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How to Survive an Emotionally Unintelligent Boss

Self awareness is the first and most influential aspect of EI: the few who are gifted with true self awareness have a realistic understanding of how what they feel affects what they do. They also understand which situations trigger certain emotional responses in themselves and others.

My boss has the emotional intelligence of a wrecking ball. This was the opening line in a recent coaching conversation I had with Pat (not his real name, of course). Divisive, two-timing, self centred, political, insert your own adjective here, bosses and colleagues are very familiar to coaches. It's not a new topic.

Pat works in a pretty entrepreneurial environment where wrecking ball bosses are found in abundance. In fact, empathy is the quality that entrepreneurs* have been found to lack the most. Why would they need soft skills when their job is to solve problems, launch product and make money out of it all? I think you already know the answer. For a company to grow beyond the start up phase, its leaders must be able to make good decisions and keep their best people motivated and engaged. Lack of emotional intelligence affects both of these - especially the ability to make good decisions. More about that later.

Stop wishing for others to change

So what would I recommend to Pat? Firstly, you can't change another person, only yourself, so stop wishing and waiting for your boss or colleague to change. Unlike a marriage, your boss may not have enough invested in your relationship to want to change for you. She may not even know she needs to change. Secondly, she won't be your boss for ever, you can either focus on her shortcomings and spend your time complaining about them or work on improving yours.

Finally, (and this is the hardest one) can you see this unpleasant person as a gift on your career path? By working with someone with low EI you are able to feel the impact of it first hand and, perhaps, this will encourage you to turn inward and examine your own emotional intelligence towards your colleagues, friends and family. Without this difficult person in your life, you may never have done this and so not lived up to your own leadership potential. They truly are a gift, if only with hindsight.

Emotional intelligence consists of four domains as coined by Daniel Goleman, namely self awareness, self regulation, motivation, and social skill. Of course, the theory is easier than the practice but the benefits outweigh the effort many times. Let's look at the first two aspects of gaining greater emotional smarts.

Do you know yourself as well as you think?

Self awareness is the first and most influential aspect of EI: the few who are gifted with true self awareness have a realistic understanding of how what they feel affects what they do. They also understand which situations trigger certain emotional responses in themselves and others.

Has your boss ever claimed your idea as his own in a board meeting? How did that make you feel? How did you respond? Do you ever take time after a difficult meeting to think about your behaviour and responses in that meeting? What did you do well and what would you do differently if you could do it all over? As you spend time examining your responses to others you will notice a pattern. Certain things will continuously trigger more emotive responses from you than others. This is when your heart rate picks up, your jaw stiffens or palms get sweaty.

I can keep a lid on my emotions in a meeting but I have a pale complexion and when I feel unduly challenged my neck turns bright red and betrays me. Even though I can keep a poker face, my body still generates stress hormones when I feel threatened, belittled or undervalued (my emotional triggers). So I have had to work out a way to stifle my response to these triggers - or wear a neck scarf, which isn't always possible in sunny Singapore.

Are you always in control?

This is where self regulation comes in. Once you are able to recognise your emotional triggers the next step is to contain your physical response to them such as getting angry, disengaging or other more subtle changes in your body. The first step here is to resist responding instantly when in a difficult conversation.

In the bestseller, Crucial Conversations (McGraw Hill 2011), the authors explain the physiological complexity of a heated conversation. When we feel challenged, or even when someone simply disagrees with us, adrenaline pumps through our body and blood flows away from the brain to the limbs to meet our natural instinct to fight or flee. Leaving a half-starved brain to come up with a coherent argument with sensible facts, whilst processing the torrent of incoming information! This is why low EI affects our ability to make good decisions. You simply cannot evaluate an argument and say the right thing when your brain is in crisis mode - even if you look calm on the outside.

What's your filler phrase?

Take a breath, use a filler phrase that you can say in different situations such as that's an interesting point of view or I appreciate you sharing this with me. This will help you in several ways. It tells your brain that you are not under physical threat even though the hormones it generates are the same as it would if you were. It then gives your brain a few precious seconds to think about what has been said and how to respond. Us coaches call this increasing your stimulus response gap - and that's a good thing.

Take a tour of your self awareness over a week. On your way home from work review your day; where there any situations where you acted impulsively? What emotion was behind that? Did you get any criticism? How did you respond to it? Did you say yes to a request that you really should have said no to because you felt pressured into doing it or didn't give yourself time to think about it first? Do this exercise everyday this week and a mental map of your emotional drivers as well as your ability to self regulate will emerge. If, like Pat, your boss has low EI, take heart that he or she probably won't advance very much further up the corporate ladder than they already are.

* Harvard Business Review, April 1, 2013. The Skills Entrepreneurs Lack, by Bill J. Bonnstetter @ HBR.Org

Tremaine du Preez is the author of Think Smart, Work Smarter, and coach and lecturer in Critical Thinking based in Singapore. She blogs at and Her next book Raising Thinkers - Preparing Your Child For The Journey Of a Lifetime, will be out in 2016.