In 1959, John French and Bertram Raven, social psychologists, published their “Five Bases of Power” model, which has been highly influential in social and organizational psychology ever since. The five kinds of power they delineated included the ability to reward or punish, power derived from one’s rank or role, expert power (which is a function of knowledge and expertise), and what they termed “referent power”, which is rooted in personal character and charisma. In our research, consulting and coaching practices, we have learned that emotional intelligence (EI) can constitute a sixth base of social power in today’s networked, knowledge-based, rapidly changing and increasingly diverse workplace, enabling people at any level of the organization, and at any stage of their careers, to help themselves and others to more effectively navigate social and organizational challenges, and to better achieve long term goals. While EI is broadly applicable, we will focus here on how EI can help subordinates more successfully “manage up” thereby increasing their power to positively influence organizational outcomes, raise their value in their boss’s estimation, and progress in their careers.
Our research and consulting work have shown that people with higher EI tend to be more successful because they are more self-aware and better able to control their emotions, which enables them to appropriately respond to socially challenging and stressful situations. Conversely, individuals with lower EI tend to act out and behave in dysfunctional or counterproductive ways. Expressing themselves appropriately, people with high EI are able to detect others’ emotional states, agendas and priorities, and to positively influence others’ emotions in order to identify common ground, resolve conflicts, and focus on problem solving rather than on finger pointing.
Regardless of how much (or little) EI your direct boss or other superiors might have, the following strategies can help you help them, thereby making yourself more valuable to them than whatever other contributions you may make in your formal role, and in turn increasing your social power above your formal rank.
Empathize with their perspective
If your boss is getting emotional or upset, you should strive to have awareness of their emotions even if they are unreflective. Just because they are not aware of their own emotional life doesn’t mean it’s not important. Try to see things from their perspective, and endeavor to identify why a situation or a decision is so challenging for them. Once you understand what the challenges are, it will be much easier to help identify potential solutions. Research has shown that in order to build empathy in yourself, and to help others cultivate their empathy, it is critical to try to adopt other people’s perspective – putting yourself into their shoes. In fact, in order to have positive feelings for others it is necessary to first understand what other people are feeling, which psychologists and neuroscientists have labelled cognitive empathy.
Always convey loyalty and build trust even when pushing back
When you disagree with an approach your boss or other senior leader is taking, and want to suggest alternatives, it’s critical to start from a place of supportiveness and loyalty. Particularly when your boss is feeling emotional or under stress, the last thing he or she is going to want to feel is that you are being critical or judgmental. Whenever pushing back or challenging your boss, let them know that you are on their side and supportive of who they are and what they are trying to achieve, you just have some suggestions that you are gingerly offering about how they should proceed. Strive to build trust over time so that they know your only agenda is to help them look good to others and feel good about what they are achieving and how they are coming across. Knowing your boss’s personality can help you find the right strategy for conveying loyalty and building trust. Indeed, research shows that one of the main reasons why some people are able to deal with others more effectively is that they can accurately infer their personalities. For example, employees can deal with volatile bosses better when they are aware of their excitable and temperamental nature; and those with reserved or introverted bosses understand that they should communicate sensitive opinions via e-mail rather than in person, and expect only minimal face-to-face feedback on their performance.
Focus them on others’ priorities and agendas
Your boss is going to have challenges building support for his or her initiatives if he or she doesn’t have a good sense of others’ priorities and agendas. Bosses with better detection of others’ emotions will be able to make more compelling arguments. Here are some indicators of how adept your boss is at detection: Does your boss recall important facts about you? Does your boss remember the things you say? Does your boss lift up your mood when you seem down, or partake of your positive feelings when you are up? Does your boss understand what other employees are going through, and what they think of him or her? If the answer to these questions is “yes,” then your boss is probably quite good at emotional detection. If, on the other hand, your boss has challenges understanding others’ perspectives, you can attempt to engage them in a discussion about how to “sell” their ideas to others’ in more compelling ways. When you can help your boss realize that the arguments that he or she would find most convincing won’t necessarily be the most effective arguments with others, you can enhance their ability to influence others more and gain more political support for whatever they are campaigning for.
Keep the focus on long term goals
Focusing on the longer term can help with regulation of emotion in the moment. All of us can succumb to our default tendencies and act impulsively in the short term. Trusted colleagues, mentors, friends or significant others can be invaluable for helping senior managers to take a step back when they are overreacting or responding counterproductively in the moment, and so can subordinates who have the courage to give feedback when their superiors begin to take the wrong path in the moment. Some indicators that your boss may need to be protected from his or her own tendencies to act impulsively include erratic mood swings, a passion for risk taking, and a short attention span. The best way to deal with such bosses is to act as a soothing or calming influence: be consistent and predictable, so you don’t cause your boss additional excitement; alert your boss of the potential threats or problems within a situation; and offer your help with completing their tedious and boring projects which require long-term attention.
An example of all of the above occurred in a large financial services company. The HR director was upset because she felt that staff, whose happiness and well-being she cared deeply about, were underpaid. They complained to her often about their feelings of unfairness and under-appreciation, and she wanted to argue on their behalf, in a presentation to senior management, that increases to employee salaries were long overdue. Her plan was to present salary studies of competitors and industry benchmarks and to argue that current compensation levels were not “fair.” She asked one of her direct reports for feedback about her draft presentation, and the direct report, utilizing his emotional intelligence, was able to successfully influence his boss to take a different approach. First of all, her empathized with his boss’s perspective, knowing (and appreciating) how important fairness was to her, and letting her know that he agreed with her and felt the same way about the importance of being fair to employees.
Assuring her that his only goal was the ultimate success of her argument to senior management, the direct report pushed back and challenged her approach to how to make the case. Rather than focusing on fairness, he advised, it would be much more compelling and effective in the context of the company’s culture (and in the financial services industry more broadly) to focus on the risk of losing valued employees to competitors rather than on how “fair” compensation levels were. While senior management was not known for prioritizing fairness, they were highly concerned with the company’s reputation as a prestigious employer of choice and magnet for top talent. The direct report advised the HR director to take the long term approach with her superiors, acknowledging that raising compensation levels would be expensive in the short term, but that there would be a good return on that investment over the longer term. With this better, less reflexive and more strategic approach, the HR director was successfully able to update her presentation and her argument and convinced senior management to approve an across-the-board pay increase to all employees’ base salaries of several percentage points. The HR director very much appreciated her direct report’s assistance in helping her achieve a valued goal on behalf of all employees.
In conclusion, EI can be a powerful tool for subordinates to influence their superiors in a positive way, helping their bosses navigate tricky emotional and political situations more effectively, protecting them from their potentially problematic reflexive reactions, and keeping them focused on achieving their own long term goals. When you utilize EI to create value for your boss and your organization, you are not only helping them succeed, you are ultimately also building the foundation for your own success.
This article was written by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.