Wednesday 9 September 2020 5:49 am

Emotional intelligence can be just as important as intellect in the workplace

Graeme McCracken is managing director at agriculture tech and data business Proagrica

Sometimes it is hard to step back and see yourself as others see you. Yet when you do, it can be a game changer. 

For me, that moment came during an internal review with a colleague. My perception of myself as a boss who is empathetic to the people around me was upturned with one throwaway comment.

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I am a six-foot plus Scot, and it turns out appearances can be intimidating. How you are perceived is not just a personal issue, it is one that impacts business growth. In a world where the “do as I say” dictatorial leadership yields only short-term results at best, the case for balancing emotional intelligence with intellect is a strong one. 

Take a recent study of 4,000 senior leaders, conducted by Hult Business School. It found that 75 per cent of respondents felt it was extremely unlikely their staff would find them scary. 

Yet there is a body of research based on the findings from a five-year programme that shows many people think twice before walking through the boss’s open door.

As leaders, we need to acknowledge that people sometimes see us as scarier than we realise – and that it is hurting our businesses. 

That is as true for a business like mine, which is entrenched in data and cognitive intelligence, as it is for any other – growth is driven by people as much as tech. I have also learned that trust, respect and kindness are the cornerstones of EQ in business.

People buy people, and it is the same internally as well as externally; given the choice, you prefer to deal with those you trust and who share your values.

The age of the autocrat is thankfully fading, at least in the business world. Digital transformation is reconfiguring organisations around collaboration, and within this scenario, success is dependent on flattening the leader-follower pyramid. 

From an EQ perspective, this requires leaders to listen more than they talk.

Trust goes both ways. While staff need to trust in the leader’s strategic vision for the business, in turn leaders need to trust in the expertise of their teams to achieve those objectives. 

In a practical sense that means knowing when to step back and to gently nudge people in the right direction, without being overtly directive or overbearing.  

Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella summed up this philosophy in an interview with USA Today. He explained that it is important for leaders “not to freak people out, but to give them air cover to solve the real problem.”

Speaking from experience, I can confirm this is not always easy. It requires a willingness to let go and that can feel counterintuitive. However, it is the right thing to do. Kindness is an important facet of EQ – one that has never been as important in most of our working lives as in the past months – but to me the key lies in empowerment.

Empathy means putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and no one wants to be just a cog in the machine. Ceding ownership to those across the business signals inclusivity and a shared purpose. Enthusiasm drives loyalty and ambition generates innovation.

I should add, empathetic leadership does not mean you shouldn’t make your teams a little uncomfortable. It means ensuring people understand why you’re doing it. 

Pushing staff beyond their comfort zones allows them to develop. Ultimately, the leader’s role is to offer the safety net.

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In essence, I have not had to change who I am to make people more comfortable in approaching me. 

Rather, in encouraging leadership throughout the business I have learned to embrace my own discomfort.

Graeme McCracken is managing director at agriculture tech and data business Proagrica

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.