Daniel Goleman: ‘Leaders Must Position Their Employees Somewhere between Boredom and Stress’

With his 1995 book Emotional Intelligence, author, psychologist and journalist Daniel Goleman sparked widespread interest in the role that our emotions play in thought, decision making and individual success. The book became an international bestseller and Goleman has subsequently earned two Pulitzer Prize nominations and landed on the Accenture Institute for Strategic Change's list of the ten most outstanding intellectuals in the world. Following his recent visit to Spain to participate in the annual ExpoManagement conference, Goleman discussed the implications of emotional intelligence in the corporate world and its direct relationship with corporate productivity today.

Although Goleman says emotional intelligence is gaining importance in business institutions, he recognizes that this is happening at a different pace in different countries. “Using the framework of emotional intelligence, companies can calculate with greater precision the chances that any individual will succeed than if they only evaluated his or her intellectual coefficient," Goleman noted, adding that the most academically successful student in a high school or college graduating class may have “wound up having inferior success at work compared with [someone] who was just an average student. The difference between the two is that the average student has been able not only to control his own emotions, but also positively influence groups of other workers. Everyone wants to work with him.”

This capacity to mediate the mood of a group is considered one of the key virtues of emotional intelligence as defined by Goleman. “When you’re the leader of a working group, the impact that you have on the emotional mood of the group is greater. Everyone pays attention to the mood of the boss and they adapt to him,” he said. “These mood swings are reflected in the levels of production. They tend to decline when the group is depressed and to rise in the opposite case.”

Just as the mood of the leader is evaluated by the employees, so are his actions. Thus, Goleman suggested that many companies in Spain, for example, are making a big mistake when they announce large-scale layoffs via the mass media without adequately informing their own staff members about those moves beforehand. “When an organization feels obliged to take these drastic measures, it needs to stop and think about how to carry them out, and consider the impact that the actions will have on the mood of those who remain in the company."

Spanish telecommunications company Telefónica has been one of the companies to announce a record-high layoff, which affected 6,500 employees in its workforce in Spain. Goleman did not dispute the wisdom of the move as a business decision, but he questioned why the firm announced the cuts before company officials were certain exactly how many workers would be affected. Just a few days after releasing the news, Telefónica expanded the restructuring to cover 8,500 employees, only to return later to the initial figure of 6,500. According to Goleman, these decisions "create great fear and instability within companies. Companies need to maintain their rhythm of production or even surpass it. That means they need to send a message that explains that, unfortunately, they have had to let go of some personnel in order for the company to survive. But that when the situation improves, they will open their doors so people can come back.” Goleman said a company in this situation must project sincerity not only in the media, but also among its employees. For example, he applauded Spanish steel producer ArcelorMittal, which negotiated every last detail of its restructuring process with representatives of its labor force before communicating them to the market.

Initiating Change

Given the significant impact of emotional intelligence on the financial performance of any company, Goleman suggested that universities and business schools incorporate this philosophy into their curricula. In his view, academic institutions currently focus their efforts too much on technical education and neglect other areas of study that are more social but nevertheless worth learning. But what can be done about this problem in a country like Spain, where the average age of the top executives of large companies is around 70?

Goleman recognized the difficulty of teaching the concept of emotional intelligence to those who have performed in the same roles for many years without taking its importance into account. "At first, the executive will feel forced, as if he were doing something unnatural. However, within three to six months, depending on the amount of effort, the manager will begin to adopt it as a natural attitude."

To initiate change, Goleman recommended that managers "talk candidly with their teams and know what attitudes or actions affect their group. Using those responses, the leader will be able to correct the group’s behavior, some of which is done unconsciously. When the executive talks with employees about their negative attitudes, they will certainly be in for a good surprise."

Armed with good intentions and knowledge about what must be improved, the manager is ready to learn the most important lesson: self-control. "An individual cannot hope to control a group when he is unable to control himself," Goleman noted. “Having learned these new lessons, the leader will be able to shape the workplace of his group and get better results, starting from how he is perceived by his employees." 

According to Goleman, "visionaries" — those executives who provide long-term direction and vision — and "counselors" — those who develop employees for the future — have the greatest positive impact on the work environment. On the other hand, "those who put pressure on workers to get tasks completed — that is to say, leaders who set the tone and demand obedience in an authoritarian way — are the ones who depress work groups the most."

The influence of leaders on their working groups is intensified when a company is involved in a crisis. "In hard times, employees begin to see their superiors as if they were their parents: They turn them into role models to follow, they study their moods and eventually copy their attitudes, positive or negative," Goleman said. In such situations, he recommended that managers be clear and transparent in their behavior because such an approach makes it easier for members of the organization to work together. "There are occasions when you need to stop and talk to the staff of the company and admit that these are hard times, so every member of the group must do their best.”

In that regard, Goleman also pointed to a mistake that some companies commit when they start to restructure: They overburden employees who have had to endure the situation while facing the possibility of termination. "The efforts that are required [from workers] during hard times should not be absurd; only fair. The leader should be responsible for keeping his staff in a mental condition somewhere between boredom and stress. Aim for that point where the individual feels pressure [to work], but still has latitude to adapt himself to situations and find innovative ways to change his environment. "

To strengthen relationships with employees, Goleman suggested talking directly with each worker or team member, and not abusing technology. "The problem with technology is that you lose a potential part of the message because of the lack of body language," he said. 

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