Navigating a Volatile World with Emotional Intelligence

July 14, 2020 | FEE Content, FEE Posts


by Bob Leonard and David Ross


Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is crucial to leading effectively in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) environment. An EQ stimulus boost is needed so leaders can up their game to influence and reassure anxious stakeholders.


Over the course of our eight articles to date, we focused on climate risk management in a VUCA world; and discussed an array of issues including resilience and transparency, strategy, storytelling, stakeholder management and reskilling. These processes don’t happen by themselves. People must carry them out. They require a coordinated effort between leaders, staff and other stakeholders… a diverse group of people with different worldviews, values and objectives.



Because individuals in organisations can rarely be successful alone, they must influence, lead and coordinate their efforts with others to achieve their goals – to translate vision into action. A leader’s success rests in large part on their ability to influence the different groups he or she must work in partnership with. Command and control… “my way or the highway” is no longer effective. Leaders with high EQs motivate people in a collaborative way, so that they want to cooperate. We have identified several specific skills from a wide array of emotional and social intelligence competencies, as the ones that differentiate successful leaders. Fortunately, these skills can be enhanced with the proper training and coaching.


Here is an example of a real situation that could have been prevented with emotional intelligence. This is a blatant example. Usually the situation is less obvious/more nuanced:


A Sr. VP at a technology firm wanted to show appreciation for a staff member who had gone above and beyond to develop and execute a winning marketing campaign. He had already put in a request for a bonus for the young woman, but he wanted to show his personal appreciation. He had heard that a rival executive was attempting to woo her away to his organisation. The VP is a wine connoisseur and a foodie. Because he enjoys an evening of fine wine and good food, he assumed that she did too. She has nothing against a good meal, but had worked late several nights on the project, and would have preferred to get home early to spend time with her husband and small child. The dinner was uncomfortable. The woman was mistrustful of her boss’s intentions and she soon moved to another department.


An emotionally intelligent leader would have done some due diligence to understand the woman’s emotional state and personal situation. He would have been transparent… told her about the bonus in the works, and that he would like to do more. Perhaps offering her some time off or another perk tailored to her priorities.


Gaining a Greater Understanding of Others… and Ourselves


Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ is a 1995 book written by Daniel Goleman. In his book, Goleman posits that emotional intelligence is as important as IQ for success, including in academic, professional, social and interpersonal aspects of life.


EQ enables people to focus on being mindful, and to better understand and regulate their own behaviours… bearing more fruitful and engaged relationships. Here’s a list of EQ attributes:


  1. Emotional self-awareness: Identify and be able to label what you are feeling.
  2. Self-acceptance: Accept your feelings as information, but do not classify them as good or bad. Regard them in a non-judgmental way.
  3. Manage anxiety: Much of the anxiety we feel concerns a future threat that may or may not occur. “What if I get the coronavirus?”
  4. Mindset Management: This encompasses the worry, apprehension, fear and unknowns about, for example, the coronavirus mentioned above. Change your “what if’s?” to “how can I best handle this?”
  5. Empathy: having the ability to, metaphorically, “stand in the shoes of another”, and understand their feelings and motivations.
  6. Social skills: building strong connections and healthy relationships to enable honest and open communications.
  7. Self-control: Identify your triggers so you can catch them and redirect your focus. What irritates you? Why? Think before you act.


Can EQ be Taught / Learned?


We all know people who are naturally gifted at recognising and controlling their own emotions, and those of others. They seem to understand how to make others feel comfortable, or engage them, and discern what they want from any given situation.


For those of us who weren’t born with EQ skills, or didn’t learn them by example from our families of origin, we can learn them deliberately. Some learn the hard way over many years from life lessons. EQ skills can be taught in a much quicker and easier way (as long as the pupil is willing and trustful).


EQ is about being mindful of how your feelings and behaviour may impact upon another and conversely, being mindful of how the feelings and behaviour of another may impact upon you – and manage accordingly.


There are personal coaches who specialise in EQ. There are also self-help books, online and in-person trainings available. The first step is admitting you could improve your EQ. The second step is assessing where you are. There are tools to help with your self-assessment. It is likely you are fairly strong in some areas and weaker in others. And the third step is practice… over time you will form habits that become second nature.


Leading People in a VUCA World


Cognitive empathy – understanding the meaning of others’ emotions – is essential for leaders who need to motivate others. Unfortunately, many people simply assume that what makes them happy makes others happy. Here are several behaviours to model:


Ensure your feedback is constructive. Focus on approval and sincere praise, to reinforce positive behaviours. Then move to the behaviours you wish to change. Tell a story about how you used to make a similar mistake until you realised there was a better way. The other person will see you as a partner who is trying to help, not an opponent trying to harm.


Listen to feedback… and listen deeply. Nobody likes to be judged. But almost all feedback is valuable… right or wrong, it provides insight into how you are perceived by others. If someone gives you negative feedback, don’t respond right away. Thank them, then think it over. Ask yourself how the feedback can make you better. Or how it can help you better understand others.


Disperse logjams. There will be times when you and your team and/or stakeholders disagree on how to handle a situation. You’ve thoroughly discussed it from all angles, and no mutually endorsed path emerges. Recognise that the only way forward is for someone to surrender. So give in, and commit to making it work. By going all in, you communicate trust. If the decision is a failure, refrain from saying, “I told you so.”


Ask for help when you need it. If you’re facing a difficult situation, pride may dictate that you try to solve things on your own. Don’t. When you reach out to others for help, you show that you value them and their abilities. By giving them an opportunity to help, you turn them into a partner who is invested in your success.


Be empathetic.Resist the urge to judge others. Instead focus on their feelings. Start with listening. Ask questions to ensure you fully understand. Empathy doesn’t mean agreement. It’s about striving to understand the other person’s point of view – and that results in stronger relationships.


Help others. Don’t wait for them to ask. If you see a need, offer to assist. By showing a willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done, you build trust and inspire.


Apologise. Have you said or done something that you wish you could take back? It’s not easy to say, “I’m sorry”, but doing so demonstrates empathy. Apologising doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re wrong. It simply means you value the relationship more than your ego.


Forgive. What if the other person did something to harm you? It only harms you further to dwell on it.


Be yourself. Be transparent, authentic and even vulnerable. Most others will see that for what it is… a strength, not a weakness.


As a leader, deliberately behave in an emotionally intelligent manner, carefully shifting your emotions and those of your team to set the best tone to achieve the task. Monitor how your team is collaborating, communicating and progressing. If necessary, step in to help move your team in the right direction. 





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