Why do tech leaders need social and emotional intelligence?

Plexus Leadership
5 min readJan 16, 2020

As tech leadership coaching specialists, many of the tech leaders we work with are super-smart product or commercial people. They have an excellent grasp of their products, customer and market needs and new technologies that are essential for success, like AI. However, too many still sabotage or obstruct their personal and business growth by overlooking the emotional and social intelligence needed to create a great, rather than a good or mediocre, business.

Rather than creating a human-centred, engaging work environment where people can do their best work, too many tech leaders see people as assets to sweat in the pursuing of profit. This leads to a raft of people problems, including high unwanted turnover, low morale, low productivity and reputational damage to the business. In today’s increasingly transparent world, where bad news travels fast through social media and media outlets, a lack of emotional and social intelligence among leaders is damaging reputations. Last week’s story about Revolut’s work environment is just the latest in a series of such negative stories in which a tech company is fighting hard to defend itself against criticism it has a toxic work culture that suffocates rather than breathes life into its talent.

So, what is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence involves being able to recognize, understand and manage our emotions. According to the best-selling author and emotional intelligence expert, Daniel Goleman, its has 5 key elements:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self-regulation (including controlling one’s anger and other disruptive emotional outbursts)
  3. Motivation
  4. Social skills
  5. Empathy

What does a lack of emotional intelligence look like?

If leaders aren’t emotionally intelligent, they struggle to recognise and mitigate their weaker areas, build trust and respect with co-workers (including those they lead). They tend to lack social intelligence too, meaning they can’t deal effectively with more complex social situations.

What is social intelligence?

Social intelligence is the ability to successfully build and maintain positive relationships and navigate social situations, including stressful interpersonal events and complex organisational politics.

Although cognitive intelligence abilities (including critical thinking, verbal reasoning and numerical reasoning) are undeniably important for success, tech leaders often overemphasize them in the hiring and development of talent. Research shows that emotional and social intelligence are just as important, perhaps even more so than cognitive intelligence, as a predictor of high performance as a business grows and hires more talented people.

“Research shows that emotional and social intelligence are just as important, perhaps even more so than cognitive intelligence, as a predictor of high performance as a business grows and hires more talented people.”

James Brook, leadership psychologist and coach

So, what can leaders in tech organisations do to grow their emotional and social intelligence and maximise their chances of success?

Leaders in tech organisations can develop self-awareness among the wider leadership team and managers

Self-awareness is at the heart of emotional intelligence. You can only build self-aware teams if the top team and managers at all levels are open to feedback and constructive challenge from employees. This requires regular 360-degree feedback on strengths and development areas, online staff forums that encourage upward feedback and team development sessions where leaders can share honest feedback in an open, facilitated environment with one another.

Leaders in tech organisations can hire for emotional and social intelligence

Rather than simply hiring for job-relevant skills and cognitive intelligence, tech companies should ensure their selection process includes emotional and social intelligence as key hiring criteria. This is particularly relevant when new managers and leaders are being hired. Personality and work styles questionnaires, together with work simulations like role plays, are proven methods that can measure these qualities. When combined with behavioural interviews, these methods can provide better insights into how effective candidates will be when performing tasks requiring these vital intelligences.

Leaders in tech organisations can empower people

Smart employees require clear direction on what they need to deliver, not how they should think and behave every second of the working day. Empowerment is becoming something of a cliché in the modern workplace, however, employees respond remarkably well to being given responsibility over the way they accomplish their results. Higher levels of involvement also positively relate to key success drivers including engagement, teamwork and creativity.

Tech leaders can encourage open challenge

High quality decision-making is reliant on listening to diverse views and encouraging open debate. It is the job of a leader to create an environment where all employees feel they have a voice in decisions. Encouraging, rather than stifling, debate is key here. Creating a culture of inclusivity and constructive challenge will ensure everyone who the decision impacts has an opportunity to input their views and ideas. This in turn gives rise to a greater sense of belonging and improved problem-solving and innovation.

Tech leaders can invest in the wellbeing of their people

People who are mentally and emotionally resilient are more likely to perform better and persevere harder, especially during highly stressful periods such as new product launches, turnarounds or downturns in the economy. However, mental and emotional toughness is not innate. We develop it through experience and learning from those who are in positions to influence our lives and career. This includes our line manager and leaders. Even the most resilient people experience setbacks at work and at home and often need support and understanding to get beyond these. It is the role of the leaders and managers to show empathy, understanding and compassion during these challenging times. The wellbeing of the workforce should therefore never be seen as a “nice to have”, but as an essential part of any modern and progressive talent strategy.

About the Author

James Brook
Leadership Consultant | Executive Coach | Business Psychologist

James has over 25 years’ experience working with leaders and organizations internationally to optimize their performance, talent and future success. He has worked with leaders from diverse sectors, countries and cultures. Clients have included Commvault, Equinor, Gilead Sciences, GSK, PhotoBox, Novartis Pharmaceuticals, Novo Nordisk, Oracle, Sainsbury’s, Swiss Re, Tesco, Yahoo! and WSP.

James has set-up and successfully grown several of his own businesses, including Strengthscope®, a global strengths assessment and consulting business. As Joint Founder and MD, he grew Strengthscope® into a market leader before selling his stake in the business in 2018.

James is a regular speaker on leadership, coaching, assessing and developing talent and the future of work. He has contributed a wide range of publications in these areas. His most recent book, Optimize Your Strengths, explores how leaders can transform their organizations by inspiring people to shine and deliver exceptional results.

Want to find out how we can help your organisation? Contact us now for an obligation free chat.



Plexus Leadership

We develop positive leaders and thriving workplaces to deliver breakthrough performance, innovation and sustainable growth. www.plexusleadership.com