Work From Home: Great for productivity. Not so good for developing leaders.

Just when you thought you’d heard about every side effect of COVID-19, there’s yet another that could affect us for years to come: The hindered development of Emotional Intelligence (EQ) among our next wave of  leaders – courtesy of Work From Home (WFH). Remote working certainly has its benefits – freedom, extra sleep, a chance to spend more time with the kids…. But for millenials, it can be a nightmare in learning about office protocol. In fact, many emerge from university with an impressive array of academic qualifications, confident in their quest to impress and determined to raise to the top as shining young stars.  Until they discover that business isn’t all about IQ.

EQ v’s IQ: separate quotas, but highly complimentary

In Harvard Business Review’s article, How Emotional Intelligence Became a Leadership Skill (April 28, 2015), Andrea Ovans points out that: “It took almost a decade after the term was coined for Rutgers psychologist Daniel Goleman to establish the importance of emotional intelligence to business leadership. In 1998, in what has become one of HBR’s most enduring articles, “What Makes a Leader,” he states unequivocally: The most effective leaders are all alike in one crucial way: they all have a high degree of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence. It’s not that IQ and technical skills are irrelevant. They do matter, but…they are the entry-level requirements for executive positions. My research, along with other recent studies, clearly shows that emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership. Without it, a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great Leader. The article then goes on to introduce five components of emotional intelligence that allow individuals to recognize, connect with, and learn from their own and other people’s mental states:
  • Self-awareness
  • Self-regulation
  • Motivation (defined as “a passion for work that goes beyond money and status”)
  • Empathy for others
  • Social skills, such as proficiency in managing relationships and building networks
An understanding of what exactly constitutes emotional intelligence is important not only because the capacity is so central to leadership but because people who are strong in some of its elements can be utterly lacking in others, sometimes to disastrous effect.” There’s also a very strong link between empathetic leaders and financial performance, a study which has been echoed many times over around the world.

Good influence goes a long way

We all know when we’re in the company of great leaders; it’s how they act, what they say (and don’t say), their listening ability, self-awareness, ability to reason, how they connect with people and their air of power; all characteristics that seem innate. Yet, these people didn’t get to this point easily. It came with lots of experience and guidance from others. The truth is, it takes regular exposure to impressive people to change the thinking and actions of others. The result is an improvement in people’s ability to read the room, hone interpersonal interactions, become self-aware and fine tune their political “filter”. These skills are 100% learnt through osmosis. For career progression these  “soft skills”  far outweigh technical ability. That’s because “hard skills” can be learnt relatively quickly and passed from one person to another with the right training. What’s more, there’s rarely any shortage of candidates who excel at the required subject matter.

Why learning through direct exposure trumps formal learning

There’s no shortage of reputable studies that point out the shortfalls of formal learning. Whilst formal education is important, it’s well known that the lessons need to be applied frequently to reinforce memory retention. The same goes for leadership and EQ development. Indeed, in an article titled “Where Companies go Wrong with Learning and Development” (Steve Glaveski, 2019), it is estimated that we forget around 75% of what we learn in just six days. This follows what German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus established in the late 19th Century – culminating in his theory, “The Forgetting Curve”, which outlines retention rates for the average individual:

The Forgetting Curve

Conversely, with practice through spaced repetition, we can remember around 80% of what we learn after 60 days  – which is why the subconscious learn/apply/feedback loop that occurs within office settings can be so effective. It’s a learning method that’s echoed in the McKinsey Quarterly article “Getting more from your training programs” (2010), in which Aaron De Smet argues that senior leaders need to be directly involved with ensuring their team members apply what they have learnt in their modules – and approach their learning with the right mindset. We believe, as a leader, there’s no better way to involve oneself than by demonstrating the EQ and interpersonal skills you want emulated throughout the organisation.

Learning what’s acceptable and what isn’t

There’s an old saying:  “I can tell what kind of person they are by the company they keep.”  This may sound like an overly judgmental statement, but a lot of truth can be extracted from it. Bad social skills can be just as easily learnt as good ones. If ambitious recruits surround themselves with mates behaving badly at home, they can pick up the habits and influence your team. The result can be a progressive change in culture and company reputation – especially where a lot of camaraderie occurs, such as in sales teams. In fact, it’s never been more important to expose new people to established office culture as much as possible.

Finding solutions in the new work order

The roll of the office is changing. Many companies have transitioned to 100% remote staffing, while others have adopted a hybrid model of only two or three days in the office per week. To attract good talent, these options are now hard to avoid. The question is, how can we take the new working models and ensure EQ development doesn’t go out the cyber window? Quite simply: The office needs to be a destination. Considering that human beings are social creatures, this shouldn’t be a difficult task. Bringing people together could include:
  • Social meetings – such as regular lunches and presentations
  • After work drinks
  • Breakfast events – such as seminars and corporate addresses
  • Work In Progress meetings where teams provide input
  • Updates from the leadership team – with social opportunities afterwards
  • Mentoring and buddy programs
  • Gym/yoga/meditation memberships or events in or near the office
  • Bring the kids/pets in days – if space permits, a hired carer
  • Mental health days
  • Seminars/programs specifically developed to strengthen EQ
  • Online opportunities for those who can’t join in person

Consequences of not focusing on EQ development

As senior leaders progressively leave industries, less transfer of leadership skills and IP will occur.  Unless management makes it a prime objective to bring fresh blood up to speed in these areas, we may witness the emergence of a very different generation of leaders in the next five to ten years; one that lacks people skills, awareness and empathy. Without emotionally attuned leaders, workforces are bound to become uncommitted and unhappy – resulting in high attrition and bad performance for organisations. Is this situation unavoidable now? No. As we have already witnessed, the organisations that don’t pay lip-service to EQ and cultural development are the ones reaping benefits. And the good news is, this approach doesn’t require a lot of money. Any organisation can embed emotional intelligence, cultural acuity and leadership development into their DNA – despite WFH arrangements. It just takes awareness from the top level and a willingness to implement positive progression of its people.  a laser focus with developing the mindsets of individuals via direct influence – both on and off line.

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