Mindful management: How to be an emotionally intelligent leader [Interview]
By John Becker
The effective manager must be attuned to the pulse of workplace.
They must keep their employees feeling supported as they tackle the myriad challenges facing them each day.
Emotional intelligence (sometimes abbreviated as EI or EQ) is a term found often in leadership blogs and books. At its core is empathy.
But like any term, it requires vision to take it from the pages of the most recent business bestseller to the day-to-day life of an office.
Liz Moorehead, IMPACT's editorial director, and Justine Timoteo, director of inbound and content services at IMPACT are highly respected leaders within our firm.
For this special interview, they shared their insights into emotionally-intelligent leadership and the hard lessons they've learned during their careers.
The heart of emotional intelligence
John: Emotional intelligence can sometimes feel like a buzzword. So talk to me about your perception of this term. What does it mean for you?
Justine: I think the first time I actually heard the term emotional intelligence — this is really embarrassing to admit — is from, I think, The Bachelor.
There was some contestant on that just insisted she was so emotionally intelligent, more emotionally intelligent than any of the other contestants, and I was like, "What the heck does that even mean?"
Liz: You heard about emotional intelligence from The Bachelor?
Justine: I know! It's not anything I'm proud of. So yeah, I just had to get that out of the way.
I don't remember what she said, but I do remember I looked it up and I thought it was really interesting.
And having now been in a manager role, it's taken on a different meaning for me.
I think when I very first learned about it, it seemed much more buzzword-y, like "You can control your emotions and be this super self-aware individual."
When I'm in a position to practice it, it's less about the act of control and more about the ability to accept. And I think that acceptance can lead to control, which plays into more of the traditional definition of it.
Emotional intelligence starts with awareness
John: So, it seems, one step back from emotional intelligence is an awareness of emotions. Maybe it's first about being aware of emotions, then accepting them?
Justine: Yes. You would definitely need to have some self awareness in order to be able to recognize what it is that you're feeling, but I don't think after you recognize it, it needs to be stifled or you need to figure out how stop it.
To me, emotional intelligence is being aware of your emotions and then being accepting of them. That way, you can act upon your emotions however is best.
Liz: I like that you use the word awareness, Justine, because when I think about emotional intelligence, especially as a manager, I think about it as maintaining situational awareness of the emotions in a given room or within a conversation.
Every single day — whether you're talking about yourself or you're talking about the people that you manage — everybody's coming to the proverbial table with their own set of experiences, emotions, and things that are top of mind for them that you may not realize.
And so for me, emotional intelligence is being aware that there are things that you don't know.
We all are walking around as managers, as teammates, carrying so much with us that is often unseen. With emotional intelligence, you need to have that awareness of self and awareness of others in order to interact appropriately with each other.
Emotional intelligence also makes me think of authenticity.
People want to be able to believe you and trust you. In other to be truly emotionally intelligent, you also need to be authentic in every interaction.
Putting it in practice
John: Liz, talk about the ways that you have consciously employed emotional intelligence in your managerial work.
Liz: I've been managing teams as large as 17 people, off and on now for about seven or eight years, and I've learned to employ emotional intelligence in what I do because I learned what not to do very quickly.
The biggest thing I will say is that I used to enter into conversations with a base of assumptions.
I would go in asking questions about why something happened, why something didn't happen.
I would get very task-oriented and instead of taking the time to build rapport, ask questions, and check in on how people are doing, which would help them self-diagnose or open up.
One book that really helped with this is The Coaching Habit.
It goes through a bunch of different questions that are great ways to drive conversations and really work with your people and build trust over time.
John: Justine, can you talk about emotional intelligence in your managerial work?
Justine: I do not have the years of experience that Liz has. I've only been a manager for two and a half years.
When I first was applying to become a team lead and to become a people manager, I had no idea what it actually entailed.
I think a lot of people go into it thinking they’ll be an “I'm in charge and I can fix it all” type of leader, and that's not my personality.
As much as I want to be able to fix it all, I'm very aware of the fact that I can't.
Instead, I bring a sense of vulnerability to the way I lead, to the way that I manage people, that has really transcended the team that I manage. It has enabled them to see me as a human and see my own flaws.
The fact that I recognize my strengths and I recognize my weaknesses, the fact that I'm able to do that means it's okay for them to do the same.
So, when they are going through personal issues or a problem with another teammate or a problem with a client, we have a much more trusting environment. They can come to me, or go to each other.
That's something that I'm very proud of because they really do support each other. It's less of me being this end-all-be-all leader, and really more of a community within our own team where they are able to be there for each other.
John: It sounds like you're modeling a culture that they're all picking up on and emulating.
Justine: I definitely try!
Learning from past mistakes
John: Tell me about a time you either totally nailed management or when you feel like you missed the mark.
Liz: The challenging thing about answering that question is that when I think about the situations that I've learned the greatest lessons from, they are when I was in my early- and mid-20s when I started doing people management.
I had one or two instances very early on in my managerial career where I made assumptions about someone's poor performance being tied to either a lack of follow-through, lack of focus, lack of commitment, or just not paying attention and letting things slide through the cracks.
I approached those conversations with that accountability posture. When it turned out in one case someone had had a death in the family that they had found out about the day before.
I saw clearly that I had not only failed in the moment of that conversation, but I also hadn't noticed something was off the day before, nor did they tell me. I didn't have the rapport built, I didn't have the trust established with them to come to me with that information.
That's the thing about emotional intelligence failures. You rarely fail in a single moment. Usually it's a summary of smaller failures in that area that culminate in a single moment.
A moment where you go, "Now, I see. I wasn't establishing trust, I wasn't leading with vulnerability as Justine was talking about."
Rather, I went into those purposeful conversations from the wrong perspective. It was to hold someone accountable, not to have a productive conversation about performance or to really give them the opportunity to talk about how they felt something went.
John: It seems like although we notice our own managerial failures in one given moment, it is actually a culmination of things that we might've missed leading up to it.
Starting off on the right foot
John: Which leads me to ask the follow up — how do you start off on the right foot with a new employee? Rapport doesn't happen overnight, so when you do start from scratch, how do you get it right?
Liz: I think that's something I'm still refining, but what works well for me now is that I really go out of my way from day one to get to know the person.
I don't want every conversation to be around performance or something highly structured. Go out for lunch. Stop by their desk. It's just little stuff like that.
But still, you have to be ready to notice when somebody doesn't want to talk about something.
You don’t need to pry, but you need to notice.
I'll catch a look or a hesitation and that's when I say:
"What was that? Was that a real answer? I don't think that was a real answer. What's really going on?"
And if we need to go off the floor, we'll go off the floor.
But really establishing early on that it's okay to not be perfect, it's okay to bring stuff with you to work. It happens.
That's really important to build with somebody right off the bat because if they won't tell you in the little moments when they're having an off day, they're not going to tell you in the big ones.
But when somebody is first joining a team, they don't want to appear weak. They want to appear like they can do everything. They're going to say yes more than they probably should.
They're going to do all of these things and they're going to try to appear a lot more polished and emotionally ready and on top of stuff. So you have to make it okay very early on to have those types of discussions.
Justine: The very first people I ever managed were people who were on my team and I was their peer previously.
A lot of people have a misconception of thinking that it would be more difficult for me to manage people that were previously my equals.
However, it was such an advantage because we were friends.
We had the rapport, we had trust already established and it was a lot easier for me to have those vulnerable moments or difficult, open conversations with them.
Now, when I get new teammates or people change teams and then all of a sudden I'm managing people I've never met before, it's a totally different ball game. How do I build rapport and trust from the get go?
And I agree with you, Liz, it's certainly something I'm still working on.
I don't even know if I should admit this, but I take notes on people.
I'm a remote employee, so I don't have the benefit of seeing somebody in person or stopping by their desks.
My interactions are much more structured, in a sense. It has to be a ZOOM call or meeting. Even if it's a casual like virtual coffee chat, there’s still structure.
I have a little Trello board where I take notes on people as I learn things about them:
"What is their significant other's name? What pets do they have? What did they say that they did last weekend?"
It helps me start to learn who they are as individuals, and it helps me break down certain barriers that could be put up at the very beginning of a relationship.
I like to think that this has helped me, but it's something you're always trying to iterate on and improve upon.
I'm currently managing people whose regular manager is out on maternity leave and they had a great relationship with their manager.
And then I'm coming in.
I have, I'm sure, a different style and a different communication style than their manager had, and so now I'm coming in and even though we're trying to build trust, it still takes a long time.
John: You're both speaking to how perceptive you have to be.
Liz: That's the thing about emotional intelligence. If you're a manager, you can't speed up the opportunities at which someone is ready to be vulnerable with you, but if you're not watching out for them, you can miss them.
John: Justine, can you reflect on a time where you feel like you really nailed management or a time that you feel you totally missed the mark?
Justine: One time when I missed the mark, I was managing someone and it was a situation where they were underperforming at the time and I went into meetings and performance reviews almost too cold.
I knew I had a point to get across. I knew this person needed to understand how they were underperforming and the steps they needed to make in order to retain their employment at the company, but my delivery of the message was poor.
It was probably one of the biggest learning opportunities that I've had so far.
That's when you really need to tap into the fact that you are human; you can bring that emotion to those meetings that are focused on performance and actually use it to your advantage.
It's going to help create more of a connection and just open up the conversation, whereas I was just a little bit too removed and I was just too cold at the time.
Managers caring for themselves
John: Do you as a manager ever feel that, in catering to others’ emotional needs, your own emotional needs are not met?
Liz: When I think about myself as a manager, I always try to remember that my people don't work for me, I work for them. So if they're not being successful, if they're not feeling supported emotionally, professionally, then I'm not being successful.
I think there is a critical error managers make when they walk into it feeling like it needs to be an equitable distribution of support. Because there is a difference between being emotionally vulnerable and me having a conversation with my team instead of having it with my boss.
It's kind of like how therapists have therapists. You have to have your own person to talk to and you have to be aware of what that line is.
Being vulnerable, being open, being receptive, being an honest to goodness, top to bottom, human being with your people will let you have that positive relationship.
But you shouldn't be looking to your people to provide this same level of support that you are providing to them. Not ever. It doesn't work that way.
John: We are in the midst of a crisis unlike anything we've ever seen before in our lifetimes. How have these last two months challenged you as managers?
Justine: I think for me, I've been even more hyper aware. I'm there to support my people. I think Chris Duprey used this term — being a servant leader and being there to serve your team. I want to ensure that every single one of them is as well equipped as possible to do their jobs successfully.
I wanted to know that they are okay in their own personal lives, that they are safe. It has been such a heightened experience emotionally and mentally, these last two months, more than any other time, I think, in my entire career, let alone just my career as a manager.
Liz: I would agree.
From my perspective, what has been the most challenging is that at a time where things need to go faster from an organizational perspective, we all emotionally have to slow down in order to be effective human beings and leaders.
You have to slow down. You have to exert a lot more emotional energy when you have less of it. It is a more with less situation...on steroids.
I'm exhausted constantly, but I also can't sleep. But I still have to make sure that when I sit down and have a conversation with people on my team, I am bringing everything I've got.
This is where those good habits and being emotionally intelligent as a leader are so critical. If I'm not taking care of myself first, I can't take care of anybody else.
Justine: I agree. You need to be taking care of yourself.
I've been working out in the mornings and I don't sign on until a certain time because it's my own mental prep for the day and for anybody else's needs.
And then I know when I sign on, I can be focused and I can do the work that I need to do for the team members within the given day.
That helps me be able to sign off at night and be able to sleep.
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