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FEATURE: Why invest in emotional intelligence?

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Gallup research indicates that the global rates of employee engagement are at an all-time low, and the findings once again point to managers, who account for up to 70% of the variance in engagement. It is no surprise that the common element in both employee engagement and retention is management

‘People leave managers, not companies’ is a phrase that is often shared in relation to employee retention. A 2015 Gallup study showed that about 50% of employees who left a job did so because of their managers.

But what does this mean for you or for your organisation? Allow me to share a very personal story to illustrate why this research is so important and why it has everything (in my opinion anyway) to do with emotional intelligence (EQ).

Around three years ago, before setting off into the sunset to start my own business, I was a director in a Big 4 audit firm. During that phase of my career, I was your typical high-performing, driven, nothing-is-impossible CA(SA) accomplishing various goals and moving around to lead different teams and departments. In one such team, I had a manager who was bright and who performed at the top of her game. But sadly, one day she decided to leave the firm for she and her husband were starting a family and relocating to a different city, making it impossible for her to keep her current job. We had a special farewell, everyone said their goodbyes and that was the end of the story. Or was it …?

As managers and leaders, when an employee leaves, that is the end of the story. The convenient ‘truth’ is easily accepted; we recruit, replace and move on. What I didn’t know at the time, or for years to come, was that there was more to the story, possibly a whole lot more. You see, a few weeks ago, around five years since her resignation, I received a WhatsApp message the gist of which was: ‘I have held on to this resentment for such a long time, I was finally able to let go of it. I wanted you to know that I forgive you.’

Wait, what? I wasn’t completely oblivious all those years ago. I did notice ‘something’ at the time but put it down to the stress of moving home, starting a family, having to leave a wonderful job, a superb team and a great boss … Boy, was I wrong! OK, I am kidding about that last part, but the rest of it certainly held true for me.

Now, five years later, I discover that I had said or done something or (possibly) many things that had such a significant impact on her that it took her years ‘to let it go’. At the time, absorbed in the chase, juggling so many balls, driving results, eyes on the target (sound familiar?), I missed what was actually most important. I missed the fact that I had not engaged this employee in a way that respected her values. I had ignored the signs she must have sent. And, most importantly, I hadn’t honoured what made her special in a way that made her feel honoured.

As a result the oversights piled up and, with compounding lead to one employee holding onto harmful negative emotions for half a decade. The exit interview certainly didn’t reveal this. And in the end, the employee suffered, the company paid the price of recruiting and training her replacement, and the manager remained in a disillusioned bubble of high performance.

This story supports the Gallup research, but the question is, what does any of this have to do with emotional intelligence? In its simplest form, emotional intelligence is about balance. It is about how you balance what you’re feeling on the inside with how you are seen on the outside. It is an art, when mastered, will allow you to scale your performance and take your team with you. It is a skill if learned will allow you to recognise a personally harmful emotion like resentment, let it go and move into a space of positive action.

Emotional intelligence is what empowers employees to constructively voice their concerns, to deal with facts and strip away the emotion. It empowers managers to lead their teams by honouring the individual, maximising the value of individual strengths and constructively developing areas of weakness. Emotional intelligence will drive a corporate culture of deep trust and connection and high performance will be one of the many positive outcomes.

In my story of the employee who left, what is the thing out of the EQ toolkit that could have changed this employee’s experience and shifted her manager’s perceptions? That one thing is communication.

Communication, while the most obvious of skills, is the skill least used when most needed. This is because it is tough, tough to tell someone they are wrong, tough to tell someone they need to improve or that they are hurting rather than growing performance. It is tough when high performers need to be told they have to improve. And because it is tough, these conversations are often avoided. As a result employees bear resentment, they leave or they stay and are unhappy. Managers don’t get to see what is in their blind-spots, they don’t change and improve and they continue to harm rather than help the culture of the organisation.

Now, many years and a small fortune later, having invested in developing my own emotional intelligence, at present being dedicated to training and developing others to improve their personal experience, and from a much deeper understanding of human beings, my top tip to you is – learn how to handle the tough conversations. For it is in those tough conversations that the greatest opportunities lie.

Having that tough conversation doesn’t need to be difficult; focus on the facts, leave out emotion, be clear and succinct, offer the other person a chance to contribute, assign accountability and leave with a clear way forward.

Author: Usha Maharaj CA(SA) is a brain-based coach and consultant who uses her unique blend of EQ and IQ to help her clients adopt a talent-driven approach to business success

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