Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Innovation Leadership: What's EQ Got to Do With It?

Do you know someone who is technically brilliant but not an effective collaborator or leader?  Someone who really knows his stuff, but likes to talk much more than listen to anyone else’s point of view?  Someone who has all the answers and doesn't appreciate it when others challenge his ideas or suggest another option?  Chances are you do.  And chances are you choose not to work with these people if you don’t have to.

As technical professionals, we are trained to solve problems, challenge the status quo, and have the right answer.  This works very well when we are working independently on scientific and technical problems.  It does not work as well when we are working as entrepreneurs in search of a viable business model for an idea or IP.  We have to collaborate across disciplines, learn fast, pivot as needed, and iteratively refine not only the “product” but also the overall business model and value delivery system.  Leaders of new ventures are faced with a world of strategic, operational and organizational dilemmas often characterized by competing priorities, perspectives and demands across multiple stakeholders.   Often there is no single “right” answer.  

The inherent complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity of this “fuzzy front end of innovation” demands persistence, passion, openness and resilience.  In this context no one person can have all the answers or do all the work.  A growing body of research shows that in jobs of moderate to high complexity IQ is necessary but not sufficient for success.  In these roles, the key differentiator of top performers becomes emotional intelligence or EQ—the ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others in order to more effectively manage your behavior and relationships.  In fact, research shows that 58% of star performance is accounted for by EQ versus IQ.

Why is EQ so important?   As much as we hate to admit it,  our emotions trump logic when they run high.  Advances in neuroscience demonstrate that this is not “psychological weakness” but rather how our brains are hardwired.  When we FEEL angry, upset, frustrated, unappreciated, etc. we can’t THINK clearly. And these negative emotions are highly contagious and distracting, reducing the productivity of others around us as they try to avoid us, guess what we really want, or in extreme cases, work to sabotage rather than support our efforts.  Conversely, when we FEEL excited, valued and challenged to do great work, we become emotionally engaged and contribute up to 26% more discretionary effort!  This is the holy grail of high performance—especially for innovation leaders and entrepreneurs who typically have very limited resources and run the risk of burning out and/or burning bridges.

Fortunately, EQ can be developed if we are willing to practice new habits, and it can help us shine as leaders and deliver better results. Here are a few simple steps each of us can take to enhance our EQ and become more effective, engaging leaders.

1. Practice the platinum rule.   As children many of us learned the “golden rule”—treat others as we would like to be treated.  While this makes sense when working with others like us, we now live and work in a diverse world characterized by differences in background on many levels--disciplines, cultures, ages, genders, ethnicity, etc.  In order to fully engage a diverse set of team members, the “platinum rule” becomes much more powerful:  treat others as they would like to be treated.  Living the platinum rule requires taking genuine interest in others and getting to know who they are, what they value, and how they like to work—not by guessing, but by observing and asking them.  This gives us insight into how we can collaborate in ways that help them stay energized, committed and empowered to do their best work.  Here are two simple questions we can ask to gain this valuable insight:
·  As we begin this project, what is most important to you personally?
·  What can I continue, start, or stop doing to better support you?

2.  “Check in” as often as you “check on”.   We tend to be good at “checking on” task and project status.  “Did you get the problem solved? What did you find out from the test results?  When will you have the results to send me?”  However, we generally are not as good at “checking in” with our colleagues to see how THEY are doing.  “How are you feeling about our progress?  What is most exciting and most frustrating about the project for you?  What can I do differently to be more helpful?”  These types of questions demonstrate that you care about the other person and give you insight into how a stakeholder is feeling about the work experience.  This insight helps inform what you can do to help key stakeholders remain motivated and supported to do their part.  And simply taking the time to care goes a long way.
“No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”  
John Maxwell

3.  Make vulnerability a strength.   Each and every one of us has a handful of natural talents—areas of strength in which we excel and have fun.  Conversely, we all have “gaps”—areas where we may be weak, inexperienced, or good but not great.  Rather than feeling you need to be the “hero” who is good at everything, focus your time and effort on your signature strengths and engage others as partners to close your gaps.  The operative words here are “engage” and “partner.”  By noticing who is great at things you are not, inviting them to help you in a win-win way, and demonstrating genuine appreciation for their help and contributions, you inspire others to join you in a partnership of success.  This is much more powerful than either attempting to “go it alone” or “dumping” what you don’t like on others.
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change." 
Brené Brown

4. Lean into discomfort.   How often do we hear someone say—“Oh, that’s the elephant in the room!”?  And how often to we spend time and energy talking about the elephant or our colleagues OUTSIDE the room without addressing the issue INSIDE the room where it lives?  Elephants can appear in 1:1 or team dynamics.  Wherever they appear, they distract us and reduce our productivity or performance.  Yet we seldom address them.  Rather than continually paying the price, we can choose to address them by (1) noticing them out loud in a nonjudgmental manner, (2) asking others if they see a need or opportunity to change something, and (3) offering and/or soliciting ideas for a different approach. 

Here’s an example:  Your team has weekly project meetings for 30 minutes.  For several weeks you have started 5-10 minutes late because people aren’t arriving on time—including the project leader.  Everyone talks about their frustration with the late start—which usually results in a late finish—but no one wants to address it because the leader himself is usually late.  Rather than ignore it in the room and get distracted by it outside, address it.  At the beginning of your next meeting simply point out, “We’ve typically been starting our meetings 5-10 minutes late. Should we change our start time?”   By simply putting the elephant on the table, you are empowering the group to make a conscious choice to do something, or nothing.  This act of conscious choice tends to diffuse the emotion and often catalyzes a positive change in behavior.

If you want to be a  leader who delivers great results AND attracts and retains top talent, EQ can make the difference.  I’ll close with the wise words of Maya Angelou:  
 “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said.  They will forget what you did. But they will never forget how you made them feel.”

If you're interested in learning more about EQ, here are some resources you might find helpful: