How to improve your people skills (and why you desperately need to)

Emotional intelligence is essential for good leadership. Who knew?

by Rebecca Burn-Callander
Last Updated: 30 Sep 2019

Very few successful businesses are built by a single person; they are built by teams. This is why leaders need to be brilliant communicators: they need to motivate staff to execute their vision, and listen to them in order to help shape that vision.

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is crucial to the art of communication. By understanding those around you, and having self-awareness, you are better able to relate to people, and to cater your leadership style to their needs.

Research by Steve Langhorn on hospitality firm Whitbread found that 9 per cent of the variance in profit growth between different restaurants could be attributed to the emotional intelligence of the manager. Meanwhile, a study by TalentSmart, which specialises in EQ testing, found that: "Emotional intelligence is the strongest predictor of [individual] performance, explaining a full 58 per cent of success in all types of jobs."

Fortunately, EQ isn’t an immutable quality like height or eye colour. Here are six things you can do to can supercharge your EQ in the workplace.

Watch out for stress, anxiety and fear

By keeping a watchful eye out for negative emotions in the workplace, you can nip problems in the bud before they negatively impact the business, says Joanna Swash, global CEO of Moneypenny, an outsourced communications provider that employs 750 people. 

"Positive emotions create a positive culture and positive client experience," she explains. "Being able to spot when someone may not be in a great place quickly is crucial so you can give them a shoulder, or an ear and support them in a positive way. It prevents things festering, spreading and infecting others."

Manage your own emotions before trying to influence others’

According to Lydia Amoah, a business coach, EQ starts from understanding the self. She recommends various strategies for getting to grips with your own feelings, to better lead others. 

"There is a wide choice of apps, such as Calm or Headspace," she says. "They are great tools to help unwind and which can benefit your mental and emotional wellbeing. Journaling is also a great way to understand your own thought processes. Finally, controlled breathing is amazing for regulating hormone levels, reducing palpitations and creating clarity." 

Show weakness

The old adage that leaders must never show weakness is no longer relevant to the modern workplace, says Swash. "As leaders, we have got to remain in control, but similarly it’s good for others to see that we’re real people too," she says. 

"By remaining human, the team can see that issues make us as happy or sad too. As long as they’re channelled effectively and don’t create a negative environment, emotions within teams can be used in a really positive way, especially in roles that involve customer contact."

Learn to listen

Leaders are used to making decisions and providing direction, but you’re much more likely to make the wrong decisions and head in the wrong direction if you don’t listen to your team, whose collective insight, ideas and knowledge of the business will be greater than any one person’s - even yours.

Listening well is easier said than done. "Body language tells you everything you need to know. Being conscious of the cues and simply listening helps a lot," says Felix Staeritz, CEO and co-founder of FoundersLane.

"Active listening is an important skill for EQ," adds Amoah. "Practise tuning into what a person is trying to communicate. Learn how to hold a quiet space and allow a flow of conversation without interruption to create even more awareness."  

In high-pressure situations, it can be tempting to bark orders but a more collaborative approach may get better results. "Ask open questions," says Amoah. "Such as: ‘What support do you need to do this?’ Enquiry can lower defences and bring out the best in others."

Take a step back

There will always be moments when you experience stress, anger or frustration. However, it’s how you choose to react to those emotions that defines you as a leader. "We are only ever experiencing our own thinking in that moment," says Sarah Matthew, founder of The Vibrant Company. 

"Our experience of anything works inside out not outside in. The more you see this, the less you react and the more you can choose your response."

They key, according to Moneypenny’s Swash, is to take a breath, count to 10, and try and find perspective. "Take a moment and put yourself in other people’s shoes," she advises. 

Carl Castledine, managing director of Away Resorts, the holiday business, adds: "Always think around corners. I consider multiple possible outcomes to what is happening now and prepare for problems mentally. We can then react with controlled pace, not panic under pressure if something negative occurs. I encourage my colleagues to do the same."

…and let others take a break too

By giving your staff enough holidays and respecting their evenings and weekends, you are giving them time to recharge. This will help them be their best self at work. 

Angel investor Inbal Shenfield says, "Let them have time off. Vacation, time with their families or just time for their hobby is super important."

Image credit: FGorgun via Getty Images


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