Why do boardrooms require better emotional intelligence
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Why do boardrooms require better emotional intelligence

Why do boardrooms require better emotional intelligence

Emotional Intelligence is a crucial aspect of board effectiveness


The terms “emotional intelligence” and “enterprise boardroom” do not normally go together. Do we visualise the board chair convening a group of hard-charging Type A personalities and suggesting a big group hug, apart from the traditional embraces or nose rubs that were normal before the pandemic?

Emotional Intelligence (EI) is a crucial aspect of board effectiveness, and the chairperson who brings EI to the head of the table nurtures powerful governance productivity. What are the secrets of the emotionally wise board leader?

Although Daniel Goleman is being recognised as the guru of EI, it was Micheal Beldoch who brought up this first way back in 1964. EI is the ability to identify and manage one’s emotions and the emotions of others. It includes three sub-skills: emotional awareness; the ability to harness emotions and apply them to tasks like thinking and problem solving; and the ability to manage emotions, which includes regulating one’s own emotions and managing the emotions of others.

According to the supporters of EQ, this is the critical factor that separates the wheat from the chaff. Amongst the many skills that were tested in workplaces, EI was the strongest predictor of performance. 90 per cent of top performers have high EI, while only 20 per cent of bottom performers have a high EI.

People confuse emotional intelligence with being emotional, which is seen as a weakness. In truth, every single decision we make is made through our emotions. If you are not mastering emotions, you are ignoring 20 per cent of the data in decision-making.

Building a career as a strong business achiever, especially in finance or operations, typically rewards the ability to jam ideas through over opposition. In the boardroom, though, you’re competing with a group of similar Alphas who are all legally equal. Worse, as chair, you need to effectively lead them – while lacking most of the formal power tools that made you a career success. Good EI then becomes the difference between boardroom success and dysfunction.

How to build EI as a boardroom leader? The first step is self-awareness, and we recommend an assessment of self-personality type (there are lots of EI testing tools online) to gauge one’s emotional awareness. What marks the emotionally intelligent board leader? Diplomacy – actively seeking feedback from others (and respecting that) – active listening – valuing intuition.

Here’s an exercise for the leaders: Go home tonight and listen to your youngest child for 5 minutes straight, with no interruptions, no comments, and no looking at your cellphone. Force yourself to listen. Then, try this with co-workers, boss, and ultimately in the board meeting.

Here’s another exercise. When a matter has been discussed, instead of voting and moving forward, pause and ask for other perspectives. Seek comment from anyone who disagrees. Sometimes, true EI is recognising aspects you yourself lack, and seeking it in others.

The press of most board agendas works against emotionally intelligent ambiguity. The board meeting is a climate that works against effective listening by the chair (or anyone else, for that matter). Presentations drone on; reports are read; financials reviewed; phone messages covertly checked;

As the chair seeking to improve the communication in the boardroom, you should realise communication is a two-way street. How shall the emotionally intelligent board chair improve the dialogue?

As a board chair, seek clarifications before the meeting. Establish with management the main deliverables and priorities. What are the objectives of this meeting, and what specific areas of input do you need? Then, go beyond just ticking off everything on the agenda, or even delivering on that handful of top “musts.”

Instead, practise excellence. Reach beyond working the agenda, key approvals, and everyone making their flights home – What will make the board members feeling their voices were heard, and that they made a positive difference?

The chair comes into a meeting predisposed to do something, and assumes he or she knows the right and wrong answers. The chair needs to understand his (mostly a man occupies the chair) own biases and assumptions. Step one in active listening is an honest, objective take on your own communication style. Ask others if you seem open in discussions or discouraging. Seek criticism, even if you may not like what you hear.

One good motto for achieving this: Keep silence as a value, both inner and outer. For the inner aspect, all of us (perhaps a board chair more than most) have a constant inner dialogue of thoughts, priorities, outside distractions, and parsing your response to what another speaker is saying. Work to silence and simplify this inner dialogue – especially just waiting for the other speaker’s lips to stop moving so you can jump in. Focus on the here and now moment, and on each word being said to you, and shut out your inner chatter.

Then, try external silence. Definitely avoid interrupting the person who is speaking with you. And when they stop, add a few seconds, and learn to pause. Don’t feel a need to instantly respond. Alpha business leaders often find this first step their toughest.

In active listening, both the persons in a discussion are always communicating, even if you’re not aware that you are (or doing it well). Work to observe the speaker’s body language and unconscious messaging. Make clear that you’re attentive by keeping eye contact, maintaining an open posture, and nodding when appropriate (but not in a dismissive “uh-huh, uh-huh” manner).

When you do respond, put the active listening skills to work. Paraphrase and restate what was said, with such cues as “You’re saying…” and “That would mean…” And don’t be afraid to say that you’re not clear on some aspect of the message. Seek clarification and ask honest questions that show you, as chair, aren’t taking a side on the matter. You just want to assure everyone is hearing the same message.

As board chair, it’s now your turn to imprint this approach on the rest of the board. Seek further comments from attendees using the same process discussed above – focusing on the main issues, active listening, smart pauses, restatement, and reflection.

As chair, you can set the tone for good emotional intelligence across the board – and set precedence in the right direction.

Ralph is a global board advisor, coach and publisher, while Muneer is co-founder of the non-profit Medici Institute and a stakeholder in the US-based deep tech firm Rezonent Corp. Both of them drive board alignment for corporations 

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