We need to strive for a leadership style that is centered on emotional intelligence and finding common ground, connection, and growth within our teams.
Our industry is hungry for leaders who equip themselves with a nimble and diverse toolkit to keep reinventing themselves and effectively serving their clients and the people they lead. Meeting agendas are often centered on processes and desired outcomes; it is common to hear discussions around strategic planning while missing important components about interpersonal leadership and the intentional creation of environments that support staff’s intrinsic motivations. As a transformational leader, I aim to integrate authenticity, interpersonal leadership, and emotional intelligence from what I have learned through my journey of self-growth.
In the spring of 2022, I was tasked with merging a team under my leadership as part of MCE’s restructure. As the transition began, I picked up on the team’s negative messages and beliefs regarding working with a client based on current and past experiences. The team’s sense of confidence and engagement was low, and the negative language created an environment of blame and an external locus of control. I was determined to keep an open mind as I initiated contact with this client and notified them of the leadership transition. I received the client’s feedback of dissatisfaction and disappointment with equanimity by practicing mindfulness and staying neutral. I decided to face the challenge by reminding myself that people and outcomes are not static, and connection can evolve and be achieved. I relied on the following steps to navigate the situation:
Emotional acuity. Gather feedback, first from staff and then from the client and other partners. As leaders we need to create an environment of trust by active listening and non-judgmental inquiry. The key objective is to hear everyone’s side of the story and identify and cue into the emotions and body language of each party. A helpful way to tap into your ability to listen is to ask yourself, “Am I listening to learn or am I listening to win?”
Listening to learn allows the leader to be open to points of connection and shared values, perspectives, or desired outcomes. At this stage, deep breathing allows us to connect to the part of our brains that can integrate and access deeper functions, moving us from our shallower reactive tendencies. Asking for clarification and confirmation with questions like: “What I am hearing you say is…” and “Is it accurate to assume you feel this way about the situation?” can further assist with the intention to connect and potentially repair. In the example outlined above, the most salient emotions identified by both staff and clients were anger and frustration.
- Understanding of the current narrative. By naming the emotions, we can identify possible patterns and triggers about the team dynamics. For example, the emotions of anger and frustration usually stem from a feeling of not being understood, appreciated, and fairly treated. Carrying such feelings into the project work is not conducive to effective teamwork and instead stalls creativity and collaboration. By understanding the current narrative of the situation, we can begin to shift to a different narrative that aligns with the desired outcome and purpose.
- Questioning the current narrative. After recognizing the emotions and feelings stemming from the current narrative, you can begin questioning and challenging it. This step allows us to prime the minds to move from a negative to a more positive thought pattern. The goal is to generate leverage to produce an inevitable desire for change. One question I posed to the team at this stage was: “Does it makes sense to expect that we should always be treated fairly, with respect, or shown appreciation?” The answers were a resounding, “No.” This technique helped me to convey and help the team recognize that the presence of unrealistic expectations was at the source of their frustration and anger.
- Narrative reconstruction. Leaders can shift the energy state before getting into the strategy by working to reconstruct the old narrative into one that will better serve the team and client. The reconstructed, new narrative used in this case was “The reality is that we are a team, and we are all in this together, we desire the same outcome independently of who we represent, and it is not realistic to believe the old narrative. We all bring our unique talents and together will tackle project challenges.” Such a technique allowed us to move from the primitive brain (ego centric) to a deeper and wiser part of the brain where cognition and emotion can coexist for a transformation to take place.
Call to action. “What can we do instead to solve the problem?” This stage is where leaders get into the strategy (the “how”). For instance, we redefined team members’ roles and responsibilities. Some team members decided their strengths could be best used in other projects and this allowed us to bring other team members into the mix. We assigned a single point of contact for all parties to effectively manage information flow and drive accountability and scheduled design coordination and deliverables milestones ahead of time to set clear expectations.
The project was successfully completed a year later with a very different energy and level of collaboration and satisfaction. We shifted the paradigm from either/or to we/and which ended up creating a remarkable return on our time investment. This February, we moved into another phase, and the project team environment has been fun and encouraging.
As transformational leaders, we need get into the trenches to serve others. So, start by asking yourself the following: “What am I in this for?” If we you’re in it to serve or add to the solution, you increase the chances of a healthy outcome. Conversely, if you are in to serve your ego, you most likely will not reach such an outcome. I believe we need to raise our standards by integrating a leadership that is centered on self-awareness and emotional fitness – a level where we lead from the inside out, from a desire to find a common ground, connection, growth, and contribution.
Leisbel Lam, PE, LC, MBA is a principal at Michaud Cooley Erickson. Connect with him on LinkedIn.