Being a CEO is really hard.  Being a CEO with emotional intelligence is a lot less hard – and a lot more effective.

CEOs are executives at the top of their game.  They have become experts at many skills. They may be great strategists, shrewd negotiators, visionaries, great at hiring, superb administrators, or, they may excel at some other crucial executive skills.

CEOs aren’t flawless or omnipotent, however.  Luckily, they don’t have to be. A CEO can and must delegate to others much of the work that requires the skills they lack.

However, the skill of emotional intelligence (EI) is different from these other skills that can be delegated. This article argues that emotional intelligence is a skill that the CEO must possess and cannot delegate. A CEO’s behavior has a huge and lasting impact on the emotions of their employees, and that impact is fundamental to the performance of all employees.

The Impact of CEO behavior on the organization

The impact of a CEO’s behavior on an organization often becomes apparent in the interactions they have with individuals.

From the perspective of an employee, an interaction in which the CEO was generous, kind, magnanimous, aware of their own strengths and weaknesses and/or passionate about the businesses’ prospects, leaves that employee feeling safe. Even if the interaction included discussion and disagreement about an important matter, where the employee disagreed openly with the CEO or did not get what they were after, a good CEO ensures the interaction leaves the employee feeling safe.  The sense of safety arises from experiencing behavior that is rational and objective and focused positively toward achieving company goals. The CEO expresses positive emotions and does not make disagreements or difficult issues personal. This is the behavior of a CEO with high EI.

When the opposite of this takes place, when there is an interaction where the CEO was mean, quick to become angry or frustrated, ignorant and looking to lay blame on someone, the employee(s) leave feeling threatened – even if they got what they were after.  This is the result of a CEO with low EI.

Brain science explains why CEO actions have magnified emotional impact

There is a very small but very important part of the brain called the amygdala. This is the part of the brain that feels fear.  It operates far more quickly than the parts of our brain that thinks. We therefore feel fear far more quickly than we can rationally understand why we feel it.  The neurochemicals released by the amygdala, when triggered, inhibit our ability to think. Further, the amygdala forms lasting memories that are associated with fearful events.  Thus, when an individual’s amygdala is triggered, the individual i) feels fear before they can think, ii) has their capacity to think reduced, and iii) forms a strong emotional memory that can cause them to be triggered again in the future.

The power a CEO possesses  puts them in a position where their actions can easily have an impact that triggers employee(s)’ amygdalae.  If this happens, it will lead to poorer performance both in the moment and in the future since people with triggered amygdalae cannot perform nearly as well as those whose amygdalae are calmed.

What does Emotional Intelligence have to do with a CEOs’ impact?

The skill of EI has a number of components.  The first two of these are being aware of your own emotions and being able to manage them.  If you aren’t aware of your emotions, you can’t manage them, and, if you can’t manage them, they will control you and cause you to behave in a way that has undesired impact on the emotions of others.  (You yourself will also be diminished in performance.)

Next are the remaining components of EI: being sensitive to and being able to influence the emotions of others.  A CEO whose behavior triggers negative emotions in others causes immediate and lasting unproductive effects in those employees.  Conversely, a CEO whose behavior creates psychological safety and excitement among their employees creates a situation where those employees’ creativity and intelligence are unhindered by their brains’ fear centers.  

How EI makes CEOs more effective and makes their jobs easier

A CEO who excels at all of these components has a much easier job than one who does not.  The emotionally intelligent CEO finds themself surrounded by creative, smart and courageous employees deeply engaged in their jobs.  Great work simply gets done.  

However, a CEO with poor EI becomes surrounded by employees who are unable to be creative and give their best ideas; employees who act fearfully and turn on each other and;employees who are looking to escape.  This CEO loses confidence in their people, and the job of leading and succeeding becomes increasingly hard – eventually to the point of impossibility.

Of course, rarely is a CEO someone with zero EI or with perfect EI. There is a spectrum of EI competency and this leads to why we see a spectrum of behaviors in organizations between the extremes described in the above two paragraphs.  

Emotional Intelligence cannot be delegated

While it is great for everyone to be emotionally intelligent, a CEO with poor EI skills is a CEO that causes fear, uncertainty, panic, anxiety and other highly undesirable emotions in their employees.  Consequently, they diminish their employees’ capacity to perform – often to a great degree. Attempting to get some other employee to “now go make people feel better” is an often impossible task for that unfortunate delegate.  You cannot easily erase the fearful memories etched in the brain by an amygdala. A different person cannot cover up emotions that have been felt in interacting with the CEO.    

Learning and mastering the skill of Emotional Intelligence

Fortunately, every component of the skill of emotional intelligence can be studied, put into practice and, over time, mastered.  Specific tools and strategies exist to support each component.  

Want to learn about Emotional Intelligence in the future workplace. Join IHHP’s Cranla Warren Ph.D. and Tricia Maslov from KPMG for our upcoming webinar. Register now

The ROI of a CEO’s Emotional Intelligence

The return on investment of a CEO developing this skill cannot be understated – it is fundamental to their ability to have their employees provide their very best in both the immediate and long term.  

When this skill exists in an entire senior team at an organization, they can support and coach each other in being emotionally intelligent and can create a self-reinforcing culture of positive behaviors that can stand up in the face of today’s accelerated rates of change and competition that often contribute to fearfulness and anxiety.  

In conclusion, every CEO (and really every senior team) should make it a priority to study, to practice and, to try to master the skill of emotional intelligence.  It will make their job easier and their company more successful.

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