Emotional Intelligence in the Boardroom

An interview with Dr Ali Budjanovcanin (Kings Business School & certified EQ practitioner)

By Eilish Jamieson, WOB Ambassador, Executive Coach, and Portfolio NED

We are all aware that as guardian of the boardroom, the NED is there to help ensure good business practice, encourage better governance, improve the bottom line for shareholders, alongside an ever expanding corporate and social accountability agenda.
However, it is often the more subtle role of the NED that can differentiate a good one from an excellent one. Managing conflict, reading the room, landing the difficult messages, spotting the unspoken agenda, all requires a strong appreciation of self and others. For a board to be effective, its members must demonstrate high levels of emotional intelligence (more commonly referred to as EQ), and a lack of EQ can seriously handicap a board's ability to problem-solve and make informed decisions.

Dr Ali Budjanovcanin is a Work Psychologist and Executive Coach, who lectures on leadership at King’s Business School in London. She has a breadth of experience on how emotions play out in the workplace and is a Certified Emotional Intelligence Practitioner who has worked with organisations such as the NHS, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, the Church of England, Women in Law London, large law firms, as well as start-ups.
In this interview , Ali spoke to us about what EQ is, and why it is important in the boardroom, drawing on evidence from her research and work with leaders across different sectors.

Q: Ali, what exactly is EQ and why it is so important in the workplace and boardroom?
A: EQ is broadly understood to be the emotional and social skills and abilities that allow us to navigate and successfully overcome day-to-day challenges. It has always been important because organisations have always been made up of people… and people working together inevitably gives rise to interpersonal challenges! What has changed is the degree to which we pay attention to it today. The financial crisis and large corporate failures have contributed to the debate around the quality and diversity of EQ in the boardroom.
Q: What role does EQ play in the boardroom setting, and what are the unique challenges presented there?
A: The boardroom, like any other organisational setting, will be beset with challenging interactions. What is particularly noteworthy about the boardroom is that you’re dealing with numerous diverse viewpoints, which can be an asset, but also a challenge. In that context, understanding how to identify and manage your own and others’ emotions can allow you to be more constructive in managing the inevitable conflict arising from multiple agendas. For example, being able to pinpoint where your emotions and others’ are originating from, recognising when decisions are being made that rely too heavily on feeling, or being able to regulate your emotional response, will allow you to participate in more savvy discussion and decision-making. This comes from self- and other-awareness.
Another challenge of this particular context is that boards usually come together infrequently. Because of this, you may not have opportunity to get to know and understand your fellow board members quickly enough, potentially leading to a lack of empathy about their position. Empathy is another crucial aspect of emotional intelligence and if you can start to hone your ability in this area then you can start to see things from a variety of angles but also understand how to get others on your side.
Q: You have already referenced the limited amount of time a board will come together as being somewhat of a challenge. What practical things can a NED do to address this?
A: When board members do come together it is normally in a time-constrained manner and with the aim of solving tough issues. As such, board meetings can be emotion-laden and conflict-heavy environments. The pressure of having little time together can lead to misunderstandings and assumptions being made. Making the effort to get to know other board members outside of this pressure cooker environment can reap rewards in the longer term and build awareness of their emotional responses and triggers.
If you need the board to become quickly aligned around an issue, then drawing on impulse control – or your ability to regulate emotional responses – may be helpful. Using calm statement of fact – that you will ideally have thought through prior to the meeting – can allow you to control your emotions rather than them controlling you. This ensures that the discussion and interaction remain firmly on the goals and not the people discussing them. This speaks to the skill of knowing the type and intensity of emotion that is appropriate for a particular situation and it can work in the opposite way too. Sometimes, selectively drawing on more extreme or negative emotion, when utilised at the right time, can have the effect of giving momentum to a situation – but the emotionally intelligent individual knows not to over-use this tactic.
Q: From your experience working with organisations, what are the top tips around EQ you would give to WOB members who are on a board, or looking to join one in the future?
A: An awareness of self is the key starting point to develop one’s EQ. Studies suggest that women do seem to have the edge over men when it comes to EQ, however if you have ever received feedback that you perhaps didn’t read a situation or person very well then that might be an indication that you should consider taking a look at your EQ.
These would be my top tips for any board director, no matter how long they have been in the role:

  1. Reflect often and skilfully – this can improve self-awareness, which is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence. You can carve out time to do this yourself (perhaps after a board meeting) or draw on the skills of a coach. The latter gives you the opportunity to regularly and deliberately reflect, without interruption and with an objective partner. Such reflection can address such questions as: What are your emotional triggers? When do they hinder you? How can you learn to regulate?   
  1. Learn to control your assertiveness – in either direction. Knowing when to dial up or down on this skill is a key aspect of emotional intelligence. Practising outside of the boardroom can help you to improve inside of it.
  1. Show and practice curiosity – this will help you with building your empathy. Asking questions and showing genuine interest will allow you to understand the true meaning behind people’s perspective. This approach is particularly effective in avoiding ‘them vs us’ standoff situations. “Help me to understand” can be a useful way for the NED to demonstrate their willingness to listen.
  1. Find out about your own emotional intelligence – It is actually quite difficult to assess our own EQ and senior leaders should seek out a coach or an independent assessment tool, such as EQi 2.0, to allow them to ascertain their EQ profile, which areas they need to be mindful of and which they can work on. This can be useful at an individual level or can be well timed to occur around a board evaluation where other data should be available to draw on.
  1. Recognise the importance of EQ on board composition - When a board is recruiting a new member, emotional intelligence and relationship building skills are as important to vet as subject matter expertise and experience. Some of the biggest board blow-ups I've observed had to do with a board member who was more ego-driven to be a star contributor, or didn't know or respect the difference between their role and the CEO's role, or dug in and refused to budge on a particular issue.


 Special thanks to Ali for sharing her thoughts and insights!

>> If you would like to connect with Ali, find out more about her research or EQ assessment tools, feel free to contact her at https://www.decisivemoment.co.uk/.