Why most CEOs lack emotional intelligence

As I looked into Igor’s face, it was imperative that I accurately interpret his reaction to my words. Emotional intelligence is not taught at the FBI Academy, but it was essential for me to understand the difference between anxiety and sadness when interviewing people like Igor. I needed to know whether I could trust him to help me in my investigation.

You may never need to interview an individual whom you suspect of being a foreign spy. It is possible, however, that you will need to impress a new client or calm down an frustrated customer.

Emotional intelligence allows you to recognize and accurately interpret what is going on with colleagues, employees and clients. As a leader, you need to excel at handling confict, and the need for this skill grows more important as you climb the ladder of success.

Can you tell if a team member is frustrated? Or, if they angry? It’s an important distinction because frustration happens when people feel blocked from achieving a goal. Whereas anger is a response to a perceived wrong done to them or to another. Yet too often leaders, managers, and supervisors cannot tell the difference.

Top level executives lead the pack when it comes to being direct and assertive, but research suggests that emotional intelligence diminishes as they move up the corporate ladder. Emotional intelligence scores from this study indicate a decline as people move above middle management—with CEOs having the lowest emotional intelligence scores in the workplace!

Emotional competency is a major component of mental toughness. Leaders who are mentally tough are able to manage their emotions so negative ones don’t control their behavior and thoughts. While mentally tough leaders experience bad moods and impulses like everyone else, they do not act upon them without thinking them through.

People feel before they think, so leaders who constantly react to their emotional states never develop the discipline to allow their thoughts to moderate their emotions.

Here’s a closer look at why CEOs lack emotional intelligence and what can be done to enhance it.

Workaholism has become a desireable lifestyle

A new prosperity gospel has sprung up that believes there is no higher calling than starting your own business. The catch is this: To succeed, you must be willing to give up everything. This charge is led by entrepreneurs like Gary Vaynerchuk, who tells his followers they shouldn’t avoid working 18-hour days.

I was brought up to believe in the virtue of hard work. It’s got me to where I am today, but to create a lifestyle based on values like money and success is shallow. It is devoid of meaningful relationships or family life. It’s a madness that permeates the C-suite—“I’ll become rich and successful or die trying.”

Because of our focus on tasks, entrepreneurs often don’t have the time to develop the emotional intelligence they need take their success to the next level.

How to make it work for you: Find a trusted friend or family member and have them ask you this question: Are you are willing to give up your youth, sleep, vacations, health, family, or morals for this job? Think long and hard about your answers because it is possible to succeed without working yourself to death.

Outsized ego

As we climb the ladder of success, egos can grow. We are proud of the strides we’ve made, and we should be. While ego may be part of what drives us, we should never give it more than what it deserves.

Ego traps talented professionals. Executive leaders reach a point where the only opinion that matters is their own. They stop listening. They stop learning and this is where ego becomes a trap for suckers. Once you stop being curious about yourself and others, you stop seeing the world as it really is.

The first thing I learned as an FBI agent was that "reading other people" would be essential if I hoped to live long enough to retire from my job. The second thing I learned was that "understanding myself" would be critical if I wanted to predict my response when confronted with the unknown.

Emotionally competent leaders do not let their ego keep them from recognizing their weaknesses. In fact, they know it’s essential to find ways to manage these weaknesses so they can focus on building upon their strengths.

Ignorance of your competition makes you vulnerable; ignorance of yourself makes you stupid.

How to make it work for you: If you’ve made it to the top, you should be too smart to fall into the ego trap so there is no one to blame but yourself. The good news is it’s easy to get out of this trap. All you need to do is suck up a little humility and start to be as concerned about the needs of others as you are with your own.

Pressure to have all the answers

Executive leaders are paid the big bucks to have all the answers. When the stakes are high, successful people maintain their poise and perform. But pressure situations can either empower or imprison; we all know what it’s like to have the perfect answer pop into our head 20 minutes after an important conversation.

There are people who can face all kinds of conflict and seem to know exactly what to say. Faced with an uncooperative employee, an angry customer or a tense negotiation with a competitor, they are confident in their response. They remain calm and don’t get upset.

Leaders with high emotional intelligence have the ability to wait until their emotions pass so they can chose their response rather than react with gut feelings.

How to make it work for you: Train yourself to perform while under presssure. Mental toughness is the ability to be resilient in uncomfortable conditions:

  1. Experiment. Always have a petri dish in your life that is full of experiences and situations where you are experimenting with the answer.
  2. Welcome failure. When you are constantly confronting situations where you don’t know the answer, the chances are greater that you will fail. Learn to fail well so you can approach the situation in smarter ways the next time.
  3. Reframe. Interpret your pressure in a positive way by reframing the way you look at it. Instead of saying “I don’t know the answer,” replace it with “I may not know the answer right now, but I will find it.” Your brain will interpret pressure in a new way if you reframe the question and use positive words.
  4. Move into your discomfort zone. Too often we fine tune our skills in non-pressure situations. We don’t know how we’ll respond when placed in a real pressure situation, so seek out opportunities—yes, it will be unpleasant—where you are out of your comfort zone.
  5. Practice under less-than-perfect conditions. You know by now that the world is not perfect so stop pretending that it is. Practice in imperfect conditions where there are lots of interruptions, disturbances, and surprises. This will help you land on your feet when in real situations where you are confronted with the unknown and the unexpected.

Lack of feedback

It’s true that it’s lonely at the top. Executive leaders have fewer opportunities for honest and constructive feedback. Managers and staff further down the food chain are hesitant to give feedback to senior colleagues.

As a result, many executive leaders find themselves confused about their performance and how to develop the skills they need. They are often isolated from constructive criticism because subordinates do not want to risk offending the boss.

Emotionally intelligence leaders who are aware of and acknowledge their weaknesses will hire good people to surround them. When the stress is high, they can depend on the people around them to compliment their strengths and counter their weaknesses.

How to make it work for you: To cultivate the feedback you need, interview at least five of your direct reports and others around you. Ask this question: “What advice would you offer to help me improve my effectiveness?” Try to listen with open and ears and a closed mouth.

 

LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the U.S. government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. Quy is the author of “Secrets of a Strong Mind” and “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” If you’d like to find out if you are mentally tough, get her free 45-question Mental Toughness Assessment. Follow her on Twitter.

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