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by Kevin McHugh | January 28, 2016

Emotional Intelligence scores typically climb with titles, but peak with middle management, according to Travis Bradberry, author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0. Any higher up the ladder, and the scores plummet. CEOs rank at the bottom. Why is this?

Many executives read books and articles, take assessments and attend seminars that encourage collaboration and receptiveness to the emotions and opinions of others. But despite this, many leaders still lean toward old habits of equating aggressiveness with effectiveness. 

Toxic behaviors from leaders are still prevalent, from the warehouse to the boardroom. Leaders openly yell at, embarrass, and publicly criticize subordinates. Tempers flare, anger surfaces, and emotions are unchecked or mismanaged. In toxic work cultures, passive-aggressiveness is the rule, not the exception.

This happens for two reasons: One, leaders simply don't have sufficient desire to be better - i.e., they don't care. The other is lack of self-awareness.

All models of emotional intelligence start with a foundation of self-awareness.  Most coaching time should be spent on self-awareness because that is where the gold is still to be found. There are two ways to gain self-awareness:

1. Listen to and honestly examine the stories you are telling yourself in your head.  Are they true? How do you know? This simply requires quiet time for self-reflection and to practice mindfulness.

2. Seek feedback from others. This requires you to identify people who feel safe with you, who you would freely invite to tell you how they react to you, and how they think others react to you. It requires honesty and, of course, the right time and environment where the conversation can occur without interruption.

Easy, right?  No, of course not. These steps take time and commitment to change. Here is how to change them:

1. If Business is Good, You Should Still Care
Coming face-to-face with your flaws, defects of character, pride, ego, distrust, fear - being vulnerable - does not come easily. Further, if business is booming, deadlines are met, and stock value is going up, why go through this exercise? Why dig deeper when all is well on the surface? You dig because you can always up your leadership game and because it will make a difference in how you engage with your team, your vendors and clients.

2. Listen to Your Own Stories
Force some quiet time every day where your cell phones go off completely and your door is shut for 10 minutes. I have clients who break out in a cold sweat at the thought, but I urge you to try it. Breathe deeply and slowly, and see what surfaces. Let the thoughts roll through your brain like a digital ticker tape. Notice what is happening and see if you can articulate how that experience feels. Pay special attention to anything that feels difficult or sparks negative emotions, as these feelings point to something larger underneath. When you take the time to look below the surface, you can see a glimpse of the source.

3. Listen to Stories of Others
Pick one person who you trust to tell you the complete truth about how you look to them. Ask them to find something they believe you do that causes others to disconnect from you - to avoid you, to shut down around you, to be less the honest. This is tough stuff. It requires both courage to take this feedback and a desire to hear it. If you are doing something like this now, keep at it - do it more.  

Following these three simple steps will put you well on your way to better self-awareness - not only as a leader, but also as a person. And that is good for everyone.

Kevin McHugh is the president of JKM Management Development, a management consulting firm specializing in increasing organizational performance and coaching business leaders to develop emotional awareness, conflict resolution capabilities, and maximize executive effectiveness. He is author of The Honest Executive. Learn more at http://jkevinmchugh.com