A Goldilocks Approach to Talents and Traits

Emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman explains how we can put too much effort into developing one particular ability at the expense of others.

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Daniel Goleman is the author of the international best-seller Emotional Intelligence. See keystepmedia.com for his new series of primers, Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence.

You run a team, and small problems seem to keep blowing up into showstoppers. A frank talk with your executive coach surfaces your role in this scenario: You are afraid to give people bad news, particularly feedback about their failure to perform.

This insight, and a bit of coaching practice, suddenly make you better at delivering bad news. So guess what you end up spending too much time on? Delivering bad news and negative feedback really well—and bumming everyone out in the process.

All leaders need to give performance feedback—but in the right way, at the right time and for the right reason. Like any other part of a leader’s emotional-intelligence tool kit, doing this well requires a mix of competencies such as empathy, which lets you sense how the other person reacts emotionally to what you are saying.

Focusing only on the negative, even if you’re comfortable having such difficult conversations, does no one any good. In fact, research by my colleague Richard Boyatzis, a professor at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management, finds that negative performance feedback makes people defensive and (perhaps understandably) shuts them down to learning. Mixing in a goodly amount of feedback about what they are doing right, on the other hand, energizes, motivates and aids learning—while still letting you deliver the bad news about what needs to change.

A leadership paradox of our time can be seen in the widespread approval of high-level executives who get high performance from direct reports, but at a cost in morale and motivation. By focusing relentlessly on hitting goals like revenue targets, executives may look good in the short term, but damage performance as time goes on.

For one thing, an overachieving executive will tend to fall back on tactics like coercion rather than focusing on the larger spectrum of emotional-intelligence abilities that strengthen relationships. Focusing exclusively on hitting a target at all costs erodes trust and loyalty. The risk: Eventually the team will miss those crucial goals, and as the executive’s relationships with workers fray, they will lose steam. Key players will be tempted to move on.

Consider the full spectrum of emotional-­intelligence abilities. It begins with four separate talents: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. Within these four domains follow a dozen emotional-intelligence competencies, ranging from emotional self-awareness to emotional self-control. Research at Korn Ferry finds that outstanding leaders demonstrate strengths in six or more, and those who don’t are capable in three or less. Then there are those leaders who show no strengths at all in emotional intelligence; they are likely to be in the bottom 10 percent of leadership ability, and a number of their team members may be ready to abandon ship.

Sustainable achievement requires, at the very least, a dose of empathy, so you sense the whole picture of an employee’s pressures and stresses. In addition, this lets you show you care about the person, not just his or her performance. Indeed, if you add some coaching and mentoring to that mix, you can help your direct report find a better balance between full-steam ahead and some energy-restoring times. That’s a recipe for resilience, not burnout.

Whether it’s pointers on emotional intelligence or mastering some other skill set, like your golf stroke, we all have a natural tendency to put too much effort into the particular ability we’re developing at the moment without maintaining our other strengths. In the athletic or yoga world, this of course is quite common. How many times are people injured taking too many classes or training too hard, and so have to give it all up in the end?

A too-determined mind doesn’t know when to check itself. A fully rounded skill set demands a delicate balance.

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