I’m the first to admit that I’m not always the easiest person to get along with. I can be abrasive. I frequently interrupt and occasionally instigate. I’m often impatient, and bad at reading the room. And while I’m working on all of these habits, they were much worse in my salad says. (I wince to report that I quit my last corporate job by telling my boss to “go fuck himself.”)
Popular wisdom used to be that tendencies like these are nothing to worry about. Some of society’s most famous leaders were notorious assholes. Take the late Steve Jobs, whose innovative and strategic genius is still often conflated with his reputation for tearing employees (not to mention family members) to emotional pieces. More recently, consider Travis Kalanick’s notorious harangue of an Uber driver earlier this year, precipitating his demise as CEO.
But the tide is turning. For one thing, the long and growing list of leaders recently accused of sexual harassment bears a troublingly high proportion of men with reputations for less than empathetic personalities. For some time, though, the world has been waking up to something I’ve always known to be true, if only because, at times, it has made me profoundly uneasy: Emotional intelligence (EI) is the cornerstone of true leadership. There’s a fine line between positive leadership qualities–like decisiveness, passion, and unswerving vision–and being abusive or hurtful to others. It takes emotional intelligence to tell the difference.
Over the years, I’ve consciously worked to get better at recognizing and addressing my own shortcomings in this department. But I’ve also recognized that, to a certain extent, you’re stuck with the personality you’ve got, and the best you can do is play to your strengths and manage your weaknesses. So I made it a priority to build a work culture that doesn’t reflect and magnify the least constructive of my own personality traits. Here are a few ways I’ve tried to create–collaboratively–a workplace that’s more emotionally intelligent than I tend to be.
Know That You Can’t Fix What You Can’t See
Personality tests are often dismissed as pointless or airy-fairy. But the reality is we all have blind spots, and self-knowledge can be both eye opening and empowering. The longstanding Myers-Briggs assessment has been called into question by psychologists over the years, yet it’s still used by huge corporations including General Motors and McKinsey. Personally, I’m a fan of an instrument called StrengthsFinder 2.0, which quantifies skill sets into 34 distinct “talent patterns.”
Here at Ronin8, all employees (leadership included) fill out an online questionnaire to determine the areas where they naturally excel. According to StrengthsFinder, I’m good at taking action, making decisions, and seizing command, and not so great at empathizing with others and creating harmony. While this information certainly didn’t come as a shock, seeing it all laid out was sobering. Ignoring my weaknesses was no longer an option.
Create Your Own Language
At my company, we keep a public spreadsheet that lists everyone’s top and bottom five talent patterns. By codifying our strengths and weaknesses, we’ve created a rich, common language for setting expectations and managing conflict. For me, it’s a kind of proxy for emotional intelligence, helping me understand what drives the people around me. For others, it’s a map to navigate (and counter) my own antisocial tendencies.
For example, my second-highest strength is “command,” which involves making leadership decisions without fear of confrontation. For a leader, command is obviously an important quality. But when left unchecked, it can result in dictator-like behavior. Or, to put it more bluntly: In our office, command is affectionately known as “the asshole gene.” When I’m being particularly authoritative or brusque, someone will call out, “Your command is getting out of hand!”
Because the comment is part of a shared language, it reads like constructive criticism rather than a personal insult. It’s a reminder that I want a collaborative workplace, and that starts with me as a role model.
Overcompensate By Overcommunicating
I don’t easily pick up on others’ emotions, and when I start a task, it’s all I think about. These two traits mean I can come across as overly forceful and unconcerned about other people’s opinions. And yet I want pushback, particularly when my ideas are misguided (which they often are). To avoid steamrolling other people, I encourage my employees to “hit me on the head with a two-by-four” (subtler cues–even not-so-subtle cues–rarely register). I respond best to brutal honesty.
Over the years, I’ve learned to be upfront with new employees about this, rather than let them figure it out on the fly. I’ve heard of some CEOs who hand out one-pagers to new staff detailing their personality quirks and expectations. Ultimately, I’ve found that transparency about expectations–especially about how to communicate–can preempt a lot of drama and bruised egos.
Surround Yourself With Emotionally Intelligent People
I’ve compensated for my own lack of emotional intelligence by consciously bringing on emotional savants. Our global brand ambassador, Bob Molle, is an ex-Olympian and professional football captain–and a natural genius at reading people, not just on an individual level, but also how they will fit in with the team.
He supplies the social intuition and EQ that I lack, and he also lets me better leverage the emotional skills I do have. While I’m not great at reading emotions in a group setting, I’m pretty good at forming connections with people individually. Bob lets me know when someone is feeling overlooked or neglected (something I’d rarely pick up on my own), so I can seek them out for a one-on-one discussion.
Of course, even with these strategies, I’m never going to be a naturally patient, deeply understanding, or emotionally perceptive leader. But that doesn’t mean I’m destined to be an authoritarian asshole, either. I think this is a critical distinction. Ultimately not having emotional intelligence in spades doesn’t mean you don’t have emotions–which means it shouldn’t excuse crappy behavior. No matter what your personality might be, you can’t be an effective leader without genuinely caring about the people around you.