In the media – There’s nothing soft about soft skills

– This article was published in Personnel Today (April 2014)

With the pace of change intensifying all the time, leaders with emotional intelligence are better equipped to manage it, argues Eddie Kilkelly.

Change has become a constant in organisations, and HR staff and line managers are often at the front line managing it – whether it is a reorganisation of an existing team, integration following a merger or acquisition, the introduction of new products or an office relocation.

A Roffey Park survey of more than 1,800 managers found that 77% of HR professionals said managing change was their top challenge as there is a constant need for it.

Change management, particularly managing people, has always been a challenge as many are often uncomfortable with it. If it is handled well, a flexible organisation that is constantly adapting to meet customer needs or to introduce new products and services will go from strength to strength.

If handled badly, it can be a potentially fatal distraction to the company’s activities. The difference between success and failure lies in engaging employees with the change and the key to that is making sure that everyone in the organisation uses emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence is not a fluffy “nice to have” but can contribute measurable benefit to the bottom line. It is human nature for organisations to concentrate on what needs to be done and less on how they are going to take the workforce with them on the journey.

Traditionally, business leaders have taken a command and control approach, driven by tick-box performance management. Yet this hard-line approach is not working.

Project management guru Mary McKinlay has pointed out that 80% of project failure is as a result of people issues. Project failure is much more common than success. A global PricewaterhouseCoopers study, for example, found that only 2.5% of the companies completed every single project successfully.

Recent high-profile project failures are often pinned vaguely on process mistakes, but people design and follow processes. The National Audit Office blamed confusion and a lack of planning for the failure of the BBC’s £100 million Digital Media Initiative. The report pointed out that no senior person had acted as a single point of accountability and there had been no clear and transparent reporting on the project’s progress.

Organisations that can complete projects successfully win a massive head start over the vast majority of their rivals in a competitive market – and emotionally intelligent people are a major component of that success.

Engaging with employees

There are specific emotional intelligence skills that chief executives, change leaders and project managers need in order to avoid potentially costly and disruptive failure. Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify, assess, and control your emotions and those of employees. It might be called a soft skill but it can seem hard to introduce.

Failure to foster emotional intelligence, however, means staff disengagement, and emotions such as anger and denial remaining in the way of smooth change management for too long.

HR directors and learning and development professionals need to start at the top when addressing the emotional intelligence issue. This is not just about running a couple of half-day training courses; it is more about leaders having the emotional intelligence to engage employees.

Characteristics of an emotionally intelligent leader include integrity, charisma, empathy and compassion; many of these may be developed so that they are more explicit in the workplace

Leaders may also need to be guided to “over-communicate”. They may feel they have communicated the goals of a change process but these soon get lost as people forget the original message. The focus needs to be on more communication, done in such a way that makes employees feel inspired to back the change.

Quantifiable benefits

Engagement is not nebulous; there are quantifiable benefits to the bottom line. In one study, Towers Perrin-ISR compared organisations with an engaged workforce to organisations with a less engaged workforce. It found that organisations with an engaged workforce improved income by 19.2% in one year, while companies with low engagement saw income fall by 32.7%.

HR managers will be able to show any initiatives have had the desired effect. Engagement is becoming increasingly easy to measure as a number of benchmarking solutions, such as Gallup’s Q12 12-question employee engagement survey, gain in authority.

Enlightened leaders know they can deliver success by fostering emotional intelligence among all employees and having a workforce of people who feel valued. Carrying out personality profiling can be a useful first step to helping employees understand themselves better.

This is not the same as identifying strengths and weaknesses. It is about helping people understand what makes them tick and why they may react in a certain way.

View the Personnel Today article

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