Why executives lack emotional intelligence and what to do about it, part one

Some experts believe emotional intelligence is the key to successful leadership.

Companies tend to make executive recruiting decisions based on aspects such as a┬ácandidate’s industry experience, background and skill set – but how much attention do they pay to another important attribute, emotional intelligence? Barely, if research conducted by emotional intelligence test and training consultancy TalentSmart is anything to go by.

Before we go any further, it’s important to define what emotional intelligence actually is. Also known as EQ (as opposed to the more well-known IQ), the concept of emotional intelligence was first brought to the masses two decades ago by Daniel Goleman, co-director of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations at Rutgers University. Goleman broke down EQ into five components – self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skill – and contended that leaders need to exhibit these in addition to more traditional qualities such as intelligence, toughness, determination and vision in order to be successful.

“The most effective leaders are alike in one crucial way: They all have a high degree of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence,” Goleman wrote in an article for the Harvard Business review. “Emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership. Without it, a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great leader.”

All too often, executive recruiting focuses too heavily on skill sets and experience, and not enough on emotional intelligence.All too often, the executive search and recruitment process focuses too heavily on skill sets and experience, and not enough on emotional intelligence.

Executive-level emotional intelligence – or the lack thereof

In a piece for Forbes, TalentSmart co-founder Travis Bradberry revealed that middle managers typically have high emotional intelligence scores “because companies tend to promote people into supervisory positions who are level-headed and good with people.” However, once you move above this tier, the scores trend sharply downward among directors, executives, vice presidents and senior executives before reaching an all-time low at the CEO level.

There are two potential explanations for this phenomenon: Either the people earning high-level promotions never had particularly good emotional intelligence scores to begin with and simply tend to be chosen over their more emotionally intelligent colleagues, or something happens to compromise the scores of once emotionally intelligent middle managers as they climb the corporate ladder. According to Bradberry, both factors are at play.

“Once leaders get promoted, they enter an environment that tends to erode their emotional intelligence.” – Travis Bradberry, TalentSmart co-founder

“Companies … promote leaders for their knowledge and tenure, rather than their skill in inspiring others to excel,” he wrote. “Once leaders get promoted, they enter an environment that tends to erode their emotional intelligence. They spend less time in meaningful interactions with their staff and lose sight of how their emotional states impact those around them. It’s so easy to get out of touch that leaders’ EQ levels sink further. It truly is lonely at the top.”

Fixing the problem

It seems that some top-tier executives rise to their positions without ever having a great deal of emotional intelligence, while those who once possessed high EQs often see these scores decline. Bradberry listed five strategies that both these types of leaders can use to boost their emotional intelligence in a less-than-conducive environment:

  • Acknowledge the feelings of others
  • Show appreciation
  • Pay more attention to personal emotions
  • Get enough sleep
  • Refrain from negative thinking

In part two, we’ll delve into these approaches more deeply.

About Caldwell Partners

Caldwell Partners is a leading international provider of executive search and has been for more than 40 years. As one of the world’s most trusted advisors in executive search, the firm has a sterling reputation built on successful searches for boards, chief and senior executives, and selected functional experts. With offices and partners across North America and in London, the firm takes pride in delivering an unmatched level of service and expertise to its clients.