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The Mindful Executive

By Ryan Heinl

Ryan Heinl

Abraham Maslow, reknowned psychologist and creator of the often-cited theoretical "hierarchy of needs," once wrote, “What is necessary to change a person is to change his awareness of himself.”

In the business I’m in, the central focus is the problem of helping leaders to change for the better. What "better" looks like is always a matter of context, but what I’ve seen after having worked with countless executives over the years, watching them struggle to decide if and how they need to change, is that awareness is the most valuable capacity that one can develop.

And what is the biggest challenge to cultivating awareness, you might ask? It is the fundamental belief that you already have it.

High-Resolution PerceptionTo be fair, most successful executives do have a solid level of awareness. After all, in order to have achieved the great accomplishments they have had in their careers, they must. They probably have some awareness of how people around them are being impacted by the things that they say and do. Occasionally they know how they are personally feeling about what is happening in the moment and how that might impact their effectiveness. However, I would suggest that this level of awareness is fuzzy at best. It’s more of a passing glimpse of what’s happening, like looking out the window of a moving train. Your view is often obscured by trees, tunnels, barriers, and other distractions. To truly unleash the potential that high-performing executives possess they need to develop what Chade-Meng Tan has called High-Resolution Perception.

At its basic level, High-Resolution Perception is the awareness of what is happening and how you are responding on a moment-by-moment basis. This requires bringing your full attention to the moment you are in, and having a deep understanding of what emotions are. Can you sense when frustration or impatience is arising? Can you tell how that emotion influences your response to the person you are interacting with? By cultivating High-Resolution Perception you start to see these things clearly. By seeing them clearly and early you can intervene before you are fully taken over by those emotions. This type of awareness gives executives the ability to choose how they will respond rather than letting their emotions drive their response automatically and in a way that is not true to their intentions. This type of perception is ultimately the foundation for strong emotional intelligence.

At DDI we’ve measured Emotional Intelligence across many thousands of executives over the years as well as many other skills necessary for executive success. When we looked at the impact of IQ vs EQ as part of our High-Resolution Leadership study, we started to see some interesting trends emerge that underscore the critical importance of High-Resolution Perception and Emotional Intelligence:

  • Being smart (IQ) is critical for making the right business decisions and making a compelling argument to get others on board with a direction
  • Keeping people moving and executing on that direction though is mostly dependent on EQ

This makes logical sense because keeping people executing over the long term requires consistently effective interactions with them. They need to feel that their challenges are heard, understood and supported along the way as they wrestle the objectives that are put in front of them to the ground. So you can’t have one without the other and be successful, and I would argue that there are plenty of smart executives out there in the business world these days. So those that really want to execute on their brilliant strategies will be well served by cultivating High-Resolution perception and upgrading their Emotional Intelligence. How to do this leads into a longer but not entirely complex discussion.

It starts with the cultivation of high-resolution perception. Ironically, the best way to help leaders to begin strengthening this type of perception is by focusing inward. They need to begin creating a deliberate practice of being aware of the emotions they are experiencing. They need to get familiar with how their body feels when different emotions are arising. For every emotion there is a physiological response. You feel angry, and your heart quickens, you feel tightness in certain parts of your body. (Whenever I become tense, I always start to contract my right bicep for some reason.) Getting familiar with these physiological indicators will help leaders to clue in quickly to what emotions are arising for them in the moment.

There are many techniques that leaders can use to increase awareness of these physiological signals, but at the most basic level it simply about checking in on your body during an interaction with someone. When you work to put this into practice, you’ll be amazed at what you haven’t been noticing. Maybe your jaw is tight, maybe you are making a fist, maybe your leg is jumping. In dealing with the business issues we are facing, we are often so locked into our thoughts and ideas that we lose touch with our bodies.

The next question I usually get when talking about these concepts with executives is, “How can I be attentive to the person I am talking to, if I am thinking about what is happening in my body?”

The best analogy to explain how this works is to think of it like peripheral vision. You are present and attentive to the person you are interacting with, but you have a peripheral awareness of what is happening to your body. This also requires some practice so in the beginning you might just check in periodically throughout the conversation. Where is there tension? Where is there contraction happening? What emotions are present? This work, the development of high-resolution perception, is the foundation for having greater freedom to choose how you respond. Without awareness, there isn’t wise action, only reaction. Once you’ve cultivated this skill it’s time to do something about what you are observing, especially when you find yourself moving toward negative emotions that might hamper your effectiveness. I’ll share how you can act on this in my next post.

Ryan Heinl is product manager, Talent Diagnostic Solutions at DDI.

Posted: 14 Jun, 2016,
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