Women leaders have a secret weapon at their disposal. It’s called emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence is your ability to 1) identify and manage your own emotions; 2) pick up on the emotions of others and manage them; and 3) in so doing, build trust and grow influence.
FBI counterintelligence agents like myself rely heavily upon emotional intelligence. It helps us to be successful as we identify foreign spies so we can stop them from stealing proprietary information from the U.S. Emotional intelligence is not necessarily a skill that people associate with FBI agents. Loud, boisterous, and pushy behavior may get attention, but it certainly does not get respect.
Meanwhile, a softer skill like emotional intelligence often goes unnoticed. It is not related to book smarts or a formula that includes aggressive behavior that relies upon intimidation to be effective.
I have never had a loud voice, but I’ve always had a strong one.
There is lots of bewilderment when either people get these two voices confused. Many entrepreneurs and business owners are men who follow a formula of aggression and intimidation to get to the top. Now many women leaders use that same formula to see where it can take them.
And here is how well it’s working: women die of heart disease at the same rate as men. Yet they still struggle not only rise to top level positions, but to stay there as well.
In my law enforcement career, I had a choice. I could try to be someone I am not and swagger around the FBI hallways with a gun strapped to my hip. Or, I could be the best version of me and develop my natural skills and not worry whether or not I fit in with others who rely upon intimidation.
Here are 4 reasons emotional intelligence can be a secret weapon for women leaders:
1. MEN DON’T HAVE PERMISSION TO BE EMOTIONALLY INTELLIGENT
Women leaders in the workforce need to grab success however they can, but too many of them throw away their advantages because they try to be like men.
Society gives little girls permission to be empathetic. They use language that express emotions and place priorities on ways to develop deep and meaningful relationships. It starts with dolls.
Both girls and boys may develop mental toughness through sports activities. However, many boys tend to grow into men who rely on harder skills like aggression as their default reaction to stress. They don’t pay as much attention to softer skills like empathy and self-awareness.
Conversely, society encourages women to develop these softer skills.
The good news is that we can learn these essential skills as we climb up the career ladder.
I’ve known a few touchy-feely men, and they were incredibly successful FBI agents. But they ran against the grain of the macho stereotype that people have of the FBI, which includes most new agents who show up at Quantico.
TIP: As a parent, encourage your child to develop a good vocabulary to describe their emotional state of mind at any given time. As an adult, explore words to describe how you feel in times of stress, joy, and relaxation. You may find this hard at first because we are simply not groomed to be fluent in the language of emotions.
2. USE EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE TO INCREASE INFLUENCE
It is too simplistic to describe men or women leaders as having innate advantages that better equips them to move into top level positions. In today’s competitive environment, leaders need to possess the collaborative traits that are the by-product of emotional intelligence.
The Hay Group produced an interesting study. They found that women leaders were most successful when they were required to lead by influence rather than by direct authority.
In this study, emotional intelligence skills were more prevalent in executive-level women than their male counterparts. It is believed that women often face the same barriers throughout their careers. Their work environment requires them to develop the emotional intelligence skills they need to advance in their organizations.
TIP: Scrappy women leaders will develop the skills necessary to move into the executive suite. Success in the future is going to depend a great deal upon a leader’s ability to leverage a variety of skills and approaches in order to grow their business.
3. WOMEN ARE NOT NATURALLY BETTER AT EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE THAN MEN
There’s not much research or science to back up the common belief that women are naturally better at emotional intelligence than men. What matters most is the level of motivation of both men and women.
For example, this same Hay Group study indicated that among women and men below the executive level, differences between men and women were less pronounced.
The stars—leaders in the top ten percent of business performance—gender differences in emotional intelligence abilities wash out. The men are as good as the women, the women as good as the men, across the board.
TIP: If you have the mental toughness and grit to stick with it, you can acquire the emotional intelligence skills you need to be a top performer—male or female.
4. BRAINS ARE DIFFERENT, THOUGH
Women are considered to be more empathetic, however. According to neuroscientists, empathy is found in a region called the insula, which senses signals from our whole body. When we empathize with someone, our brain mimics what that person feels. The insula reads that pattern and identifies the feeling.
This is where women are different from men. If the other person is upset, women’s brains tend to stay with those feelings. Men’s brains do something else; they sense the feelings for a moment. And then tune out of the emotions and switch to other brain areas. These are the areas of the brain that try to solve the problem that’s creating the disturbance.
So when a woman complains that a man has tuned out emotionally, it usually means their brains are processing the information differently.
When men tune-out, it can insulate them from distress so they remain calm while others are in a state of high drama. They focus on finding a solution to the urgent problem.
A woman’s tendency to stay tuned-in helps them nurture and support others when emotions are running high.
TIP: It’s important to remember that neither is better and both have advantages.
Women leaders who seek top level executive positions need to improve their emotional competency. It enlarges their ability to: cope with pressure, build trust, negotiate, influence others, navigate workplace politics, and take smart risks.
© 2017 LaRae Quy. All rights reserved.
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Author of “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths”
When I was a VP, I was brought in as a part of replacement team for another executive team that was asked to leave. (turned out that was a trend). The prior team was mostly women leaders but they were aggressive, manipulative and intimidating. It took my team a few visits with me to realize that I wasn’t going to scare the crap out of them or push them around. As far as I was concerned, I had a job to do and they were the experts in their day-to-day job. Emotional intelligence threw them off but once they understood the new normal, we were able to make some real progress. There were still a few who tried to lead by brute strength and bravado but, looking back, most of them ultimately found greater success in other divisions that appreciated and rewarded that behavior.
Also, fascinating how a man and woman’s brains impact their response in an emotional situation.
This is a great read, LaRae and one that I’ll definitely share.
I am also a big believer in the correlation between successful leadership and emotional intelligence. I have seen both men and women with high and low emotional intelligence in my workshops. When leaders are aware of their trigger points- what upsets or frustrates them, they are more likely to regulate their emotions in the workplace. The key for all of us is to know what makes us tick- the good, the bad and the ugly.
Thanks so much LaRae for a great article and helpful information!
Great post LaRae!
I love the emphasis on perceived and natural strengths and the reminder that we need to be maximizing the strengths we have and not trying to fit into a box.