Updated: Feb 26
How to use Applied Emotional Intelligence to improve trust & influence
Note: All names and places have been changed to protect the innocent :-)
Last year, I worked with a US biotech experiencing change fatigue. The company had been experiencing turbulent operating conditions for two years, which resulted in a series of reactive changes to both structure and strategy.
A relationship breakdown with a keystone client brought the Executive Team to realise that they needed to refocus on their true competitive advantage - the knowledge, skills and experience of their people. At the next company Town Hall gathering, the CEO was announcing a move back to a focus on employee engagement and empowerment.
The following is an out-take from an Executive Team preparation meeting, three days before the Town Hall event.
"We're going to get massacred", Chris said softly in a slight southern drawl. Around the room, heads nodded in agreement. The fear of talking with the company's Project Managers at Friday's Town Hall was palpable.
Chuck, a wily CFO who labelled himself as an authority on change management, broke the heavy silence, "Stick to the message, sell the positives, and we'll be fine."
"They won't buy it. We already know they're angry. They won't trust what we say, not after going back on our 'no-more-change message'", Chris replied.
"I hear their anger, which is why we need to let them see the positives. This is for their good" said Chuck.
"Chuck's right" added Alison, VP for Business Development. "I believe in this change. It's better for everyone in the long run, so why are we all afraid of telling them?"
I calmly spoke for the first time, "It sounds as though you are afraid of telling them." I then let the statement hang in the silence.
"We know what's coming," said Chris, "Resistance! I mean, how many times over the last two years have we given them bad news dressed as good news? Pete [a Senior Project Manager who had been with the company for ten years] is militant enough as it is; this is going to send him frickin' psycho!" Chris's tone was edgy, his cadence rapid, his words and body language betraying anxiety.
Dan, the CEO finally spoke. "All we need to do is get ahead of the negatives, and we'll be fine."
"Yep!" added Chuck. "Like I said, stick with positive messages, and there won't be a problem."
It sounded as though the team was entrenched in the classic "Us Vs Them" mindset; there was a lack of Applied Emotional Intelligence (articulated empathy that allows people to feel understood); there was a fear of the negatives associated with the changes implemented over the last two years. The conversation seemed to indicate that the team would fail in landing its message of the company learning from mistakes and heralding a positive return to the past.
The questions that are probably in your mind right now are, what brought me to that conclusion, and what could be done about it? There was a lot happening in that meeting, but what I sensed in the situation was an underlying lack of trust and influence brought about by three critical considerations:
1. Relationship Trust & Applied Emotional Intelligence
Trust is arguably the key to influencing others. If you are trusting and trustworthy, you have a higher chance of landing your message and moving to action. Meaning, in scenarios such as this, you have to be interested in developing high-trust relationships.
It sounded like the team were missing several elements critical to high-trusting relationships - specifically, they did not seem ready to:
right wrongs of the last two years
admit they had not delivered intended results
confront the reality of what is unsaid
listen first (practice Applied Emotional Intelligence)
2. Getting ahead of the negatives
I hear this a lot in corporate-speak, but what does 'getting ahead of the negatives' mean in reality?
If you look at the criteria for relationship trust, you'll see there is a focus on accountability, transparency and confronting reality. Also, psychology studies have demonstrated that a failure to confront negatives can create an emotional response in the recipient of the message that disrupts their ability to think logically (see our blog on amygdala hijacks). Instead, by articulating the negatives first, it diffuses the emotional response, especially when accompanied by an apology.
Furthermore, every challenge brings an opportunity. In addressing and diffusing the negatives, an opportunity presents itself to reinforce the positives that the Exec Team is so eager to promote - see the end of this blog for an example of what that looked like in practice.
3. Skills & Self-Determination Theory
It sounded as though there was a lack of willingness within the Exec Team to grasp the opportunity presented to them. The focus on selling the positives was a trigger for me to consider the team's fundamental ability (knowledge, skills and experience) to relate to the challenge and choose a different path.
In exploring the underlying motivation for the choices people make - in this case, an avoidance of the negatives and a focus on the positives - it is necessary to consider three elements:
Competence (e.g. mastery of the required action)
Autonomy (the person/team's ability to take the decision of their own accord)
Relatedness (e.g. understanding of the purpose behind the decision)
In this case, it sounded and looked as though there was a gap in the team's competence. Specifically, the knowledge, skills and experience to 'get ahead of the negatives'. It seemed as though there was an opportunity for me to help them 'unlearn' the past by involving the team in crafting a better experience based on the science of Applied Emotional Intelligence and high-trusting relationships.
The outcome? I persuaded the team to experiment and role-play a more powerful approach.
Part of the approach involved a Red Team exercise, first introduced to me ten years ago by then Major Peter Francis (British Army); I asked the team to attack itself, listing every negative comment that could be said against them as a collective. I then challenged them to create a narrative that diffused the negatives by putting them in the shoes of their Project Managers.
The following is an anonymised version of the opening to the Friday Town Hall, which was met with a round of applause from the attendees:
"First, we are sorry. We are sorry for the stress that the changes we have implemented over the last two years have caused you and your families. We have created uncertainty. This uncertainty has caused you to worry about buying homes; it has left you feeling unsafe about your future; it has impacted your wellbeing. It seems we have done a poor job of listening to you, and we, as a team, are committed to doing things better for you, starting now."
If you would like to know more about Applied Emotional Intelligence, and how to get a room in a sold-out hotel, then get in touch and see if you are ready for our Dragon's Breath challenge ;-)