When leading others, it’s important for leaders to recognise that much of the noise, the todo, the drama and carrying on that we could so easily hold judgments around, is often simply, a cry for help. We could even change that phrase, “a cry for help” into something more powerful. For example, when our people make a lot of noise, perhaps they are seeking assistance, looking for clarity, currently experiencing difficulty and/or stress. So leaders need to learn how to lead with emotionally intelligent communication.
One of the things we explore in our leadership development programs and executive coaching sessions is how to show up to these messages. The way we show up can fundamentally change the way people learn to manage difficulty, stress, change and ambiguity. Of course, it is hard to show up with patience, objectivity and a growth mindset when we ourselves are also stressed and low on resources. However, as leaders, we must remember that we have a responsibility to shape this cycle of interactions and make it better. So here are some examples of how you can make it better.
Tell your people that they have value for who they are and the differences they bring. When our people struggle in moments, one of the best things we can do as a leader is validate them, let them know that we believe in who they are, who they will become and that they have the ability to manage the difficulty, solve the problem, grow and develop. In other words, we need to develop a coaching philosophy rather than a judging one, and this is something we consult to large organisations all the time – the importance of creating a coaching culture.
A message like this is powerful because it encourages people to be autonomous, to take responsibility for their challenges. It’s okay for them to feel frustrated about the particular things that they struggle with, and it’s okay to express that frustration in their own unique way, because this will lead to unique thinking and solutions. The tricky part as the leader is to not create a system of interactions where people are allowed to wallow, complain and do nothing. Demonstrating that your people are valued creates trust and respect, which if nothing else, means you have influence.
Leaders often create the criteria of successful leadership around ideas such as: harmony, everyone getting along, people feeling good and positive, etc. There is a danger here, because life is full of ups and downs. From a Buddhist perspective, we could argue that life and leadership involve suffering – it is a natural part of being and doing in the world.
So rather than creating a culture where people are encouraged to not express negative emotion, but only good emotion, we should be encouraging our staff to express negative emotion and communicate that negative emotional experience to us. Why? So that we learn more about our people: what works for them and what doesn’t, what they are confident with and what they aren’t, what supports them through difficulty and what doesn’t. Leading with emotionally intelligent communication is what we need to model, so that our people can do it for themselves.
This doesn’t just serve us in the information gathering sense. It serves the person by teaching them how to engage with and communicate negative emotion in a more adult, functional way, as opposed to a more childlike way: tantrums, passive aggressive behaviours, etc. As our people communicate better, we can interact with them better, and we can occupy a more empathetic and solutions-oriented space more often, rather than a judgmental, problem-oriented space.
One of the most common learnings and insights we see in our coaching and leadership development clients is that “we are all learning”. It is amazing how many adults in leadership positions have a story in their mind that tells them that they need to have all their shit together, have all the answers, have the perfect three-step strategy, have the toolkit, etc. The reality is, the modern world is a diverse, ever-changing system, for which we are arguably, poorly equipped. We are still evolving and learning. The rate of change is exceeding our evolution.
To mirror the first point above, leaders have to accept that they are here because of who they are and who they will become and that it’s okay not to have the answer right now. Instead, the focus should be on adaptability, flexibility and curiosity – opening up questions and lines of thinking around emotion and difficulty and leaning into this, rather than avoiding it, and then to hold this philosophy in the front of our minds when we look at our people making clunky choices. We have to remember, our people are still learning. No matter how many years of experience, degrees and/or times they’ve been told, they are still learning. And we are still learning how to lead this individual with emotionally intelligent communication.
That does not mean we allow people to continue to make clunky choices and avoid responsibility and learning. What it means is that we have to scaffold the responsibility chain to enable our people to take on more and more responsibility in a sustainable manner.
At the end of the day, to lead with emotionally intelligent communication is all about the quality of our communication. Quality communication is often what makes the difference between things getter worse or things getting better. And this applies to leaders, parents, spouses, everyone. So, one of the best ways to develop this in yourself and other leaders is to put them through a leadership development pathway that focuses on emotionally intelligent communication, diversity and ‘leading others’ strategies. And even more powerful, is to back this up with individual executive coaching so that they can bring to life their own unique strategies.