3 reasons why you need to know yourself before you can hope to manage others


First-time managers often discover that they need more than the technical skill to manage others successfully.

The future of work, especially in Africa, looks precarious. The challenges of the fourth industrial revolution, coupled with social and economic inequality, slow growth, and a youth-heavy age pyramid present a complex scenario that requires managers to think outside the conventional management box.

For first-time managers entering this space, the terrain can seem overwhelming. For many the instinct is to look to upskill – to gain the necessary training, tools and techniques that will enable them to “manage” others. But what many find when entering the classroom, is that far from being handed a ready-made kit of management practice, learning how to manage and lead others well starts with looking inward, and learning to manage yourself. As Dee Hock, founder and CEO of VISA in his book “Birth of the Chaordic Age” highlighted back in 1999, “Without management of self, no one is fit for authority, no matter how much they acquire.”

Effective leadership practice recognises that individuals with high Emotional Intelligence are better equipped to deal with change and uncertainty and possess the ability to build teams that are creative, confident and boost the bottom line. A study by Korn Ferry analysts David Zes and Dana Landis provides data that confirms a direct relationship between leader self-awareness and organisational financial performance.

Emotional Intelligence - or EQ (for Emotional Quotient) - first outlined by psychologist Daniel Goleman encompasses interconnected qualities like Self-Awareness, Self-Regulation, Motivation, Empathy, and Social Skills (like listening and forging relationships). There are many reasons why these skills make you a better manager. A survey of business leaders in the UK cited increased motivation and morale (46%), improved leadership (45%) and better collaboration between teams (37%) as the primary benefits of EQ in the workplace.

During the past ten years of training new managers across various industries and sectors I have noted three key areas where EQ makes a vital difference – especially to the new manager.

1.    EQ helps you to focus on the right things

Several of the new managers participating in the UCT Graduate School of Business New Manager course relate a scenario where they come into the role feeling the need to solve everyone’s problems or have all the answers. Naturally, this creates a lot of stress that could lead to bad decisions and poor relations with colleagues, especially if the manager is perceived to be inexperienced.

A high level of self-awareness can help a new manager in that situation to be realistic about what they’re good at, and what they can and can’t do – and to be able to own up to that. This then allows them to enlist the help of others to fill the gaps. By accepting that you can’t solve all the problems in one go and by surrounding yourself with the right people, you create the space to make better choices and to tackle the really important issues. It is also highly motivating for others in the team to be given a real chance to contribute.

2.    EQ helps you to build a stronger team

Another common scenario I encounter is that of an older manager - perhaps trapped in an older style of management - who is struggling to effectively connect with a younger team of “Millennials”. Or a younger manager who inherits a team of older, more experienced team members who may additionally be from different cultural backgrounds. It’s not hard to see how all manner of personal dynamics come into play in these scenarios, and that these aren’t solved simply by having a high IQ or a lot of technical knowledge of the work at hand.

It’s vitally important for the new manager to build positive relationships with people in their teams – regardless of whether they are of the same age or ethnicity. This involves not only asking “How do I communicate with others?”, but also being aware of how they understand and listen to others, all characteristics of those with a high EQ.

In team management, the emphasis in communication is shifting from a focus on what you want to say to how others hear it or how they would want to hear it. As managers, the ability to have a personal conversation is vital; we would do well to remember that neither we nor our team members we are robots - at least not yet!

3.    EQ helps you achieve better outcomes

Of course, a lot of communication in business is not easy. The role of the manager almost always involves having to have difficult conversations – with underperforming employees, with disappointed clients, or with demanding bosses from higher up in the organisation. Whether we like it or not, almost every moment of our working life is a negotiation of one kind or another and having a high EQ can help managers to achieve better outcomes in these interactions

As Susan David, co-author of Emotional Agility, suggests in an HBR podcast, logic alone is not a good enough tool for difficult conversations. She stresses the importance of recognizing emotions – both in ourselves and in the person we are talking with – before starting the conversation, using open-ended questions to truly understand the point of view of the other, and harnessing positive emotions – by highlighting the positives upfront – to enhance the chances of listening taking place. All of these will increase your chances of finding common ground leading to a better outcome for both individuals and the organisation.

Emotional Intelligence is probably not something our parents thought about in relation to their managers or their team. But a modern understanding of EQ involves realising that people are motivated to work much better and with a more personal investment if they sense an empathy in their leaders;  if they believe in what they’re doing; if they value it; and they feel valued for doing it.

The reality is that for many of us, gaining self awareness is, as Hock says “a complex, never-ending, incredibly difficult, oft-shunned task”. But when faced with the complexities of modern management, taking the time to understand yourself and harness your EQ is a vital first step for first-time managers.


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