A new approach to contemplating emotions may just be what the modern C-suite needs. While leadership once leaned heavily on intellect-driven leadership, we now understand that emotional intelligence, or EQ, is a necessity.
Where IQ focuses on attributes such as logical reasoning, dispassion, and technical know-how, EQ focuses on creativity and empathy, social facility, and the ability to collaborate. Emotional intelligence is our ability not only to understand and manage our own emotions but also to recognize and influence the emotions of those around us. The initial concepts behind EQ were developed by researchers John Mayer and Peter Salovey in 1990 and later made popular by psychologist Daniel Goleman in a 2004 Harvard Business Review article. These skills define great leadership in the 21st century, but this definition of EQ is just the tip of the iceberg.
I’m a professional coach, who works with business leaders and new founders to craft emotionally resonant lives, careers, and companies. My coaching work builds on 30 years of strategy consulting, informed by research into human motivation: how leaders can capitalize on the role of emotion to motivate customers and employees toward achieving their business goals. In my view, leadership is about inspiring others to turn vision into reality, and decades of research show that emotion (not logic) is what drives behavior.
The conversation around EQ is often focused on managing the emotions that hijack us, rather than anchoring on those that move us to action. While it’s important to recognize and manage the emotions that overtake us in the moment, a skilled leader understands what moves people, starting with themselves.
Of the 34,000 human emotions, nearly all of them are mutable—in other words, they come and go and are highly dependent on the context of the moment. But there are a handful that have been overlooked in today’s EQ discussion; motivating emotions are the emotions that guide our decisions, even subconsciously, and ultimately define our personal identities.
Mutable emotions are the emotions that change moment by moment, that can hijack our decision-making abilities when we’re scared, stressed, surprised, angry, etc. These emotions are highly dependent on context—when the unexpected happens, it can trigger an emotion that leads you (or your team) to make decisions that aren’t congruent with your core needs or goals.
One way we can confront mutable emotions is through mindfulness meditation, which has become a part of the modern business lexicon thanks to Silicon Valley pioneers taking command of longtime Buddhist traditions. We can begin managing mutable emotions through meditative practices, the goal of which is to allow emotions to move through us, observing and noting their significance before letting them pass, and avoiding falling victim to temporary emotional states.
Our ability to recognize the impact of mental wellness on our emotions at work has led to the top 100 mental wellness apps in 2020, becoming a $1.1 billion industry. Learning to work with mutable emotions is a key component of leaders focusing on emotional intelligence—when we understand that we are not the emotion, but rather that the emotions we feel on a day-to-day basis are like a wave, ebbing and flowing. From this understanding, we can allow ourselves the freedom to pause and reflect. An example of this thinking is saying to yourself, “Yes, my coworker frustrated me. And that’s my reaction, not who I am.”
Emotional intelligence requires more than simply managing emotions. It’s also about understanding our unique needs as individuals, along with how we want to feel when those needs are met.
In coaching, I always start with the question of “who” instead of the “why,” because self-understanding generates clarity around your personal values, your vision, and your action necessary to reach your most wanted goals.
Former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi recognized how emotions drive leadership, especially those linked to two core needs that drive humans—recognition and purpose. She developed the corporate mission of “performance with purpose.” which included social and environmental sustainability, as well as workforce development. Crucially, the latter was focused on recognition, or imparting value to an employee.
Nooyi also wrote more than 400 letters each year to the parents of her senior executives, unique displays of personal recognition and gratitude that make her employees feel appreciated and their families feel proud.
When we embrace the handful of emotions that motivate us as individuals and use them to guide decisions, we can become more effective leaders. In my coaching practice, clients report a greater feeling of mastery over mutable emotions when they’re firmly anchored in the ones that motivate and drive them forward. These motivating emotions act as “signal in the noise,” providing structure to individuals’ emotional inner worlds, and guiding a more intentional design of their outer worlds.
Identifying your motivating emotions
Motivating emotions are how we feel when our core needs are met. Models such as those popularized by Abraham Maslow, Max Neef, and fellow thinkers and scholars give us the words to discuss and categorize these needs. Ask yourself how you want to feel in your work and life; the answer should not be just a generic feeling such as “happy” but one that is deeply personal and essential to you.
Some common emotions related to humans’ core needs include feeling safe, free, connected, self-expressive, impactful, and growing. Ask yourself what are the top two to three needs that are omnipresent for you? How can you more intentionally design your life and work to enable these feelings to show up more frequently?
We can’t control emotions directly, but we do have the power to create the right conditions for the ones we want, as authors McKee, Boyatzis, and Johnston discuss in their book Becoming a Resonant Leader.
Once you know your own desired states, you can bring this skill to the workplace. Who are your colleagues, customers, and partners, and how are their motivating needs different from your own? What insights about your similarities and differences might inform your leadership style, and how you could more effectively create alignment?
This is how we can go beyond the current definition of emotional intelligence. We’re better able to recognize the needs and emotions of our colleagues, employees, and partners. We’re able to authentically tap into what moves people so that we can galvanize forward motion toward a shared goal.
Understanding our motivating emotions (alongside our mutable ones) allows us to be more intentional about creating the conditions for a more positive work environment. Within our workplaces, if we’re willing to do this beneficial emotional work, the answers will define the next generation of great leaders.
Jen Rice is a strategist and coach. She has worked for decades in strategy and communications, from customer profile research, CX, insight, analytics, and business technology work. Jen has focused her career on understanding what motivates both individuals and those in corporate structures to create behavioral change.