Rationale. Objective. Data-driven. These are the words we associate with successful decision making in business.  We attempt to cut ourselves off from our emotional intelligence and/or the emotions we experience when we “walk into the office” (or the study from which we now work at home). It is like we think that just because we are in a different setting, we operate differently as humans. Like, somehow we’re able to make decisions without the influence of anything but objective data. Truth be told, the opposite is true. And this is critical for business leaders to understand: Developing and harnessing emotional literacy is vital to sustainable business success!

We hear about soft skills all the time. In fact, Airgroup reportin a recent survey of over 900 executives, 92% reported soft skills, including communication, curiosity, and critical thinking are as important as technical skills. However, 89% of those same executives reported they have a difficult time hiring those soft skills.” 

As a business leader with multiple priorities (especially in the time of Covid-19), investing in the formal development of your team’s soft skills and emotional literacy may be low on the list. So much so that many business owners I’ve worked with ask why they should invest in team building/ cohesion, soft skill development and emotional literacy (there is no clear or tangible ROI in the first place).

With a background in engineering, I get it… Investing in these so-called “soft skills” can seem counterintuitive. They can be difficult to measure and approach scientifically. Yet some of the teams I’ve helped reckon that it was focusing on one particular soft skill – emotional literacy – that really helped them shift their performance.

It’s all good and well to hear others sing the praises of investing in their team’s soft skills like emotional literacy, but how do you know if it will actually benefit your business?

Let’s cover a few examples of when investing in your team’s emotional literacy is a good idea:

1 – When you don’t know how to reliably create the behaviours that are essential for your business to succeed.

2 – When you’ve tried telling people what to do but nothing seems to change.

3 – When you feel like conversations are going around in circles rather than moving forwards.

The thing is that most of us aren’t trained to lead or run effective teams. A university education is generally about growing expertise in a very niche technical area. Many business owners have become successful because they are skilled in a certain domain (like consulting, technology, marketing etc).

Creating effective teams and a culture that you’re proud of isn’t something that’s covered in most tertiary qualifications. But it is a skill. And it can be learned. 

One critical soft skill-related area which I recommend you focus on first is emotions.

Emotions are foundational to being human, yet we often don’t pay attention to them in the workplace. I’m not talking about sitting around and talking about our emotions and our personal life, crying, hugging etc. 

I’m talking about the part of our brain that helps us make decisions.

Why did you marry your partner, for example? I’ll bet the answer is less than logical! What many people don’t realise, though, is that this same approach applies to business decisions. Why did you hire “so and so”… Probably because of your gut feeling?

Despite what we may want to believe, we can’t just compartmentalise our emotions and prioritise our rational mind. Our language reveals this when we say we “go with our gut”. Studies have shown how people who have injuries to the head where they lose connection to their emotions are incapable of making decisions entirely.

 If emotions help us make some of the most important decisions in our lives, why don’t we pay more attention to them? 

Here are three unhelpful myths about emotions, that hinder us from using our emotions effectively in decision making at work:

We believe we can block or ignore our emotions.

 We can’t. Even if we persuade ourselves we’re not in a mood, others know it immediately.

The right conversation in the wrong mood is the wrong conversation.

We see them as unpredictable.

Contrary to what many of us believe, emotions are logical. They can be understood and they can be learned.

We believe that we can’t learn to work with our emotions.

We think emotions are these random fixed things which we have no control over and cannot decipher or harness.

But none of this is true.  Neither is it true that you need emotional intelligence to nail this. The challenge with ‘intelligence’ is that it’s something we ‘have’, more than something we ‘learn’. By contrast, emotional literacy is something that can be developed. In my work with business leaders, we do exactly this: they learn how to work with their own emotions and how to work with the emotions of others. Some of the most fun workplaces and the best teams are those that work with, rather than against their emotions.

So the question really is: if emotions underlie behaviour and decision making, can you afford to ignore them in your business?