Betty-Ann's Both Sides Blog

When we fail to see and encourage men’s emotional capacity, we lose out — in business and life

Men are being told to boost their EQ and feel empathy. But a great many already do — they just need permission to unleash it.

These days, a lot of the conversation around leadership suggests that women are more likely to bring emotional intelligence to the table in a work environment, while men are relatively lacking. But too little attention is being given to another important phenomenon I’ve seen throughout my decades in business: executives and colleagues underestimating the ability of men to use EQ to foster rapport and establish chemistry.

I know, because I was guilty of this myself. Then, an experience I had with a male boss opened my eyes to the — sometimes hidden — ability of the men around me to sense how others were reacting and adjust their behavior accordingly.

Men and EQ

While dozens of articles cite researching suggesting higher EQ scores among women, the reality isn’t quite so simple. “Are Women More Emotionally Intelligent Than Men? Yes, and yes and no,” Dan Goleman, author of the book Emotional Intelligence, wrote in Psychology Today. “For instance, some measures suggest women are on average better than men at some forms of empathy, and men do better than women when it comes to managing distressing emotions.”

But much of this is also the result of our gender-based expectations. Men are expected to be more rational, while women are expected to do a better job of tuning into feelings. So people are trained to display different traits, and then recognize them in each other. As HR Zone notes, “In other words, women – and men – live up to the stereotypes expected of them by society.”

One net result of all this is that some men feel they’re facing a stigma. “There seems to be an assumption from many women that men are in some ways inferior. It is suggested for example that men have poorer EQ and are more aggressive,” one man told a Gender in the Workplace survey.

Given the business importance of understanding feelings to predict actions, we all need to face our colleagues with an understanding that any of them may have high EQ, regardless of gender — and regardless of what traits are on display.

‘The walking Viagra tablet’

When I was senior vice president of PotashCorp, the world’s largest fertilizer producer, the global potash market was out of balance. There was too much supply, and not enough demand. Our company brought in a new CEO. He was an American southerner with a military background and what we thought of as “masculine energy.” I called him a “walking Viagra tablet.”

He took a look at the numbers and made the tough decision to close a mine. Soon after, a letter to the editor in the local paper, written under a fake name, complained that this CEO couldn’t “manage his way out of a pay toilet.” At the company, we all quickly found out who wrote it — the wife of an employee. She was worried for her family’s future. We expected the CEO to be furious, and perhaps even fire her husband.

Instead, he invited the woman to meet him at a coffee shop. She arrived, shaking like a leaf, terrified. But he listened to her concerns with pure empathy. Then, he shared the story of his own father’s struggles as an hourly worker, and how his family was frequently uprooted. He shared stories of his childhood. He spoke from the heart.

The woman became his friend, and even added him to her Christmas card list. She also became his supporter. She began explaining to others why the mine closure was necessary.

Many of us were shocked. But we shouldn’t have been. If he had been a woman, I don’t think we would have been.

Embracing ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ energy

In the decade since I left corporate work to advise on workplace gender dynamics, I’ve seen this play out repeatedly. Businesses want to develop the women in their ranks to harness their emotional intelligence. I ask, “What about the men?” Sometimes I have to help executives understand that their male employees may have untapped reservoirs of EQ — perhaps even as much as the women. They just have to be given permission to use it.

I’ve found that these ideas about men and women are so deeply ingrained that trying to leave gender out of the conversation altogether doesn’t work. Instead, I’ve gone the opposite direction. I start with the acceptance that most people think of certain behaviors as expressions of masculine or feminine energy. I tell everyone that we’ve all got both, and that our businesses will succeed when we allow them to emerge and work together.

Consistently, both women and men tell me how happy they are to have it framed this way. Most find it freeing. And in the interactions and workshops that follow, men often show that they have much more empathy, emotional awareness, and other forms of EQ than their colleagues realized.

Wise leaders today recognize that for their businesses to succeed, they need to help both kinds of energy flourish. And that will only happen when we free women and men to discover and display everything they have to offer.