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Why successful leaders pay special attention to their company’s ’emotional climate’

In this excerpt from ‘Leading with Feeling,’ two experts in the field discuss a handful of important techniques for leading with emotional intelligence.

Why successful leaders pay special attention to their company’s ’emotional climate’
[Photo: ian dooley/Unsplash]

In Leading with Feeling, we interviewed 25 midlevel and senior-level leaders from different kinds of organizations, including large corporations, smaller family-owned businesses, and private nonprofit social service agencies. Although it is possible, with concerted effort, to increase our emotional intelligence over time, it is usually easier for us to learn how to use the EI we already have. So we asked the leaders to describe some incidents in which they had “managed or used emotion . . . to deal with a problem or achieve a goal.” The leaders talked about 126 such situations. We recorded and transcribed the interviews, and after studying them closely, some intriguing themes began to emerge. These themes pointed to nine strategies that can help leaders or potential leaders to be more successful—both at work and in their personal lives.

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Focus on feeling

Like many of the outstanding leaders we studied, Cynthia, the head of a large engineering firm, had to steer her company through the Great Recession of 2008. When we interviewed her, she noted that the senior leadership team had “some difficult conversations” during those years. The mood during their meetings was often somber. One day, Cynthia realized that the senior leaders were carrying that tone with them back to their work groups after the meetings. “I noticed that people were leaving the room with long faces,” she said. Cynthia was concerned about the impact this would have on the morale and motivation of the employees. Understanding that people look to the leader to get their cue on how they are doing, she worried that these expressions would communicate a sense of doom about the company to the rest of the employees. So at the next meeting, she said to the team, “Look, guys, the next time we leave this room, smile like the sun is shining.” Although some people might question whether smiling after a difficult meeting was the best way to handle the situation, Cynthia had accurately identified an emotional pattern that could have adverse consequences for the organization.

As we spent time talking with Cynthia about how she handled this incident and others, it became apparent that she was continually monitoring the emotional climate of meetings and other interactions; this strategy, along with others that made use of her emotional intelligence, helped her lead her company through difficult times. Many other leaders used this strategy as well. Most of the outstanding leaders were not just aware of their emotions or skillful in identifying what emotions other people are experiencing. They actively looked for subtle signs of emotion in order to influence the course of events. It was an active, purposeful process, and when they detected a potential problem, such as discouragement among the top management team spilling over and infecting the rest of the employees, they took action.

Becoming aware of an employee problem

As the leaders monitored the emotional climate of a group, they often became aware of how certain individuals within the group were adversely affecting that climate. For example, after the layoffs occurred in her company, Cynthia made a point of walking around the building to see how people were reacting. It was not long before she noticed that one person was particularly angry, and that anger was not abating.

Cynthia said, “She was generally a happy kind of person. But as I walked by her office, I noticed that her door was always half-closed, and I thought, ‘That’s unusual.’ And I could see the scowl on her face. I let it go a day or so, and then I decided there was something wrong. So I went in to talk with her. And she said, ‘What do you want?’ in an abrupt tone of voice. I said, ‘When are you going to stop being so angry with me?’ And she said, ‘I’m not angry, I’m mad.'”

Cynthia then asked the employee if she wanted to talk about her feelings then or schedule another time. The employee answered, “I’m fine. I don’t want to talk about it.” Cynthia gently persisted, and eventually the employee opened up and talked about her concerns. Although their talk did not lead to any dramatic changes, it helped clear the air and improve their relationship. If Cynthia had not been monitoring the emotional climate closely, she might not have detected the change in this employee’s feelings, which signaled that something was wrong.

Much of the information that we communicate to one another is done through our emotions. As little as 10% of interpersonal communication is conveyed through words alone. The rest is conveyed nonverbally through gesture, tone of voice, and facial expression. And leaders ultimately succeed or fail based on how much good information they have. Monitoring the emotional climate thus is a savvy strategy for any leader.

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In monitoring the emotional climate of a group or an interpersonal interaction, the leaders needed to distinguish between their feelings and those of others. Many of us often assume that others will react to a situation the same way we do. If we act only based on how we are feeling, ignoring how others feel, we may make poor decisions that harm our relationships with others and dilute our ability to influence them. As Cynthia noted when discussing how she dealt with the layoffs in her company, “It’s important to be aware of how you’re going through it, but also to look at the faces of the people to see how they’re going through the change.” In her case, she was able to move quickly beyond her sadness about having to lay off valued employees and see a brighter future. However, as she continued to monitor the emotional climate, she realized that some of the remaining employees felt different. They found it more difficult to move forward and feel optimistic about the future. Cynthia used this insight to tone down her positive feelings and respond more empathically to the employees who still felt considerable anxiety and sadness about the layoffs.

But Cynthia did not just monitor the emotional climate. Once she perceived that there was a potential problem, she acted on it. The same was true for the other leaders and the incidents they described. Monitoring the emotional climate on a continuous basis was just the beginning of an active process that involved decisive and effective action, usually sooner rather than later.

Monitoring the emotional climate of a team

In addition to boosting morale, monitoring the emotional climate helped leaders to diagnose and deal with conflicts within teams. Julia, the senior vice president for human resources (HR) in a large, multinational pharmaceutical company, was the HR person supporting the top management team for sales earlier in her career. There were about 10 people on the team, all sales vice presidents, and they had worked together well in the past—in fact, they had been one of the top-performing teams in the company. But recently things had changed. In Julia’s words, a new head of sales “was really stirring things up and calling into question what the sales team was doing. Also, the numbers were starting to not look so good, and there was pressure to deliver the results.” A few new members of the team also added to the strain.

Leading With Feeling: Nine Strategies of Emotionally Intelligent Leadership by Cary Cherniss and Cornelia Roche

As Julia continued to monitor the emotional climate of the group, she saw that the increased pressure was having negative effects. As she explained, “They were not supporting one another, not speaking well of each other outside the room. . . . But no one ever talked about their feelings.” So Julia decided to act.

She went to the team’s leader and asked him for permission to meet with the team to help them deal more constructively with their problems. Because Julia had worked with the team leader and earned his trust, he agreed.

Julia met with the team and helped them to talk about the changes that had occurred in the group. As a result, the team developed new norms about how to support one another. According to Julia: “We spent almost two hours talking about this, and we ended up with some commitments about how we would behave in the room and outside the room, and how we would call people on it if we felt those commitments weren’t being honored. And we agreed that once a month or so we would check in with each other and see how we are doing.”

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A lack of trust can be highly damaging for groups and organizations if it is not addressed. If Julia’s team had not addressed their internal problems and become a more cohesive group, the consequences could have had a significant impact on the effectiveness of the whole organization. Fortunately, Julia was closely monitoring the emotional climate, and when she detected problems, she acted.


Excerpted from the book Leading with Feeling: Nine Strategies of Emotionally Intelligent Leadership, by Cary Cherniss and Cornelia Roche and published by Oxford University Press in 2020. All rights reserved.

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