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May 25, 2020 //

Emotional Intelligence – Just the Facts Ma’am

First, let me begin this article by disclosing that (despite the misleading complexion of my first name), I am a woman, and I have held various leadership positions for nearly 20 years.  As such, it goes without saying that I naturally flirt with bias whenever I talk about women in leadership.  Regardless, I have done my best to channel Joe Friday and present “just the facts, ma’am”.

I was inspired to write on this topic following a robust discussion last week in my Center for Agile Leadership (CFAL) “Women in Leadership Support Forum” video-conference, when the subject came up with regard to how women are perceived (or misperceived?) when it comes to Emotional Intelligence, and whether that interferes with our ability to remain true to ourselves in the (metaphorical) “boardroom”.

So, as with all things important to me, I began to do some research.  And, not surprisingly, I began that process with the assumption that women are more emotionally intelligent than men.  Sorry.  Not sorry.  {See “bias” warning in the first paragraph}.

As it turns out, however, every single article I read asserts that, in the millions of people who have taken emotional intelligence assessments worldwide, men and women have been shown to be equally emotionally intelligent.

So, before I dive into the implications of that surprising (at least to me) revelation…let me first lay out how those articles define “Emotional Intelligence” (otherwise known as “EQ” = “Emotional Quotient”).

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is a set of emotional and social skills that collectively establish how well we:

  • Perceive and express ourselves
  • Develop and maintain our social relationships
  • Cope with challenges, manage stress and make decisions
  • Use emotional information in an effective and meaningful way” (i.e., to guide our thinking and action)

In essence, EQ refers to “people skills”.  It determines how well we “get along with others”.

As I dove deeper into this EQ “equity”, I found that, even though the genders are equal in our overall EQ, men and women do possess different EQ strengths/competencies. As Dr. Shawn Andrews states in her book, The Power of Perception: Leadership, Emotional Intelligence and the Gender Divide, “in general, WOMEN tend to score higher than men in areas of empathy, interpersonal relationships and social responsibility, while MEN tend to score higher than women in areas of assertiveness, stress tolerance and confidence”.  Now in that distinction, there was less surprise for me.

Further, also not shockingly, there is a great deal of evidence to support that it is these “EQ competency” differences that favor men in the leadership gender imbalance.

So…while it’s not necessary to beat the poor dead Mars/Venus horse any further (John Gray has had his day in the sun and then some…), I think it is safe to say that men and women are hard-wired differently; there is certainly enough neuroscience to support the differences in our neuroanatomy.  And, yes, these differences undoubtedly cause us to think and behave differently.  However, (and at the risk of beating the equally dead nature/nurture horse) it would be irresponsible to ignore the role that socialization (the process of learning to behave in a way that is “acceptable” to society) inevitably plays in shaping our emotional intelligence.

{Warning…the next few paragraphs contain generalizations (some may say “stereotypes”) about gender socialization.  Please read them with the understanding that research is reported out in terms of a “statistical preponderance” of findings; as such, please know (and know that I know) that there are absolutely exceptions to the findings below}.

OK…with that disclaimer safely lording over what follows, I will continue….

Part of every person’s “socialization” includes being assailed from a young age with (direct and indirect) messages about how we should behave. We receive these messages through our parents, family members, friends, teachers, coaches, magazines, books, movies, television and even the toys we play with.

Specifically, boys are socialized very early on to be competitive, confident, assertive, decisive and even aggressive; they are taught about hierarchy — and that winning is key.

On the other hand, girls receive very different messages in their childhoods. We are socialized to be nurturing, show emotions, get along with others at all costs, be empathetic —  that the process is more important than winning, and that relationships are key.

In these early lessons, boys start developing the skills to be assertive and confident. Conversely, girls start developing the skills of empathy and interpersonal relationships.

And of course both genders continue to receive these reinforced messages into adulthood, and (more specific to this article) carry these behaviors and beliefs into the workplace.

It’s no surprise, then, that men outperform women in the EQ skills of assertiveness and confidence, and women outperform men in the EQ skills of empathy and interpersonal relationships.  Our hard-wired neurobiology plays a part, yes, but socialization pressures on how we should behave in society are almost inescapable.

So…how does all of this relate to women in leadership positions?

When we envision a leader; most people tend to think in male terms. For example, we (men and women alike) are (consciously or subconsciously) conditioned to view successful leaders as being “agentic”, which is defined as “assertive, aggressive, competitive, and independent”.  Much less often do we hear about leaders who are successful because of their “communal” strengths (namely “sensitivity, empathy, honesty, caring, understanding, and compassion”).

As such then, we (both men and women) associate leadership traits with behaviors believed to be more common (or even more appropriate) in men.

And therein lies one of the deepest roots of gender bias when it comes to leadership:  leadership qualities are the same as those used to describe males, because the socialization process has produced the expectation that male social qualities also happen to be leadership qualities.

As such, the belief is that when women are in leadership positions, they should demonstrate agentic qualities, fulfilling the expectations that leaders must be assertive, competent and dominant.

And sadly that sets up opposing forces when it comes to women in leadership positions:

  • First, (and in reference back to the Women’s Leadership Forum discussion that prompted this article), women often feel pressured to present agentic behavior in order to be considered a good leader – and often that behavior is counter to our nature.  As such, their leadership personas are inauthentic — and  ultimately unsustainable.
  • Second, and perhaps more challenging, agentic behavior is viewed (by both men and women) as less “desirable” in women…thus creating the classic double standard that favors men. The cross-pressure of “interpersonal” qualities that people prefer in women, and the agentic qualities that people prefer in leaders, puts a tremendous burden on female leaders who are trying to find a leadership style that works for them.

So what can women do to overcome these warring conditions?

First and foremost, we can change how we ALL “envision” a leader – and in that sense AGILE LEADERS ARE WAY AHEAD OF THE LEARNING CURVE. Agile leaders have already broadened our definition of what it takes to be a good leader. Agile leaders…TRUE Agile Leaders are authentic, transparent, collaborative…and do not subscribe to the “command-and-control” (AKA agentic) attributes of a leader.

It is therefore the job of every Agile leader (female or otherwise) to model whatever EQ competencies we possess… with poise, confidence and transparency.  And hopefully, as Agile leadership continues to take hold in the workplace, communal strengths will take their rightful place in the leadership spectrum, and ALL leaders will be judged based on their skills, experience, results and OVERALL EQ.

So, here’s my challenge for you.  Has this article changed the way you think about gender bias when it comes to Emotional Intelligence?  Does it help to explain some things for you, or did it raise more questions than answers?  Most importantly, does it give you any more confidence in your ability (or desire) to bridge the leadership gender gap, now that we’re working with a better understanding of our same (but different) EQs?  Share your thoughts below!

AND if you’re as fascinated with this challenge as I am..and are interested in finding out (and examining solutions), join us for our class Women in Leadership – the Emotional Intelligence Paradox.

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