I have the pleasure of serving as faculty on a number of different leadership development programmes – some exclusively for women and others mixed. As part of celebrating International Women’s Day, I would like to share some of my observations both teaching and coaching as they pertain to emotional intelligence and how this is expressed in women, and what it can mean in terms of their leadership development. This article first appeared on the UN Staff College website.

Emotional Intelligence and Leadership Development: A Gender perspective

 “Let us all pledge to do everything we can to overcome entrenched prejudice, support engagement and activism, and promote gender equality and women’s empowerment.”

-Antonio Guterres, Secretary General

On 1 January 2020, the UN reached a parity milestone in its full-time senior leadership team, with 90 women and 90 men serving at the levels of Assistant and Under-Secretary General (Sources: UN Secretary-General and Inter-Press Service). This shift was facilitated by a number of key interventions , including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, UN reform, the Gender Parity Strategy, and the development of the UN System Leadership Framework (UNSLF).

I have the pleasure of serving as a resource person on a number of UN leadership courses, including the UNSSC Emerging Leaders e-Learning Programme (UNEL-e) and I am pleased to see the attention given to the importance of emotional intelligence and how this opens additional space for women’s leadership.

Emotional Intelligence and Leadership

Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld recognized the importance of emotional intelligence long before it became popularized when he created a Quiet Room at the UN in the 1950s because he understood the vital importance of self-reflection, a key part of EI, in the UN’s work of achieving peace and prosperity.

Emotional intelligence is a key leadership competency and is even more important as we lead through these unprecedented times. It’s importance has been reinforced in the UNSLF, and has been identified as an important attribute in the Resident Coordinator Leadership Profile.

Research shows no significant difference between the genders on total measures of emotional intelligence, although females tend to score higher on emotional self-awareness, interpersonal relationship, and empathy, and males score higher on self-regard, stress tolerance and optimism.

Despite no significant differences, I find that the EI questions asked and the experiences shared can be quite different, and in my observation some of this difference plays out along gender lines. Let me share some examples:

Gender differences in emotion perception

When discussing how participants demonstrate EI, many men want to explore how they can continue to manage performance, remove obstacles, and motivate employees to perform.  They focus on their abilities to manage conflict, lead teams, and inspire—all important EI competencies. Women participants frame this question differently. They want to continue to provide empathy and emotional support, but also want to focus on developing their ability to inspire, influence and motivate which in the words of one of my workshop participants, “is underdeveloped at best, and missing at worst”.

To be clear, both genders demonstrate self-awareness in terms of potential areas to explore and develop. However, many women critically self-assess, identify capacity gaps, and believe that they need to master/perfect an identified gap before they can “become” a leader versus the belief that the learning process is part of a leadership development journey. Furthermore, these gaps, require filling through some form of acquisition often in the form of formal education. Practically speaking, this translates as a bigger time and energy investment, a minimization of their existing strengths and experiences, and leadership development framed as “another thing to do” on an already over-extended agenda.

Another interesting observation is around demonstrating empathy and the potential consequences. Participants, male and female report that demonstrating and/or dialling up their empathy—showing care and concern—can feel uncomfortable. Several have reported being worried they would be perceived as “too emotional,” “too empathic,” or “too weak.” A second common concern is the fear of knowing what to say or how to react: “What if I get it wrong—say the wrong thing and make it worse?” For a number of women on the course, they report also needing to navigate some version of the likeability trap that says competence and likeability do not go together for women which requires even more self and other awareness when demonstrating empathy.Furthermore, they report being judged more harshly when they get it wrong – consistent with the research. Finding the sweet spot between demonstrating concern for individuals and performance is important for both genders, however as a number of my workshop participants have highlighted women have more terrain to navigate.

We also explore the ‘dark side’ of empathy – specifically how leaders can become exhausted, particularly during the pandemic. There is a considerable body of research on the benefits of leaders demonstrating empathy, but we also know that empathy depletes our mental resources. This can lead to additional levels of stress, anxiety, burnout, and even “compassion fatigue.” There is also research, from both before and during the pandemic, to suggest that women shoulder a disproportionate burden of the load – which has multiplied during the pandemic.

Bridging the gap

UN leaders need to gain learning and insight from a wide variety of sources, recognizing multiple points of view, inherent biases and prejudices. This all requires well-developed EI skills. People – especially women – need to see themselves and women as leaders. Women are often navigating a perceived incompatibility between their gender and male stereotypes of leadership. This can make it harder for women to identify as leaders – and for others to see them as such. Navigating these barriers, including gender and leadership stereotypes arguably requires more emotional labour through managing one’s identity.

Building more inclusive leadership in the UN means making sure that women and men continue to build and demonstrate emotional intelligence to increase both self and other awareness as part of operationalizing the SDGs. Achieving gender equality and women’s and girl’s empowerment, including increasing women’s access to, and effective participation in leadership and decision-making means that we need to continue to improve our collective ability to make better decisions. In order for the UN to remain a bearer of gender parity and equality, it is paramount that the organization continue to establish and sustain the progress it has made in gender equity and ensure more women attain and are supported in senior leadership positions – cultivating EI is one way to do this.

The United Nations System Staff College’s UN Emerging Leaders e-Learning programme is an important intervention to build more leaders in the UN. The programme supports the development of a range of competencies and ensures that all leaders embody the characteristics of UN leadership and showcase these new behaviours. Importantly, it gives an essential space to building emotional intelligence as a leader: through a core module ‘Managing Emotions – An Introduction of Emotional Intelligence’ in the online learning path and practice-oriented virtual classroom training.

On recognizing the importance of EI – including the ability to accurately self-assess their leadership competencies and provide a realistic picture of their strengths and weaknesses, many women complete the UNEL-e programme with a new appreciation for their existing skillset and a greater ability to use it in their day-to-day leadership.

If you would like to, please download my coaching programme brochure – Women’s Leadership Coaching – For Women in Development – specifically designed for women working in global development.

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