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Technology & Innovation

In Praise of Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace

Recently, David Brooks highlighted research on the characteristics and abilities of CEO’s – noting that psychological insight and a feel for human relationships are the most important talents in a person trying to run a company.

As Brooks’s article explains:

“Steven Kaplan, Mark Klebanov and Morten Sorensen recently completed a study called “Which C.E.O. Characteristica and Abilities Matter?” They relied on detailed personality assessments of 316 C.E.O.’s and measured their companies’ performances. They found that strong people skills correlate loosely or not at all with being a good C.E.O. Traits like being a good listener, a good team builder, an enthusiastic colleague, a great communicator do not seem to be very important when it comes to leading successful companies. What mattered, it turned out, were execution and organizational skills. The traits that correlated most powerfully with success were attention to detail, persistence, efficiency, analytic thoroughness and the ability to work long hours.”

This research seems to go against important leadership traits as defined by emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman in his recent interview by Big Think.

“Leadership is influencing, persuading, motivating, listening, communicating.” Citing healthcare, Goleman noted how “it’s important for leaders to be emotionally supportive so that the people who are at the frontlines, who really have to deliver and be there for patients have the emotional reserves themselves to do it and don’t get burned out.”

Tsedal Beyene, a professor in the Organizational Behavior at the Harvard Business School, also had different take on the importance of emotional intelligence skills in the workplace. In her opinion, Brooks’ article “oversimplifies a very complex set of issues. We are now moving into a globally distributed work environment which requires interpersonal cross-national interpersonal adeptness. While you may need advanced organizational skills early in your career, work at the top of the house is all about the interpersonal, leadership, setting a vision, having others follow suit, and making decisions. You can hire people to execute and organize.”

Execution and organizational skills are stressed in corporate leadership at HBS, but, in my personal experience as a student at HBS, it would be impossible to get through many leadership cases without taking into account how best to deal with the interpersonal issues at hand. In the work group model, which is one of the strategies taught in the leadership curriculum, people-related factors such as group culture, leadership style and group composition are stressed with equal weight as execution and organizational considerations such as task design and formal organization.

One key factor in the Kaplan Klebanov and Sorensen study, which Brooks failed to point out, is that their study only takes into account CEO candidates from LBO and VC transactions, i.e., private companies. Not only do private companies tend to be smaller than public companies – and likely require greater CEO interaction with a larger number of managers, employees and customers – but the CEO is also not beholden to the pressures of public markets and shareholders.

Should leaders and managers take Brooks to heart and leave their emotional intelligence at the door in place of execution and organizational excellence? Should boards look to hire CEO’s without interpersonal skills?

There may be a few academics arguing for yes, but it’s clear that is not what is being taught in the real world.


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