To get the most out of your people, you have to be sensitive to emotions.
Early in my career, I thought nearly every business problem could be solved analytically. Maybe it was my engineering degree, but when I graduated and started working in real-world organizations, I approached issues as puzzles to be solved: if I gathered enough data and analyzed the parts close enough, I thought I could arrive at a rational solution.
How wrong I was.
I quickly realized that nearly no business problem can be solved from pure analysis. Why? Businesses are made up of people, and after many years in the CEO chair, I’ve realized that you can waste a career trying to solve people problems with data and rationality. To lead well, your arsenal of CEO best practices must include emotional intelligence.
Especially in the old days, a lot of business leaders might have cringed at the thought of meddling in something as messy as human emotion. But today, sensitivity to emotions—your own and those of the people in your company—is recognized as a core job requirement of the chief executive. Without it, you’ll never get the best out of your people, and your company won’t perform at the top of its game.
Let’s zoom in on the piece of emotional intelligence that I think is most important for CEOs: empathy.
A Quick Test of Your Empathy
How much empathy do you have? Are you inclined to take others’ perspectives and understand how they’re feeling?
Here’s a quick test:
(1) Grab a Post-it and a pen.
(2) Stick the Post-it on your head.
(3) Now, with your dominant hand, draw an E on the Post-it.
(4) Pull the Post-it off your head. Which way is it facing?
If it’s facing the “right” way—with the prongs to the right—you drew the E so that others could read it while it was stuck to your head; you may be more empathetic, more able to take another person’s perspective.
If the E is facing the other way, you drew it based on your perspective. You may be more inclined to stick with your own perspective and have a harder time putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.
Don’t worry too much if you drew the E from your own perspective—the test is more for fun than anything. (See this short but entertaining New Yorker piece, where a reporter administered it to attendees of the Time 100 banquet.) Whatever your results, it’s worth the effort to be vigilant about your level of emotional intelligence at work, particularly your ability to empathize.
Why the Golden Rule Isn’t Good Enough
We all know the Golden Rule: Treat other people like you want to be treated. This time-worm dictum doesn't apply in a business setting. It doesn’t capture the level of empathy a CEO needs in the day-to-day of running a company. For that, we need the Platinum Rule, which you may have heard as well: Treat other people like they want to be treated. It’s a higher standard, but it captures real empathy and emotional intelligence much better than the Golden Rule.
A lot of CEOs are energetic, outgoing people, and they can run into trouble when they assume people will respond to situations like they themselves do. Unfortunately, when you make such assumptions, you’ll be wrong at least half the time.
For example, an empathy-lacking CEO might reward an introverted top performer by pulling him onstage, giving him a high five, and praising him in front of all his colleagues. This CEO has made a major blunder if that kind of flashy public reward embarrasses the employee in question. What the CEO pictures as a moment of glory is actually a moment of horror. The employee may now shrink away from future opportunities to perform, weakening the whole team. The CEO was trying to motivate, but because she followed the Golden Rule, she’s inadvertently lowered the performance of a key employee.
It takes more time and effort to follow the Platinum Rule, but the investment pays off. Spend time figuring out what motivates each of your direct reports. What are their goals? How do they like to work? How do they like to be rewarded? The more you can tailor your interactions to the individual, the more success you’ll have.
If You’re Not Born with Emotional Intelligence, You Can Build It
Some of us have an innate sixth sense for human emotions. My eleven-year-old daughter, who can instantly empathize with anyone or anything, is one example.
Others of us have to grow our emotional intelligence. Me, for example. If you’d tested me at age twenty-two, I have no doubt my emotional intelligence score would’ve been low. Now, after decades of seeing its application to the business work, I’ve managed to build my emotional intelligence.
Here’s one article to help you start figuring out your own aptitude in this area, but every CEO can benefit from increased vigilance of how he reacts to the emotions of others. Reading Daniel Goleman’s seminal book on the topic, Emotional Intelligence, is a great place to start.
Like any new skill, emotional intelligence takes practice. Set up a system to remind yourself to listen between the lines, to pay attention to what people think, do, and say, and modify how you communicate with them and reward them based on what you observe. You’ll find countless ways to work this muscle every week—and become a better CEO in the process.
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