Star performance …The soft skills imperative

Exactly how important for excellence is emotional competence compared to technical skills and intellect?

Daniel Goleman studied competence models of 181 different positions drawn from 120 companies and organizations worldwide. The models showed what management in each organization agreed captured the particular profile of excellence for a given job. His analysis was straightforward.

He compared which competence listed as essential for a given job, role, or field could be classified as purely cognitive or technical and which were emotional competencies.

When Prof Goleman applied his method to all the 181 competence models he had studied, he found that 67 per cent – two out of three – of the abilities deemed essential for effective were emotional competencies. He observed that compared to IQ and expertise, emotional competence mattered twice as much. Significantly, this held true across all categories of jobs, and in all kinds of organisations.

Emotional competence is particularly central to leadership, a role whose is essence is getting others do their jobs more effectively. Interpersonal ineptitude in leaders lowers everyone’s performance.

It wastes time, creates acrimony, corrodes motivation and commitment, builds hostility and apathy. A leader’s strengths and weaknesses in emotional intelligence can be measured in a gain or loss to the organization of the fullest talents of those they manage.

A top executive of an American company observes that handling an emotional situation demands troubleshooting skills being able to establish trust and rapport quickly, to listen well, and to persuade and sell a recommendation.

He puts it this way, “Half the skills you need are technical, but the other half are in the softer domain, emotional intelligence. And it is amazing how it is the latter that distinguishes the top performers.”

The Executives observation is borne out by data. Researchers in studying several companies have concluded that the importance of emotional intelligence increases, the higher you go in the organization.

Based on a research by Hay and McBer with top executives at 15 global companies, only one cognitive ability distinguished star performers from average pattern recognition, the ‘big-picture’ thinking that allows leaders to pick out the meaningful trends from the mass of information around them and to think strategically into the future.

But with this one exception, intellectual or technical superiority played no role in leadership success. At the top executive levels, everyone needs cognitive skills to a certain extent, but being better at them does not make a star leader. Rather, emotional competence made the crucial difference between mediocre leaders and the best. The stars showed significantly greater strengths in a range of emotional competencies, among influence, team leadership, political awareness, self-confidence, and achievement drive.

Goleman concludes thus, “For star performance in all jobs, in every field, emotional competence is twice as important as purely cognitive abilities. For success at the highest levels, in leadership positions, emotional competence accounts for virtually the entire advantage.

Competence Pays Most at the Top

Competencies come in clusters. For top performance a person must master a mix of competencies, not just one or two. David McClelland found that stars are not just talented in, say, initiative or influence – they have strengths across the board, including competencies from each of the five emotional intelligence areas: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, and social skills.

Only when they reach a critical mass from the full spectrum do they emerge as outstanding. McClelland calls this critical mass the ‘tipping point.’ “Once you reach the tipping point, the probability your performance being outstanding shoots up.

The critical point may be due to how frequently you show the key competencies, or your level of sophistication in them, or how well you can manifest them.”

Daniel Goleman narrates the story of a CEO who fired his Chief Operating Officer (COO) instead of grooming the incumbent from taking his place as CEO. “He was extraordinarily talented and brilliant conceptually, a very powerful mind. He was great on the computer, knew the numbers up, down, and backward. That is how he got to be COO. But he was not a brilliant leader, not even particularly likable. He was often brutally acerbic. In groups he was socially awkward; he had no social graces, or even social life. at 45, he had nobody he was close to, no friends. He worked all the time. He was one-dimensional; that is why I finally let him go.”

This example resonates with the conclusions of a landmark study by Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) in 1996 of top executives who derailed. (Derailment means getting fired, being forced to quit or reaching a plateau in a dead-end position). The two most common traits of those who failed:

l       Rigidity: They were unable to adapt their style to changes in the organizational culture, or they were unable to take in or respond to feedback about traits they needed to change or improve. They could not listen or learn.

l       Poor relationships: The single most frequently mentioned factor: being too harshly critical, insensitive, or demanding, so they alienated those they worked with.

These traits proved fatal handicaps even to brilliant executives with strong expertise. One executive described a derailed colleague in these words: “He is a great strategic thinker and he has high ethical standards, but he lashes out at people. He is very smart, but he achieves superiority through demeaning others.”

The opposite of rigidity is adaptability. “Leadership agility is the ability to work with different styles and with people at all levels of the organization, from salespeople on the beat to top management, demands empathy and emotional self-management.

From the CCL study, sharp differences emerged between the successful managers and those who derailed on most major dimensions of emotional competence.

l       Self-control: Those who derailed handled pressure poorly and were prone to moodiness and angry outbursts. The successful stayed composed under stress, remaining calm and confident and dependable in the heat of crises.

l       Conscientiousness: The derailed group reacted to failure and criticism defensively – denying, covering up, or passing on the blame. The successful took responsibility by admitting their mistakes and failures, taking action to fix problems, and moving on without ruminating about their shortcomings.

l       Trustworthiness: The failures typically were overly ambitious, too ready to get ahead at the expense of other people. The successes had integrity, with strong concern for the needs of their subordinates and colleagues, and for the demands of the task at hand, giving these higher priority than impressing their own boss at any cost.

l       Social skills: The failure lacked empathy and sensitivity, and so were often abrasive, arrogant, or given to intimidation of subordinates. While some were charming on occasions, even seeming concerned about others, the charm was manipulative. The successes were empathic and sensitive, showing tact and consideration in their dealings with everyone, superiors and subordinates alike.

l       Building bonds: The insensitivity and manipulative manner of the failed group meant that they failed to build strong network of cooperative mutually beneficial relationships. The successes were more appreciative of diversity, able to get along with people of all kinds.

We believe that the immense difference in economic value between top and bottom performers in high-complexity jobs makes emotional intelligence not simply additive with cognitive ability, but multiplicative: arguably, the hidden ingredient in star performance.

Sam Addaih (Rtd)


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