Emotional Intelligence: Elephants and riders

When we ask people to reflect on great leadership moments, they identify a common theme. It is the ability to understand the self and others and put this intelligence into purposeful effect. In other words, Emotional Intelligence is a key difference maker for great leaders.

Much of our work at Humanergy helps people manage the people side of their business and increase their Emotional Intelligence (EI). Daniel Goleman identified five components of EI – Self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skill. The challenge, especially for more technically-minded people, is to boost their EI. We found the elephant and rider analogy to be powerful and helpful.

Several recent books have expanded upon the rider and the elephant analogy. Chip and Dan Heath in Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard talk about the rider as the thinking aspect of decisions and the elephant being the passionate, emotional side. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathon Haidt explores the conscious mind (the rider) and the unconscious mind (the elephant).

When thinking about Emotional Intelligence and leadership, the rider (intellect and logic) often thinks he’s in charge of the elephant (emotions). Worse yet, some riders don’t admit they’re on an elephant at all. When a leader doesn’t master EI, influence suffers and results wane.

I am reminded of a coworker who was brilliant, capable and at the top of his field. His Achilles heel was the interpersonal aspects. He regularly received feedback that he was cold, abrasive and difficult to work with. Over time, and with consistent effort, he was able to adopt some practices that helped a great deal. He started asking more questions in meetings and involving others in important projects. He may never be a people person by nature, but he does have a better understanding of the impact of his behavior on others. He is actively training his elephant and rider to work together.

What’s the status of your elephant and rider and their relationship? Are you aware of others’ elephants and adapting to them? (Think of a herd of massive, invisible elephants crashing around at your next team meeting.)

Wisdom in human relations is a prerequisite of excellent leadership. That’s why it is so tempting to immediately think, “Yea, I have a handle on my emotions” or “Sure, I get what’s going on with Bob.” Remember that elephants have a mind of their own and can’t be driven around like a golf cart. It takes time and consistent effort to master the rider/elephant partnership.

It is reassuring to know that everyone’s riding an elephant which can be hard to understand and sometimes out of control. We are all in the same jungle – in need of elephant riding lessons.


Need help training your elephant? Contact Humanergy.

Photo from iStockphoto.


Manage in a world without order

I have given up on the idea that life will settle down and become predictable or calm. I don’t necessarily enjoy the constant change and hectic pace, but I’m trying to learn coping strategies.

That’s why Andrew Zolli’s interview on Public Radio International’s On Being Program was so captivating. Zolli, author of Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back talked about his work on resilience, which is based on the reality that disruption abounds in our world and will not go away. Here’s an excerpt from Zolli’s blog comments:

“Because the ecological system, the economic system, the geopolitical system, the climate system, the food security system are all connected to each other in ways that cause very complex highly unpredictable nonlinear outcomes. So all of those systems being connected leads us to a place where increasingly instead of trying to find an equilibrium in a planet that’s out of balance, we also have to try and manage with the unbalances, the imbalances. We have to manage in a world that’s intrinsically out of order.”

He is studying how people, nature and other systems can better manage in a world without order. Some of the best places to do that study are ones which have faced repeated challenges, like natural disasters.

“Indeed, it’s the failures, when properly understood, that create the context for learning and growth. That’s why some of the most resilient places are, paradoxically, also the places that regularly experience modest disruptions – they carry the shared memory that things can go wrong.

“Resilience” takes this as a given, and is commensurately humble. It doesn’t propose a single, fixed future. It assumes we don’t know exactly how things will unfold, that we’ll be surprised, that we’ll make mistakes along the way.”

Some of my favorite pearls of wisdom from his talk:

Give up the myth that all problems are preventable or at least solvable.

Be adaptable, which means you must learn to fail gracefully.

Build redundancy into all systems, so failure in one part does not bring down the whole.

Build the capacity of your people and systems to sense upcoming disruptions and reorganize quickly. Zolli calls this true wisdom.

Prepare for the emotional and mental impacts of disruption. As Zolli says, “…if you believe that the world is a meaningful place, if you see yourself as having agency within that world, and if you see successes and failures as being placed in your path to teach you things, you are more likely to be psychologically hardy and therefore more resilient in the face of trauma.”

I may not grow to love the disruptive reality. But I do want to increase my ability to (as Zolli says) recover, persist, and even to thrive in the face of change.


Need help with resilience in the face of change? Contact Humanergy.

Photo from iStockphoto.

5 tips for thriving on the receiving end of change

Most advice about change is directed at leaders, often dealing with managing employees’ reactions to change. There are far fewer books and articles written from an employee-facing-change perspective.

To roll with change in your organization, start with these tips:

1. Recognize your starting point as it relates to change. In general, do you go with the flow and adapt quickly? If yes, hurray for you! However, if change or ambiguity throw you for a loop, you need to prepare for change more carefully by attending to the following tips.

2. Be honest about your concerns and feelings. Admit (at least to yourself) if the impending change creates anxiety, fear or even anger. The only way to move past these emotions is to acknowledge them first. Take some time to examine your reaction to the upcoming change. Seek the counsel of a trusted mentor to help you formulate a plan to manage your feelings while you make the necessary adjustments.

3. Learn about the context for change. Talk with your boss about why the change is important to the organization. If you get the business case for the change – and the negative impact of not changing – you’ll find it easier to buy in.

4. Ask lots of questions, but don’t expect all the answers right away. Your leaders don’t have a fool-proof crystal ball. There will be unanticipated events, modifications and impact. Some ambiguity is to be expected.

5. Choose your behavior. You could join the vocal opposition or an underground movement for the status quo. While that may delay the change, your reputation will be damaged. If you can’t be an early adopter, strive to be at least a neutral-to-positive force for change. Above all, don’t feed the gossip mill, and confront peers whose behavior is inappropriate.

Some changes may so profoundly affect the organization or your role that staying on the job is difficult, even impossible. As with any unknown, expect the best AND prepare for the worst. As Charles R. Swindoll said, “We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations.”


Struggling with change? Contact Humanergy

Photo from istockphoto

Empathy: Not just for the touchy-feely

I worked for a boss once who was profoundly uncomfortable with feelings. He was a likeable guy who preferred to keep his distance when things got personal or emotional. It wasn’t unusual for him to miss meetings where contentious issues were going to be discussed.

My boss’ lack of empathy allowed him to deal with the facts at hand, without the complication of wading into various perspectives or attitudes. What he lost, however, was the ability to maximize our emotional intelligence, an important factor in team success.

Empathy was defined by Daniel Goleman in the HBR article, What Makes a Leader, as “the ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people” and “skill in treating people according to their emotional reactions.”

If you’re thinking that empathy is an unnecessary distraction, consider its benefits to leaders:

Empathy gives you insight. You will gain a richer understanding of your organization’s people, competitors and customers – and therefore make better decisions.

Empathy enhances influence. You will not be able to sway your peers or boss without understanding their perspectives and attitudes. Your attempts at persuasion will fall on deaf ears if you do not connect with what is important to them.

Empathy helps you leverage diversity. Your team is composed of people with skills, experiences and cultural backgrounds that are different from yours. Asking genuine questions and not making assumptions will help you not only “get them” as people, it will also allow you to tap into their interests and utilize their unique abilities.

How to enhance empathy?

Start with humility. You haven’t got it all figured out. Recognize that you need all of your people’s capabilities – tangible and intangible – to succeed.

Be curious. Listen more and talk less. Ask questions about what people are thinking and feeling. Don’t assume you already know.

Ask for feedback and input, and really mean it. Use the ideas and innovations that your team shares. This will encourage people to share more over time.

Empathy isn’t a magic bullet, as noted by Steve Tobak in a recent post. It is an important tool for your leadership toolbox that should be regularly used.

“If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it” (Atticus Finch, a fictitious character in the book, To Kill a Mockingbird).


To find out more about how you can beef up your empathy, contact Humanergy.

Photo from istockphoto

Communicating heart to heart

A recent Next Level Blog post about the Dalai Lama stimulated my thinking about leadership and communication. The post noted that the Dalai Lama encourages people to communicate not person-to-person, but heart-to-heart. As leaders, it can be all too easy to communicate position-to-position, so even person-to-person seems like a tall order. What would it mean for your leadership performance if you were able to speak to the hearts of those you lead?

Acknowledges the reality that we are all spiritual beings. We are not defined by our jobs, bodies, capabilities or any other physical characteristics. We are more defined by our hopes, dreams and feelings than by our physical being. Research in emotional intelligence has verified that a healthy emotional state is critical to leadership. Recognizing the spiritual aspects of people means that leaders must understand both what is important to others and what causes them stress or worry. Likewise, leaders must be willing to share at least part of their internal selves as well. As Pierre Tielhard de Chardin said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

Conveys a more authentic you. Expressing your genuine emotions with others allows them to get to know the real you. This does not have to mean baring your soul. It does mean that if you’re sad or angry, you should acknowledge it. Hiding your emotions, whether you realize you’re doing it or not, is rarely successful, because the people around you recognize that something is going on.

Allows you to influence your people on a deeper level. Effective leaders seek to motivate and influence the people around them. Inspiring someone with no emotional connection is extremely difficult. When leaders have heart-to-heart connections, they are better able to galvanize the collective energies and connect to the reasons people do more than just show up to work. These leaders are able to connect the work to people’s passions.

Creates an environment of trust. It can be frustrating to work closely with someone who keeps you at arms length. This isn’t about wanting deep and meaningful conversations. This is simply creating an atmosphere of approachability – where issues are openly dealt with, whether they be content-based or related to how people work together. Trust can be adversely affected when one or more team members have feelings that affect team functioning, yet are not discussed. A healthy environment and a degree of emotional connectedness allow team members to deal with the tough stuff.

Allows for healthy discourse and disagreement. When people are connected on a deep level, they are able to express their ideas fully, including dissenting opinions. This is exactly the atmosphere you want as a leader – candid and respectful debate that leads to the best decisions and creative solutions.

Makes you more persuasive. Creating an emotional connection with others sets the stage for being able to sell your ideas effectively. Nothing is more compelling than a solid set of facts embedded in a story that connects with people’s emotions. If you already have a good understanding of how your audience feels on the subject, crafting your message is much easier.

I have had the experience of working with a person who was very closed when it came to emotions. He took “never let them see you sweat” to an extreme. As a colleague, it was frustrating and nonproductive, because it inserted more noise in the process. First, we had to gain an understanding of his position on an issue. Then we also had to figure out how he felt about it, which was darn near impossible. What a waste of energy that could have been otherwise invested productively in the organization!

If you tend towards a more unemotional approach, how can you begin? Consider how you arrive at work each day. I have a terrible habit of marching in, head down, deep in thought. Look up, smile and say, “Good morning.” Whatever you do, align it with how you really feel; be authentic, not fake. Otherwise, you leave people wondering, “What’s up with her?” You’d rather have them saying, “It’s great to work with her, even when she’s having a bad day!”

Could your communication practices be more heart-to-heart? Or is there something else on your mind about leadership?  Contact Humanergy.

Photo courtesy of stock.xchng.

You need thick skin AND a big heart

I heard somewhere recently that leaders need both thick skin and a big heart. At face value, those two qualities might seem like an oxymoron. How can a tough, impervious person be vulnerable enough to let the softer side show? Christian D. Warren answers this question in his blog post called The Positive Aspects of Being Thick-Skinned. He says:

“What being thick-skinned really means is that a person can take more pressure, ridicule, and proverbial “hits” than the average Joe. Most of the time, a thick skin also serves to protect a big, soft heart. So being thick-skinned should make a person warm, positive, and very easy to approach, because of the higher understanding of challenges conquered.”

If you’re not naturally thick-skinned and tend to reel when faced with criticism or intense pressure, what can you do to beef up your virtual armor?

Practice new internal messages. We can be our own worst enemies. When we receive feedback or feel great stress, we often have an internal dialogue that perpetuates feelings of uncertainty. You can actively replace internal messages like, “I can’t do this” with new ones. When the pressure is on, think, “I’ve survived worse” or “focus on facts” or “what’s the one next thing I can do?” These calming internal messages put you in control and help you remain rational.

Prepare before intensity strikes. Have a game plan in place so that you are ready to respond well in heated situations. Practice in front of a mirror, so that your facial expressions match your words. One good preparation strategy is to have a statement ready that  allows you to respond appropriately right away and then deal with the issue later. “I really appreciate you sharing that with me. I want to take a little time to think about what you’ve said. Can we meet this afternoon?”

Assume it isn’t personal. In reality, most comments are not intended as personal digs. Even if there is an intent to personally attack you, reacting to it does you no favors. Too often people remember your response, not the “offending” comment. Internal messaging helps here, too. Think, “what can I learn from this?” and craft a strategy to respond, if appropriate. Otherwise, if the comments are merely a distraction, move on.

What if you need to be more tender-hearted?

Be tough about issues and tender with people. Tony Schwartz’s blog, The Only Thing that Really Matters, makes this point perfectly. Your people’s need to feel valued and appreciated is fundamental. No matter what the trigger event is or how irritated you may be, you choose your reaction. Breathe deeply and take a moment to gather your thoughts, so that you can respond in a way that is firm, clear and maintains the dignity of all involved.

Be cautious about appearing unemotional, especially if you’re a female leader. There is a sweet spot for how emotional you appear on the job. Gabriela Cora writes about the detrimental effects of being perceived as cold or unemotional in her post, Thick Skin Pays Off in Leadership. Women are expected to be more emotional and big-hearted, and therefore may be judged more harshly than men for seeming indifferent or aloof.

Earn respect through compassion. There is an old school of thought that can be summarized as follows: To get people’s respect, you must be tough, imposing and “never let them see you sweat.” The more informed school recognizes that respect is earned through qualities such as integrity, kindness and transparency. Contrary to the old thinking, there is no honor in being labeled distant or unapproachable.

Spend time with people one-on-one. While you don’t need to ooze love and compassion, simply take time to sit down with your people for regular conversation. Find out how things are going and how you might help them succeed. Truly listen and then follow up on what you commit to do. Soon you’ll be known as one of the most caring leaders around.

Thick skin can help you thrive in a world where unkind words and adversity can’t be avoided. A big heart allows you to be yourself, help others and contribute to the greater good. Keep a healthy level of both qualities in order to avoid being overly-sensitive or emotionally distant. Otherwise, as the cartoon character Pogo quipped, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Want more info about this or another topic? Contact Humanergy.

Photo by Benjamin Earwicker, who has a collection at stock.xchng, our favorite photo site. Check out his website.