150 global C-suite executives.

In her book, Brown posits that daring leaders are prepared to be vulnerable and listen openly, have empathy, connect to emotions and have self-awareness.

She also identifies leadership behaviours that get in the way of organisations. These include avoiding tough conversations, too much time managing problem behaviours, diminishing trust, and too few people taking smart risks or creating and sharing bold ideas.

Other common emotional blocks, according to Brown, are leaders being defined by setback and disappointments, too much blame and shame, people opting out of key diversity and inclusivity conversations, and organisational values not being assessed in practical terms.

 ‘You need to be human with people’

Orla Kassis, Sales Director of Quay Consulting, echoes Professor Brown’s comments.

Speaking from Sydney, Kassis says as a team leader that a key part of leadership, especially in the context of change conversations, is honesty.

Along with truthfulness, Kassis nominates thoughtful messaging, knowing when to relay difficult messages and, above all, empathy – having the ability to put yourself in the other person’s shoes – as essential.

“Whether the leader of a project or delivery team, I think you always have to be honest with people but also take care to be empathetic and communicate with compassion. Change whilst necessary is not always easy, you can never underestimate the impact on an individual.

“Thoughtful messaging, context, timing and above all empathy are essential elements of change, to get the best outcomes leaders need to lead.” she says.

“When it comes to difficult conversations, you can set the scene and overall context for employees or colleagues so that they can understand the perspective the conversation is positioned in and how it will affect them.”

In this sense, according to Kassis, while employees involved in transformation have to be held to account, it can be done with respect.

“People have to respect you otherwise it won’t matter what you say, and that comes from you being transparent and honest with kindness. The truth is not always easy to relay, but it’s important.” Kassis says.

“A title is not a reflection on who you are as a human being – people will follow you if they believe in you and trust you and most of all if you connect with them on a human level.”

Kassis says that this has to come naturally and be real, not an attempt at fake connection or empathy since most people can see right through that.

“A leader with high EQ will possess enough self awareness to know their own strengths and weaknesses in this regard. These soft skills, for any leader, are ultimately about being human around people.”

Driving successful transformational change is much more than getting scope, budget and time right – often the domain of IQ. It is far more nuanced and challenging than that. Ensuring the right level of EQ is present within the leadership is a critical component to both business and change success.

The EQ of the transformational leadership team (sponsor, project manager, business lead and so on) will always play a significant part in whether the transformational change succeeds or fails.

As project specialists, we develop fit-for-purpose strategy and project assurance.  Contact us here to find out more about how we work with your teams or call 02 9098 6300.

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