How Emotional Intelligence Can Help Resolve Conflicts and Build Tough, Kind Leaders

The second segment of Knowledge@Wharton’s interview with Google’s Chade-Meng Tan, best-selling author of Search Inside Yourself, focuses on the role that emotional intelligence can play in helping managers resolve conflicts within high performance teams. It also shows how the Google SIY program, through compassion training, has helped managers become more successful and even more charismatic.

To read more, check out the first part of the interview, Google’s Chade-Meng Tan Wants You to Search Inside Yourself for Inner (and World) Peace and the third, How Emotional Intelligence Helps the Bottom Line.

Knowledge@Wharton: How has the Search Inside Yourself (SIY) program helped Google employees deal with issues such as having difficult conversations? For example, has it helped resolve conflicts that might emerge in high-performance teams whose members might be passionate about their work but find it hard to get along?

Meng: There’s one situation where this happens a lot — and for understandable reasons. Google has product engineers whose job is to build features for our products. We also have production engineers who are responsible for making sure that Google doesn’t break. As you can imagine, the people who build features tend to be very aggressive; that makes sense because they want to create new features to benefit our users. They’re always thinking, “Let’s create as many features as we can.” In contrast, production engineers are very conservative, and again, for very good reasons. They care about Google not breaking; if Google breaks, nobody benefits. So, even though on both sides there are very smart people who want to do the right thing, you find them in conflict. If you are not careful and if this persists for a long time, you get a tendency, whichever side you’re on, to think, “The other guys are trying to screw with me.” Then it becomes personal because it’s about me. “They hate me. They’re screwing with me.”

I had a person in my class who felt this way. He was one of those over-achievers and always performed very well, but he had a lot of problems with the other side. After going through SIY, he realized that the person on the other side was not trying to screw with him. I mean, no one wakes up in the morning and says, “I’m going to screw with Jim. That’s what I’m going to do for the rest of my day.” He also realized that if he were in the other person’s shoes, he would be saying exactly the same things — because he, too, would be trying to do the right thing. Once he figured that out, he learned how to discern the story from reality. He realized that the belief that the other guy’s trying to screw with me — that’s a story. The reality was different. Once he figured that out, the whole work relationship changed and then everything worked more smoothly.

That’s a good example of how emotional intelligence resolves conflicts that lead to higher performance. That is, in fact, one of the best-selling points of emotional intelligence — it reduces friction. If people have high emotional intelligence, they have less friction. And if there’s less friction — I mean, from a system point of view — you lose less energy and get more done.

Knowledge@Wharton: How has cultivating compassion through meditation helped Google employees hone their leadership skills?

Meng: This has happened in a couple of ways — some are visible and others are less visible. What is most visible to me is charisma. When employees took the SIY course and worked on their compassionate practices, their charisma seemed to increase — and later I realized how. My friend Olivia Fox Cabane, who wrote the book, The Charisma Myth, taught that charisma has three components: Presence, confidence or power and warmth. Presence means when you’re talking to somebody and interacting with them, you are there, your full attention and energy are on that person and the other person perceives you as caring for him or her. That helps in your charisma. The other things that really help are your confidence and warmth. If you have all three, the other person perceives you as being very charismatic.

The most charismatic leaders I have met are Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama. All three of them are strong in these three factors. Now, let’s take these three factors and compare them with compassion. Presence is part of the compassion training. Concentrating attention through mindfulness is the basic training that leads to compassion. So, if you training people to nurture compassion, you are already training them to develop presence.

Now let’s take confidence. I’ve found that compassion training has been very helpful in creating confidence. This is a bit counterintuitive, but here’s why. I discovered this within myself. I went through a compassion exercise and discovered immediately the first time I did the exercise, that confidence increased substantially. Over time, I discovered it was permanent, which is fascinating. Do five minutes of exercise and you have a permanent increase in confidence. And why is that so? I realized that part of what’s holding me back from self-confidence is fear of suffering. In practicing compassion, you create the ability to identify with and relieve other people’s suffering. Once you do that, once you find that you can experience other people’s suffering, that reduces your own fear of suffering, and it increases your confidence. That is how compassion creates confidence. As for warmth, that’s very obvious. Compassionate people are very warm. So, by cultivating compassion, the first effect is your charisma will increase. That’s the visible part.

There’s another important leadership quality, but it is less visible. This quality is level-five leadership as defined by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great. Collins defines level-five leadership as the most effective form of leadership. Level five leaders have two important qualities, which seem to be paradoxical. These leaders are very ambitious, and at the same time, they are personally very humble. Their ambition is for the greater good, which is why they don’t feel the need to glorify themselves and they’re personally humble at the same time.

Now, if you tease out the components of compassion, there are three of them. The first is the affective component, which is “I care about you.” There’s the cognitive component compassion, which is “I understand you” or “I want to understand you.” And then there’s the motivational component, which is “I want to help you.” Now, if you superimpose the three compassion components with the two level-five leadership qualities, you find that that the first two components of compassion — the affective and the cognitive elements — they increase personal humility. The motivational component of compassion increases your ambition for the greater good. That’s why it is obvious that compassion training is necessary for organizations that want to build level five leadership. That is the theory.

In practice, at Google, I don’t see that it’s very visible and the reason is because it’s already widespread. We tend to hire the type of people who are very, very smart and very ambitious to want to change the world, but personally, quite humble. So they’re already halfway there or 75% there. That’s why the training did not create an impact that’s visible to me.

There’s one other thing, and it’s not about compassion alone. The entire SIY training, with compassion playing the biggest part, has helped some people become better managers. I have an example. One manager, after compassion training, discovered that he needed to do something for his people. He asked his people, “What am I doing for you that creates the most value for you? And what am I doing that creates no value?” Through their answers, he found the ability to work less and get more done. For example, he realized it didn’t create any value for his team if he read every e-mail that came in. The team said, “We don’t need you to read every e-mail. All we need is for you to solve the problems we cannot solve. That’s where your value is.” When he learned that, he began to spend less time on stuff that did not matter. And whatever stuff he worked on, it created more value. After a while, his team kept getting bigger and he found he had a lot of free time. In his case, compassion — because it gave him the incentive to step back and think, “What more can I do for my people?” — helped him become a better manager, and, of course, he got a promotion.

Knowledge@Wharton: In principle, everyone agrees that kindness and compassion are good qualities. But very often in business they are viewed as weaknesses. Kind managers are seen as being weak, soft or at least tolerant of failure, which de-motivates high performers. Such managers are accused of being “too nice.” In contrast, so-called “tough managers” who bully or browbeat their subordinates are seen as star performers who know how to crack the whip and get the job done. Did you face such issues at Google? If so, how did you make the link between a program that aims at cultivating attentiveness and kindness and the company’s performance and profit goals?

Meng: I want to challenge the premise of this question. I think it is possible to be tough and to be kind and compassionate at the same time. The two are not mutually exclusive.

I can think of two examples. The first example is of two guys named Bill and Dave. Their last names are Hewlett and Packard. They started this company called HP in 1939, if I remember correctly. In the early 1940s the had an idea that was radical for its time. They said, “Let’s treat our employees nicely, let’s be fair to them, let’s reward them well, let’s listen to their opinions.” Back then, people must have thought, “What are these guys smoking? This is the craziest thing we’ve ever heard. If you’re not tough on your people, how do you get them to do stuff?” But it turns out that they were right. Now when we fast-forward and look back, it’s something we take for granted at least in a tech company. We say, “Of course we treat our people well. Of course we respect them. How else do we get them to do good work?” But the point is, back in their time, Bill and Dave might have been considered the type of people whom we would criticize today as being too nice, soft and weak. But it turns out they were not softies at all. Dave Packard, for example, had the reputation that he would fire people in person. If any manager at HP crossed an ethical line, Dave personally would fly over to the site and fire that guy. He was no softie. Bill and Dave personified a combination of being tough and being nice. They had a very successful company for many, many years.

The second example is what we talked about earlier — naval officers. The nicest naval officers are the most effective, and nobody accuses them of being soft. You can be as tough as nails as well as kind and compassionate. If you do both at the same time, you can do amazing work. If you have to choose one or the other, it reflects a lack of skillfulness in managing.

The problem with just being tough, when you browbeat and bully people, is that you create at least three costs. The first is long-term sustainability. When people don’t like working for you, they work only because they have to and if they can leave, they will. You’re going to have a retention issue. Even if you do retain people, you are going to have a sustainability issue because they will not work very hard for very long. That is the visible cost.

Other costs are less visible. They are quality and commitment. If people are not happy, they’re not going to commit. If they’re not going to commit, quality is going to suffer. This may be reflected in poor quality of customer service. If your people are not happy, they’re not going to treat customers well and you’re going to lose your customers. Then you’re going to have to spend a lot of money on “marketing.” But if you treat your customers well, you won’t lose them in the first place and you won’t have to spend that much on marketing.

There’s a third aspect, which is even less visible. It impacts companies like Google, which rely on creativity. If all your managers do is bully, your people are less likely to be creative problem solvers. Then you lose a lot of creative energy. I have pondered on why this is so widespread. Why are there so many managers who only know how to bully? I think it’s because the short-term gain of bullying is very visible. In the next quarter, if you bully your people, you’re going to get higher numbers. What is lost is in the long-term and it’s not very visible. For example, what I just said about the opportunity cost of losing commitment, quality and creativity, you don’t see them easily. So, if you’re an unskilled manager, if all you can see are short-term gains, then you tend to reward bullies because the good things that you lose — the opportunity costs — are invisible to you. The biggest opportunity cost, if you only have managers who drive performance through bullying, is that you never go from good to great. Your company will always be average. Average is not bad, right? You may pay dividends every so often, but you’ll only be average.

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