Digital EQ: A Leadership Essential in an Overwhelming World

How often do we fire off a one sentence work email while walking from one meeting to the next, paying no attention to the person on the other end who will actually be reading it?  Well, these short digital exchanges may have a significantly bigger impact on the recipient than we think.

Emotional intelligence is widely considered to be an indispensable factor for workplace success, and rightly so.  Our ability to empathize with others, be self-aware, and develop meaningful relationships are the qualities that allow us to effectively lead others, collaborate with our teams, and manage the stress that inevitably comes at work – and in life.

With more and more of our relationships and interactions taking place in digital settings – from email, to slack, to texting, and beyond – many of the interpersonal skills that contribute to emotional intelligence seem to no longer apply.  As the number of remote workers continues to rise, this is becoming a significant issue.  According to one study, 70% of people work remotely at least once a week.  Remote workers, and digital natives more generally, heavily rely on this type of communication to get work done and stay connected to their teams. 

They often do not have access to the dynamics of human interaction that breed authentic connection – tone, body language, and eye contact.  They are relying on the written word and their ability to accurately interpret those words as the foundation of the relationship.  When we fail to accurately interpret a digital message, or the person sending it puts no effort into how it makes the recipient feel, it can lead to an inordinate and unnecessary amount of anxiety and stress.   

One of the preeminent Organizational Psychologists of our time, Dr. Adam Grant, recently wrote a New York Times piece called, “No, You Can’t Ignore Email.  It’s Rude.”  He starts the article like this:

“I’m really sorry I didn’t say hi, make eye contact or acknowledge your presence in any way when you waved to me in the hallway the other day. It’s nothing personal. I just have too many people trying to greet me these days, and I can’t respond to everyone.

That sounds ridiculous, right? You would never snub a colleague trying to strike up a conversation. Yet when you ignore a personal email, that’s exactly what you’ve done: digital snubbery.”

In-person, we expect a foundational level of decency and respect from our interactions.  In digital communication, the expectations are far lower, as outlined in Grant’s example above.  Ignoring someone is within the normal realm of digital expectations.  When we do respond, it’s easy to forget how the recipient will actually receive our message.

This is especially salient when there is a power discrepancy in digital interactions.  Take a boss-direct report relationship, for example.  The direct report may have worked hard on a presentation and be quite proud of it, and then email it to her boss for feedback earlier than the agreed-upon deadline.  The boss, however, may be tremendously busy and have something she needs to deliver to a client, and therefore lacks the time to reply to her direct report in a timely manner.  The direct report may start to get anxious, wondering if her boss may not have liked the presentation, or worse, did not care. 

If the direct report submitted the presentation in person, this dynamic would probably be completely different.  Her boss would have likely said something like, “Thank you for getting this in early, I have something I need to get to our client so I can’t get to this right away, but I’m looking forward to reviewing it.” Over email, this type of response may seem like a waste of time, and it would be better to just wait and respond after she actually has time to sit down and review it. 

However, the nature of the digital relationship makes these exchanges of gratitude and acknowledgement even more imperative.  For the direct report, especially if she is working remotely, in-person interactions may be few and far between.  Therefore, these short exchanges can be the difference between a day where she feels productive and valued or a day where she feels overlooked and anxious. 

The same can apply for short, robotic digital responses.  For example, in the same situation laid out above, the direct report may submit the presentation and be proud of it.  Now, let’s say the boss responds later that day over email and says, “Needs more creativity.  When can I see a new version?”  A response like this can be interpreted in a variety of ways, and could cause even more angst than no response at all.  The direct report may be thinking, “Oh no, she hates it.  What did I do wrong?”  However, the boss may have been juggling a million different tasks and liked the presentation overall, but only had time to send over this short piece of feedback.  The lack of tone, eye contact, and body language leaves the interpretation of this message totally at the discretion of the recipient, even if the boss had positive intentions.

Referring to Daniel Goleman’s model of emotional intelligence, it includes the components of social awareness and social skills.  Within these components includes our ability to empathize, lead, develop, and collaborate.  EQ can no longer be thought of as a solely in-person endeavor.  To be effective leaders and teammates, we need to apply these components even more thoughtfully to our digital interactions since we cannot rely on non-verbal modes of connection that we naturally utilize in-person.  For leaders, this means going out of our way to acknowledge and appreciate someone’s hard work, even if we don’t have time to review it in-depth as soon as we’d like.  It means knowing who is on the receiving end of our message and adjusting our email accordingly to make sure it is being received as intended. 

As the responsibility of leadership becomes an increasingly digital endeavor, we need to be mindful of how the tasks of leadership can be transmitted in digital communications.  Emails can no longer only be seen as a transactional exchange of information, but a place where we can acknowledge, appreciate, develop, and connect with our team members.