Leadership Puzzler: Leadership “Un-EQ”

leadershipI thought about all the stories I have of leaders, including myself, who at one point or another behaved in a manner that was exhibiting very low EQ, (or emotional intelligence), and quickly realized that I had a lot of examples. Of course this speaks to the fact that EQ is not always a leader’s strong suit.

I’m going to share an incident that happened to me personally so I can speak to how it felt to be on the receiving end of a pretty strong “Un-EQ,” or low EQ moment. I was an employee, but with a significant leadership role and responsible for results in a geographic territory. This was shortly after the great recession and my territory was the Western United States, which included California. California had a much larger percentage of customers compared to other regions because the company was headquartered there.

My boss was prone to long-winded wonderings in monthly staff meetings so I have to admit I sometimes zoned out a bit when she was talking. During one of my “zoning moments” I heard her say, “take Mary for example,” naturally I perked up thinking that perhaps I had done something well. That was not the case.

She went on to say, “we should all be proud of our organization, it’s a deeply caring organization, true to its values, because just look at Mary’s performance in the West, had she been at any other company, she would have been fired by now. But we know that the loss of revenue is due to the recession so we’re willing to give her a little time to right the ship. Isn’t that a great example of what a caring company we are? You should share that with our other employees and customers.” Needless to say at this point, I was shocked into silence. I had been on the end of her “insults within a compliment” before, but this was new. As silent as I was, the room was even more silent. Approximately 20 people, including those on the phone, were checking to make sure their shoes were tied. Realizing that her inspirational message didn’t seem to have the intended effect, she changed the subject and moved on.

I sat there considering how I could have let that go by without saying anything and wondering – did I really hear that correctly? Previously she and I had multiple conversations about the issue and how to remedy it, all with the understanding that due to the recession and other factors, there was really nothing at all I could have done differently and we felt relieved it was actually turning around. So you might imagine why I was so stunned.

I left the meeting and went to my office at which point my phone started ringing, emails started flying, and people were coming into my office to ask if I was okay. I was fine. In fact I thought it was kind of funny because she had intended to make me look bad, but in fact, only made herself look boorish and insensitive.

I tucked this situation away in my mind and was determined to never, ever, treat anyone, no matter what the circumstance, like that in public or private. It was demoralizing to the whole team, and an amazing display of lack of empathy and self-regulation, not to mention self-awareness, and all of us at that meeting got very clear on the leadership style of this person.

At the end of the day, I go back to values. Values drive beliefs, beliefs drive behavior, behavior drives performance and performance drives results. If my situation were a onetime occurrence with this person and had been followed by a private apology, one could say that she made an error and was learning and displaying good EQ with the clean-up efforts. However, this was not the first, nor the last time this type of public chastising was displayed by this leader so until she becomes more self-aware of the impact she is having on others, it’s not likely to change. Instances like this display a person’s values, and possibly those of the organization, and engender a deep distrust amongst the staff. Where there is distrust and low EQ, results are not soon to follow.