Emotional Intelligence & Leadership

Emotional Intelligence & Leadership

November 23, 2022
Randall Hand
Yesterday I stumbled across two articles back-to-back in my feed reader from Fast Company about leadership. I subscribe to lots of blogs and newsletters talking about different aspects of management and leadership (not to confuse the two), and regularly learn or reinforce ideas with new tidbits of psychology, science, and crowd mentality.
The two articles in question were:
It’s a bit telling of the times that both of these pop at the same time on a major publisher, but they relate well together in a way that may not be immediately obvious, so I thought I would cover that today.

What is Emotional Intelligence

“Emotional Intelligence”, also called ‘EQ’ (the Emotional version of IQ), has become a popular topic that many companies internally map to other terms like self awareness, culture match, and empathy. It’s become a fancy-sounding catch-all for all the soft skills that aren’t taught in school and can’t really be measured by a coding quiz.
Because of it’s connotation to soft-skills, it’s also become one of those stereotypes where engineers are typically viewed as low-EQ and non-engineers are high-EQ. Stereotypes have driven society to see engineers frequently as social misfits, somewhere on the autistic spectrum, “book smart and street dumb”, so it’s never expected that engineers can actually have a high emotional intelligence.

Engineers and Emotional Intelligence

I’ve often found exactly the opposite in reality. Just looking over the Fast Company article, they write:
Authentic emotionally intelligent leaders share as much as they are able to with their people at all times and expect the same from others in their circle. They don’t feel the need to hide things from others, cover up their mistakes, or play favorites in their workplace. They treat everyone the same, regardless of their position or station in life.
This describes most engineers I know pretty accurately. With few exceptions, most engineers love to show off what they’ve done and are frequently the first to chime up with mistakes and errors. Ever heard of “Technical Debt”? That’s the industry name given to engineers raising potential errors that they fret over, the very stuff that keeps them up at night.
Most engineers I know actually have a very high EQ, much higher than most other managers. The issue is that they have difficulty finding safe and proper ways to express it. Not given the kind of forums available to middle managers or executives, there’s usually not many ways for an engineer to do organization team work like goal planning. With the popularity of “Matrix Leadership”, the EQ-strong areas like “People Management” and all the Human Resources activities typically get separated from the Technical Leadership aspects.

Safety in Numbers

A few months ago, these articles would have just floated over the internet without much impact. But given the news of the last few weeks:
Job security has become a legitimate concern for many people working in technology industries. With even the biggest and wealthiest of the tech elite laying off staff by the thousands, how can smaller companies hope to complete? Even if smaller companies aren’t planning for layoffs, they may be planning to “upgrade” their staff with all this fresh talent.
When engineers get nervous, they start shopping. The market is flush with thousands of unemployed engineers, but talk to any recruiter and they’ll tell you they have even more well-employed engineers that have begun searching again. Engineers are scared, and probably rightfully so.
That’s where the second article comes in, on creating Psychological Safety. By letting engineers know that they are valued and their concerns are heard and acted upon ( that second part is key ), people can feel confident and secure in their position.

Engineering Safety At Work

That’s where I feel these two articles connect in a non-obvious way. Engineers are worried about the future of their jobs, and to keep work moving forward we need them focused on the Job and not on their Resume. Many engineering organizations have a lot of high-EQ engineers in their workforce that already have the respect of their peers but probably have not been recognized by traditional management.
By enabling these hidden leaders to exercise their Emotional Intelligence in the workplace, they can internally drive and build the kind of safety that workplaces need today. Unfortunately, most organizations limit their ability to do this, which just creates additional worry.
Giving engineering leaders an opportunity to drive some internal discussion and propose reforms, and having those reforms actually supported and implemented by organizations at large, would offer huge dividends for engineering organizations trying to retain and secure talent.