Leaders: Three important things to work on to improve emotional intelligence

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I have been interested in “emotional intelligence” for as long as I can remember although for the most part it wasn’t labeled as such. My early years of studying human behavior at Sheffield Hallam was under the wonderful advice and leadership of Dr. Tim Wheeler who is now Vice Chancellor at the University of Chester. As far back as the early 80’s he encouraged my curiousity about why people do what they do. Fond memories of taking a primitive camera to the streets of Sheffield and noticing how our behavior can be severely altered, almost in the blink of an eye under unusual and different conditions.

Now, the writings, readings and research around “emotional intelligence” is ever growing. Salovey and Mayer (1990), the initial describers, defined emotional intelligence as “the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.” Goleman of course built on this with his defining text “Emotional Intelligence” (1995). He draws attention to our “emotional repertoire” and the role they play in our life: anger, fear, happiness, love, surprise and disgust, all have different impacts and of course lead to different outcomes. (Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, Page 25).

Even as recently as last month in Forbes, (May 2016) Mark Murphy and then Travis Bradberry provide further thinking on the signs of people and habits of genuine and highly emotional intelligent people. They also draw attention to the emerging belief that there is a strong correlation between high levels of emotional intelligence and successful leadership and life.

All of this work provides insights and inspiration to get to know our inner self in a practical way. An important starting point to understanding emotional intelligence.


But how do you really become more effective in developing your emotional intelligence? Is it enough to read the texts and listen to the lectures and Ted talks? Like everything, modeling the process is important but if you really you want to improve, it’s simple: practice also has an important part to play.

In the TV program “The Brain”, David Eagleman spends time with a boy who is an expert in stacking cups. He can complete this task in five seconds where it would take most people minutes. This isn’t something he has was able to do first time around. Rather it has required three hours practice every day over two years.

He understands that practice is critical. In my work as a clinical psychotherapist and hypnotherapist, I have learned that everything we want to improve is about process. The process of: being successful; having courage; managing anxiety; being confident and emotional intelligence.

Whatever we want to really improve requires observation and attention to the process, feedback and reflection on how we do what we do. This will help us understand and then, focus and commit to practice to improve or do it differently.

Testing EQ in action

“Leadership and Teams in Action”, is a unit designed and delivered by XVenture for MGSM’s MBA program. It tests individuals’ emotional intelligence in action in an intense competitive environment all captured on camera. Goleman's work is used as an important framework but most importantly the program provides the next generation of emerging leaders the opportunity to practice. The first integrated experiential leadership unit of its kind, continuously stretches the best emerging executives in defining themselves rather than defining others. Learning, developing, testing, applying, reflecting and improving their emotional intelligence through a unique integrated experiential program.

Each and every emotion is noticed and experienced. The vast majority complete the unit as changed people, more readily open and self- reflective of the World. Keen to practice their new skills to get even better. Some of the changes border on dramatic. One senior executive places his XVenture MGSM shirt on his chair as an every day reminder of the moment of change. Another has a photograph pinned to their wall of their team who undertook the program. A team that a few days earlier didn’t exist yet provides an important anchor for positive spirit and effective outcome.

Like the majority of the unique experiential challenges created by XVenture, one in particular, named “Together we're better" stretches those that participate to the max. The group of 48 to 50 are stripped of their newly found relationships, thrown into new roles and each measured against Goleman's model of emotional intelligence.

XVenture has a unique formula analysed by a hugely experienced XVenture coaching team who have global expertise working with World class teams. The results from over 250 MBA students make for special reading and viewing and provide new insights into the research on emotional intelligence. It does this because the analysis is undertaken “live” during business simulations where the levels of complexity are deep and where emotions can run high.

The application of the Goleman model is a perfect fit for the assessment. Whilst all participants are informed of the assessment beforehand, in the heat of the moment and the pressure of the task, they forget. The experience provides a very powerful insight into how individuals behave under pressure, how emotional intelligence really plays out and then a wonderful benchmark for reflection, captured in electronic learning logs used for major assignments.

It is so easy for us to be comfortable in our own backyard. However, the next generation of leaders will be faced with constant change, hence need to feel confident to deal with ambiguity. "Together we're better" is "House Rules" and "The Block" on heat!

Emotional intelligence (EQ) scoring can be less complex than one might imagine. It's not as mystical as often presented. The XVenture coaching team has significant experience in intense experiential observation and are tasked with marking each individual across five areas: self-awareness; self-management; social skills; empathy and levels of motivation. Each individual is marked for each area. The individual scores are then applied to an individual's team to create an aggregate score for each team.

Observations of EQ in Action

On completion of the challenge, the coaching team meets to discuss individual performance and compare scores. Although rarely necessary, scores are normalised where required. The average score for 250 participants is 35 out of 50 across the key areas of emotional intelligence (Goleman). High scores are 42+/50.

Each cohort of MBA students is typically 50 comprising 70% male:30% female. However, the top ten individual EQ scores for every cohort are typically 55% male 45% female. In other words, females tend to have a better overall EQ score than their male counterparts.

“Together we’re better” typically starts with considerable calm and ends in an intense battle to complete the complex project against the clock. Most people at some point during the challenge will exercise a level of anxiety, which impacts communication, a relationship, or a decision which does flow on to affect the project outcome.

There are many things observed. Without over simplification or over complication, most noticeably when put under intense pressure, some leaders, particularly male seem to move from an assertive position to an aggressive one. Others jostle for a position as this has been something they have undertaken naturally throughout their lives. This can lead to conflict and raised voices. The best seem to take time to listen and be more empathetic where there is an intense environment and where people want to be heard. They don’t see disagreement as conflict, but rather negotiation. I asked several female students why they seemed to deal with the “Together we’re better” challenge well and one of the things that emerged was that despite the intensity, they did feel safe to express their viewpoint without significant ramifications. If this is not usually the case for them, then there may be an aspect of trust missing in some work environments or an overly political environment where being open can be a risky thing to do.

Another observation is that every time the Challenge has been undertaken, the “CEO role” in the Challenge has been undertaken by a male, without being formally appointed. Proportionally more male CEOs were expected due to the male/female mix. However, over five programs we would have expected and hoped to have seen some female CEOs. To be a CEO in this program requires one initial action: putting the hand up! Over the coming months, we will be exploring this in more detail. In most instances the CEO does very well, particularly in the early stages of the Challenge, where setting ground rules, direction, organizing is required. However, as the time ticks, when things got more complicated, each one has struggled with the complexity of competing needs and the effect this has on human behavior.

The individual who performs well in the challenge and has high EQ scores, are invariably members of the more successful teams in the XVenture program. (ie. After sixteen challenges the team that finishes in a top three position out of ten teams.) This is despite the individuals placed in different teams specifically for this challenge. Also noticeably, the same teams who perform well in “Together we’re better” generally also perform well in networking related challenges. (i.e. those challenges requiring sophisticated social skills.)

In truth, an individual can be a good leader by working to improve on Goleman's areas of emotional intelligence. However, our analysis from the 250 MBA students who have undertaken the unit “Leadership and Teams in Action” and our 100 Leaders program consistently draws attention to other aspects that are worthy of exploration and deeper attention and practice. Where the individual achieved heightened EQ scores, XVenture coaches observed two other key aspects which can be real points of difference and influence.


I am a big fan of Edward De Bono. He is my most read author and I continue to dip into his incredible thoughts and perspectives many years after purchasing his books. The De Bono idea that caught my imagination a few years ago was his view that a sense of humour was the highest form of human intelligence. “Humour is by far the most significant activity of the human brain.” Several surveys confirm that it is an important leadership skill (Bell Leadership Institute and Robert Half International)

Consider great humourists such as Bob Hope, the Marx brothers, Billy Connolly and Ronnie Corbett, who sadly passed away earlier this year. In memory of “little Ronnie” are two typical “one liners”

"It was revealed in a government survey published today that the Prime Minister is doing the work of two men, Laurel and Hardy."

"We'll be talking to a car designer who's crossed a Toyota with Quasimodo and come up with the Hatchback of Notre Dame”

Some of our greatest leaders saw the benefits. Eisenhower recognized that, “A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.”

What is significant about the use of “humour” is the “pattern switching” process where a familiar topic is interrupted to a surprising and unfamiliar new one. In our XVenture HQ our highly creative team constantly banter with each other using humour and word association. It keeps us all amused and our brains constantly adaptable and ready for the ambiguous. We have understood that to become flexible and adaptable in changing our perceptions is a critical skill. It can help to change our emotional state which opens us up to choices and options. Even after working with over 300 organisations in our work at XVenture, the most successful team who participated in one of our Challenges identified humour and fun as their “X factor”.


Noticeably some of the people already referenced (Hope and Corbett) were also incredible storytellers – something which is now becoming acknowledged as another important practice. One of the most memorable moments in our 100 Leaders interview program was Chris Adams’ reflections on the significance of storytelling in his life. “Storytelling is in our DNA. It’s how we move them and shape them from the past to be relevant for today.” A story told well touches our emotional state and draws us in.

I make storytelling part of my daily work. New projects, new challenges, invariably start with a storyboard and an imaginary target and outcome, then shared with the team. Often the idea becomes far- fetched but this leads to fun, laughter, open communication and unique ideas that stretch the imagination leading to innovative solutions.

In my clinical work, I constantly lean on the incredible work of Milton Erickson, the originator of modern psychotherapy and hypnotherapy who was an immense storyteller and metaphor maker. On the occasions that I do hit the sweet spot between a client need’s and my delivery of choices using stories with humour, the outcomes are invariably excellent. The five elements of emotional intelligence also have a habit of being part of the success process.

In 2015, we were privileged to undertake some videography work with former Australian PM Paul Keating. In the conversation, he drew attention to the important elements of his success. Confidence: achieved through learning from great leaders of government and an understanding of the parliamentary process and; the art of storytelling. He saw these as fundamental to winning an election.

Another leader who we recently interviewed was the former Head of South Africa’s VIP Security services and Nelson Mandela’s personal bodyguard, Rory Steyn. From the incredible session with him, it became obvious that Mandela was a master storyteller. Apparently both Mandela and Keating loved Churchill’s writings and in particular his storytelling.

Another story on storytelling! Al Gore shared Branson his story on climate change in “Inconvenient Truth” (of which incidentally, Chris Adams is an executive producer). This was so inspiring that Branson apparently began setting aside profits to deal with climate change issues. So what’s the message? Learn and pay attention from the best and get lots of practice. As Disney said: “storytellers instill hope, again and again and again.”

In the MBA unit and indeed in our many experiential programs we run around the World, we develop and deliver specific storytelling challenges to help people understand the significance of this skill.


The truth is that one can read and study emotional intelligence until the cows come home, but our research, many years of experience and interest in the subject, suggests that the added ingredients of humour, storytelling and real attention to practice can positively influence individual emotional intelligence and success in leadership.

We continue to encourage and explore this with people through specific experiential activities connected to emotional intelligence.

(c) Mike Conway 2016

About Mike: Mike Conway is the CEO and Founder of the learning, leadership and media group XVenture. He is also Adj. Professor at Macquarie University Graduate School of Management specializing in Leadership, Teamwork , Experiential Learning and EQ. He is a registered clinical hypnotherapist with the AHA, a member of the Australasian Neuroscience Society, Neuroleadership Institute and CAHRI.

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