To Rise, Women Need To Exercise Their Emotional Intelligence

author Sally Helgesen
EQ is often a female superpower, and its value is more recognized today than it’s ever been: ‘How excellence in leadership is perceived and defined has changed a lot.’

Sally Helgesen has spent decades studying women’s leadership and her books Rising Together and How Women Rise, co-authored with legendary executive coach Marshall Goldsmith, among others, are considered classics in the field. One of her areas of expertise is emotional intelligence and the role it plays in leadership.

Helgesen will be featured in a discussion on the subject at our next Women in Leadership online session, Embracing Change & the Power of EQ (join us!). She spoke with StrategicCHRO360 this week about what EQ is, exactly, how it can change organizations and why it’s a talent women who want to rise should embrace.

What exactly is emotional intelligence?

Well, from my perspective as not a scientist and not a researcher but a practitioner, somebody who is in the field, I would define EQ as the ability to pick up not just from people’s words, but also from their body language what they are really saying, and what lies behind what they’re saying—feelings of insecurity, fear, overconfidence. It’s about being able to read someone through their choice of words, their body language, the expression on their face and how they connect with you. It’s about understanding what’s going on with them so that you can respond in a way that is helpful to them.

It doesn’t mean being a pushover. I think people sometimes confuse emotional intelligence with someone who’s just a pleaser. It’s very, very different.

Are women more likely to have a high EQ?

I believe that people who have been to some degree on the outside of the leadership mainstream tend to develop EQ because it’s necessary for their survival. This happens often with women, that it’s really the vulnerability of the position that they’re in, say in an organization. Now, is it always true? Of course not.

Is EQ something one can develop? Is it something one is born with?

It is something people can develop. Do we develop it because of our experiences or are we programmed from birth that way? I can’t make a judgment on that. I do think it’s probably a combination of the two. The nature part is just what we have learned through evolution. If you look back into human pre-history, women were in a position of tending to the community, and especially the children. So they had to have a sort of broad-spectrum capacity for noticing to stay alive.

Men had more of a laser focus because they were kind of sitting around and then it was all in for the hunt. And I see this play out in organizations all the time where women are noticing, “Why is that person sitting in the back of the room? They don’t seem that engaged. I wonder what’s happening with them.” And then they’ll bring that up to a male coworker and he’ll say, “Well, who cares about that guy?”

It plays out in male/female communications. Often a woman will come in to make a point, and they’ll say, “Let me tell you how I came up with this idea.” Men will say, “Just get to the bottom line. I can’t figure out where she’s going. She’s giving me too much information.”

Men tend to have a more concise, you know, here are the facts, do with it what you want approach. “This is what I suggest we need to do, get to the bottom line” is a very good state statement of that approach. Differing capacities that developed, and they’re both important. But what women offer has often been sort of overlooked because they have not been in the workforce that long and certainly have not been in leadership positions or positions of real authority and influence, with a few unusual exceptions, for very long either.

There are examples of women who are hard hitting and focused in that kind of way you’re describing, and men who are empathetic and emotionally intelligent, of course.

Absolutely. We’re speaking in generalities. We all fall on all kinds of places on the spectrum. And I do believe these capacities can be developed and nurtured throughout life. Adult neuroplasticity was not recognized until about 30 or 40 years ago. We believed you couldn’t learn new tricks as an adult. We now know that’s not true. So I think it’s always a combination of both. And very important to be aware of stereotyping, but at the same time, having a sense of what some of the generalities are is very helpful. It’s helpful to women, and it’s helpful to men.

So how is this connected to women’s advancement? What is it about this sort of superpower that a lot of women have that can help them become leaders?

First of all, women can benefit by having real confidence that empathetic notice, or broad-spectrum noticing is a superpower. That this is not something that is inappropriate, because they will get told that. “That’s not what you’re supposed to notice” or…

Being dismissed.

Yes. “What you’re talking about is all beside the point.” So women need, number one, confidence in the validity and value of what they notice. They need to be able to articulate, preferably very concisely—some men can hear it—why it matters, why it is important. So they need to connect the dots for those who do not have empathic notice or do not have it to the degree that they have it.

It’s kind of an early warning signal for things going wrong. We saw it in the financial crisis. How many of those banks had women in place who said, no, these numbers don’t make sense. It’s important to have an example of the last time that this was ignored, that these were the consequences. Be able to present it in a kind of hardheaded way.

I often recommend when you’ve got a very get-to-the-bottom-line type of leadership that you’re working with, is to put everything in bullets and presented as data. There’s a lot of credibility for laser-focusers, as I call them, in numbers. So you want to get comfortable using a language that is very concise, very data-oriented.

Do you have any specific tips for how to develop your EQ, in addition to how to express it?

The most important thing is to practice being fully present to the individual in front of you. Research shows that when we’re really paying attention to somebody, the mirror neurons begin to operate, so that we really are literally on the same wavelength. But part of the reason that people don’t develop this in our culture is the tremendous amount of distraction.

We have a hard time having single, pointed attention to the moment, to our task—to anything. Being fully present for the person with whom we are communicating means doing whatever we can to address the noise in our heads. Devices off, giving a person our full attention, listening to what they say, not responding until they’re ready for our response, and maintaining eye contact with them the whole time. It’s almost like a meditative practice. That practice of full presence reads as empathetic notice to the other individual.

We’ve all had the experience of being around people who are extraordinary for the power of their presence. And when we think about it, it wasn’t that they had a great handshake or whatever. It was that they were fully present. I think of Frances Hesselbein, I think of Peter Drucker, who I was lucky to spend time with. These were people who were fully present and attentive, and it manifested as emotional intelligence. It created the space to be able to read other people.

What does an organization gain when it pays attention to this quality among its leaders?

First of all, it pays a huge dividend in terms of engagement across all levels. And as we know from Gallup’s fantastic work of recent years, engagement is not very good in organizations at this point. Engagement relates to retaining workers, to their creativity, their ability to share their best ideas. It relates to organizations’ capacity to be innovative. It also creates, as Amy Edmondson would observe, a climate of psychological safety when people feel seen, heard and listened to. And one other thing: a sense of belonging. It’s very, very important for people to be able to feel that. That they want to give their best work, their hearts and minds.

And as I said before, the capacity for early warning signals when we see where there are places in the organization where there’s a lot of dysfunction, where the relationships are volatile, where people are unhappy, is critical. I’m thinking back to the recession. Before that, some of the dot-com bursts, or just flame outs that we’ve watched at places like WeWork or, making it probably too painfully obvious, Twitter. You can see early warning signals that there are real problems for people, and they are going to end up blowing things up.

Do you think EQ is more valued today? And does that create opportunities for women that may not have been there before?

Yes, and yes. I have been working in the field of women’s leadership, inclusive leadership, developing ideas, writing books, articles, et cetera, since 1988—so, a long time. I’ve seen a lot change. And one of the most significant changes I’ve seen is, for the most part—there are obvious and flagrant exceptions—but for the most part, how excellence in leadership is perceived and defined has changed a lot.

When I started this work, excellence in leadership was perceived as being kind of a tough, nasty boss who was willing to cut heads off, and do it without remorse. Fortune magazine used to have a yearly feature, America’s Toughest Boss. Bob Crandall at American Airlines. Jack Welch.

There was a huge tolerance for bosses who lacked emotional intelligence and who lacked common regard for employees. Who ruled, essentially, through fear. That has changed in most organizations, in well-run organizations. They’re looking for people who run strong numbers, etcetera. Alan Mulally, for example. We’ve seen them having outside success and really innovating very well. And as a result, excellence in leadership is being redefined now.

I think women are a big part of that. I think the fact that women brought in a lot of kinds of skills, not just noticing capacity, but the ability to motivate people on their teams through listening skills, communication skills that were not particularly valued in organizations, the fact that they brought those in and began to have some success with them. And that women were less likely to lionize a Jack Welch just because he got to take his private plane and fly down to Augusta on a weekend. A lot of men just thought that was the coolest thing in the world. Women have a sort of skepticism that is really important. And I think that that has been one of the unacknowledged factors in changing organizations.

How about having EQ about yourself? How can women address their own internal barriers to leadership and get out of their own way?

Yes, what can I do? One of the questions I get most, I would say it’s in the top three, is how can I bring attention to my achievements without anybody thinking that I’m arrogant, you know, pushy, sucking up all the air, or that I’m disregarding my team.

Think about that question. First of all, you can never control what everybody thinks. Somebody’s always going to think something about you. So if you are privileging trying to control what you cannot control—which is what everybody thinks of you—over your ability to be able to represent your achievements in a clear, appropriate way, then you are going to remain stuck. You’re setting up an either/or.

Either you don’t say anything and you just hope people notice what you contributed, or you are the kind of person you don’t want to be, bragging and being the most obnoxious person in the room. But it’s not an either/or. You need to find a way to represent what you’ve achieved. That’s absolutely essential to your career.

So how do you do that?

It doesn’t need to be, how can I do that without stepping on my team? That’s not that hard. “My team was able to achieve this. We met this benchmark. Here were some of the results. Here were a few things that a client said. My contribution was…” Women are often very comfortable with that kind of language.

There are definitely some strong internal barriers that women face. In terms of visibility, in terms of putting their job before their career, the expectation, if I just work as hard as I possibly can, I will be promoted, which could cause them to overvalue expertise as opposed to also valuing visibility and the connections they build, building rather than leveraging relationships.

And of course, there are the things we’ve been talking about for a long time: pleasing and perfection and ruminating—that’s an important one. My colleague Marshall Goldsmith once said to me, “I’ve never worked with a woman, no matter if she was a general in a military service, a global nonprofit leader, diplomat or CEO, who at some point, I didn’t have to say, ‘Please don’t be so hard on yourself.’ I’ve almost never said that to a man.” How do we let it go? We need little reminders, like, “You’re only human” or “Oh, well,” et cetera. These things are very helpful.

And we may need to vent about it a little bit, too.

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