How emotional intelligence can help you adapt to change

As the demands on organizations change, so do the expectations on their leaders. The rise of technology, automation, and artificial intelligence have already required bold leadership, and the pandemic has now placed even greater demands on business leaders. In this rapidly evolving environment, the need to remain flexible is paramount. 

However, psychologists tell us the anxiety that often surrounds change and uncertainty is more likely to have the opposite effect—causing rigid, defensive, and inflexible behaviors. Emotional Intelligence (EI) is vital if business leaders are to overcome these outdated survival instincts and stay agile in the face of adversity. 

We’re only human

Every one of us falls into defensive positions and behaviors to protect ourselves from more negative or uncomfortable feelings. It’s a coping mechanism that distorts our perception of reality, so we can feel better about ourselves. For some this will be pretending everything is okay when it’s not, self-blaming or seeking to please others. For others it might be perfectionism, blaming others or being angry when falling short of high expectations. 

These behaviors are common but in the current leadership context they are unhelpful, particularly as defensiveness is often characterized by rigid and inflexible behavior. The challenge is to become aware of your defensive behaviors, especially when under stress, and identify ways to manage yourself back to a place where you operate effectively—and are capable of balanced leadership. That’s where emotional intelligence (EI) comes in.

EI is concerned with how people manage themselves to be both personally and interpersonally effective. It is the practice of making best use of who we are, our resources and our potential. And a key attribute of EI is how effectively people manage themselves to achieve their desired outcomes. This includes the degree to which they feel able to adapt their thinking and behavior to changing situations.

Change is possible

The good news is that change is possible. EI is based on attitudes, habits and skills that can be learned and unlearned. We can all develop our EI by managing our innate personality traits, to move out of our comfort zone, change ingrained habits and adopt new attitudes. 

Of course, emotionally intelligent leadership is about developing the whole person. Or in the words of leadership expert Warren Bennis, “There is no difference between becoming an effective leader and becoming a fully integrated human being.” This is certainly the case with self-regard, the cornerstone to all aspects of EI. If a leader is driven by an unconscious need to be in control or perfect, there will be an inevitable cost—to working relationships, the leadership climate, and a lack of flexibility. 

However, for leaders it’s more complex. While many aspects of EI are relevant to effective leadership, it depends on the context as to which style of leadership and which aspects of EI are most appropriate. And in the changing world of work, the leadership style needed to deliver the best possible outcomes is likely to change—often multiple times a day. 

Leadership styles

The key to emotionally intelligent leadership is the ability to move between different leadership styles, as and when appropriate, and knowing how to apply them. A leader with high self-regard and low regard for others, for example, may overuse a coercive and authoritarian style. This style will work well when there is a crisis or clear objectives are required. But it’s less effective when innovative ideas and approaches are needed, as a team needs autonomy and psychological safety to try new things and risk making mistakes.

Equally, a leader with low self-regard and high regard for others is more likely to use affiliative and democratic leadership styles. This might work well when a team is facing a stressful situation, or a leader needs to get the most out of skilled and valued staff. But when a leader is working with less experienced team members or poor performers, or results are needed quickly, then this style will fall short.

3 attributes for leadership agility

Truly agile leadership requires flexibility to shift leadership style, awareness of others to know which style to apply, and reflective learning to know how to apply a variety of different styles. 

  1. Flexibility: If a leader is driven to be perfect or strong, they run the risk of being rigid and dogmatic rather than responsive and adaptable to the demands of the present situation. To develop flexibility, try something new, change a habit by practicing new behavior, and give yourself time to accept change. If your immediate response is resistance, check the reasons why you are rejecting change.
  2. Awareness of others: Too high expectations leave people feeling anxious, too low and they feel demotivated. It’s vital for leaders to give their team the correct level of autonomy or direction. To develop awareness of others, listen attentively and reflect back to people, be observant to body language and tone of voice, and show empathy – imagine yourself in another person’s position.
  3. Reflective learning: Actively reflecting helps a leader continuously improve, learn from experience, and grow, so they can lead, influence, and get the best out of others. To develop reflective learning actively seek feedback, record reflections on your day, and reflect on challenging experiences – how could you prepare and respond differently next time?

Evidence for EI

A recent European survey completed by more than 10,000 employees identified bad management as the biggest barrier to productivity. And further research suggests managers are responsible for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement. At the same time, my company PSI’s own research shows that leaders with high EI are more likely to create a climate that is visioning, stretching, encouraging, collaborative and trusting. And less likely to create a climate that is aggressive, demanding, over-competitive and rigid. 

The demands on leaders will continue to grow. With leaders at the forefront of organizational change, it is imperative we equip them with the right tools and resources to get the best out of themselves and those they lead. EI has an important role to play in helping today’s leaders adapt and respond to the needs of the future.

Jo Maddocks is chief psychologist for PSI Services, providing workforce assessment and evaluation programs for various enterprises, including businesses, government organizations, and professional associations.