While workers with high emotional intelligence are consistently the best performers on all steps of the corporate ladder, interestingly enough it is those at the top level of management who have the lowest overall average emotional intelligence (EI or EQ)  in organizations. Prompting one journalist to contend that “Your Boss Probably Wouldn’t Pass Yale’s Emotional Intelligence Assessment.”

In a Harvard Business Review article entitled “Heartless Bosses,” the authors “measured EQ in half a million senior executives (including 1,000 CEOs), managers, and line employees across industries on six continents.  Scores climb with titles from the bottom of the corporate ladder upward toward middle management.”

As the authors later reported:  “Middle managers stand out, with the highest EQ scores in the workforce.  But up beyond middle management, there is a steep downward trend…  For the titles of director and above, scores descend faster than a snowboarder on a black diamond. CEOs, on average, have the lowest EQ scores in the workplace….”

This is not, however, how the upper crust view themselves.

The best managers exhibit “congruence” in how they rate themselves and how others rate them. But the research reveals that those in the highest positions generally rate themselves higher than others rate them on important aspects of their performance. For example, a meta-analysis (which reviews all the relevant research on a subject) found a consensus in the research that there is large disparity between upper management’s self-reports on how well they perform and the reports from others in the organization, i.e., managers are not aware of what others think of their performance.  Those in lower jobs show greater congruence:  they rate themselves closer to what others rate them.

In a review of almost 5000 participants, researchers found that, compared to those in lower positions, those in the highest positions displayed a significantly bigger average gap in self-ratings compared to how others rated them in 19 out of 20 emotional intelligence competencies.  As the researchers noted: “The results of this study demonstrate that higher-level employees are more likely than lower-level employees to have an inflated view of their emotional intelligence competencies and less congruence with the perceptions of others who work with them often and know them well.  This information is valuable to our clients because previous research has firmly established that high-performing managers tend to have more accurate self-perceptions.  That is, high-performing individuals’ self-perceptions tend to match the perceptions/ratings of total others.  Therefore, helping managers and executives better understand how they are perceived by others can have significant implications for performance improvement.”

Got that?  Working at higher-levels seems to imply less accurate self-perceptions, which means lower performance.  Which, thankfully, also means there is a clear path to improved performance.

Why are so many of these top executives so clueless?  One researcher suggests that “[t]oo many leaders are promoted because of what they know or how long they have worked, rather than for their skill in managing others. Once they reach the top, they actually spend less time interacting with staff….”

The author of another study also pointed to lack of genuine feedback as promoting lower EI among the highest placed executives. “First, people that are higher within an organization have fewer opportunities for feedback from others because there are literally fewer people above them within the organization that can provide such feedback. Second, it may be that people are less inclined to give constructive feedback to higher status individuals in general. Perhaps, even when this information is specifically asked for by managers or executives, people may be less likely to give candid feedback that is less than flattering.”

Leadership experts James Kouzes and Barry Posner put it bluntly: “Most leaders don’t want honest feedback, don’t ask for honest feedback, and don’t get much of it unless it’s forced on them.”

As recounted in their book A Leader’s Legacy (2006), in a survey of some 70,000 individuals, out of thirty leadership behaviors the behavior rated the least frequent was “asks for feedback on how his/her actions affect others’ performance.” The authors sympathize with the understandable tendency towards self-protection, but note that it is particularly problematic because of the power that leaders hold and the reluctance of subordinates to volunteer criticism.

This failing of the upper echelon in the area of accurate self-awareness, a critical part of emotional intelligence, doesn’t portend well for the future given, as one article headlines: “New Study of Leaders Reveals Emerging Global Talent Crisis, Emotional Intelligence Seen as Solution.”

Lawyers, it is no surprise, also have their self-awareness weaknesses. Few if any partnerships are blessed with leaders who are the exception to the “clueless at the top” epidemic that exists throughout the rest of the business world.

So what can be done to bring our leaders into self enlightenment?

According to an article by Anita J. Zigman, entitled “Upward Feedback Programs: A Primer for Law Firms” in Law Practice Today, “In early 1970s Britain, Peter Farey, a senior H.R. manager at British Airways, had the idea that managers could benefit from learning how they are perceived by their subordinates, and developed one of the first upward feedback programs.”

While these types of performance reviews are fairly ubiquitous now among companies, law firms have not embraced them.  Only recently have they been used in the legal field, and then often not to great effect. According to data compiled by NALP, “about forty percent of law firms [which seems surprisingly high in our experience] offer associates opportunities to evaluate supervisors, and of those who engage in the process, only about five percent report changes for the better.”

Zigman, chief legal personnel officer at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, suggests that incorporating upward feedback into law firm performance/comp reviews could impact:

  • “The individual attorney receiving the feedback
  • The team or teams working with that attorney
  • The individual attorney providing the feedback, and
  • The firm as a whole.”

She reviews considerations such as which lawyers are supervisors needing feedback (possibly everyone from young associates to senior attorneys), the role of self-evaluations, what kinds of questions to ask, the need for anonymity and how to give the feedback. She suggests “comparisons of the partner’s average scores to those of his or her peers—other partners in that partner’s practice group, office and/or the firm as a whole. A positive and negative gap analysis, showing at a glance the top few areas in which the partner excels compared to his or her peers, as well as the converse, also is helpful. After an upward feedback program has been in place for one or more years, the report can include historical data so the partner has ready access to any improvement or decline over time.”

She also suggests that outside coaching can be used to maximize the benefits that feedback can bring, and she promotes the importance of the executive committee or other management unit acting on the feedback results.

Bringing self-awareness to those in charge, so that they and the people they supervise can be more effective, is one of our specialties. Contact us for ways to make you and your firm higher performing through more accurate perceptions.