Why now is a good time for accountants to get emotional

Emotional intelligence is a critical skills for 21st century accountants, explains Jo Owen, author of Resilience: 10 habits to thrive in work and life.

With the extra challenges of maintaining motivation and mental health while remote working, emotional intelligence it has become even more important during the lockdown.

Understanding emotional intelligence, often referred to as EQ (which stands for emotional quotient), is important for building strong working relationships and managing difficult situations – such as stressed clients – more effectively. While “emotional quotient”, is technically correct, it could more helpfully be termed “effectiveness quotient”. – for emotional intelligence is not a test of being nice, rather your effectiveness at work.

How EQ helps managers

EQ matters because it determines how well you manage yourself and others.

You are managing others even if you have no direct reports; you need to manage your boss, your colleagues and your clients.

Managing others includes motivating them to help you, aligning agendas, dealing with conflict, setting expectations and building networks of trust and support. Because these are not traditional intellectual skills, we can loosely call them emotional skills. They are effectiveness skills because they enable you to make things happen.

How do others see you?

EQ starts with you – you cannot manage others unless you can manage yourself

As an adviser, a leader or a team player, you will be judged not just by what you do, but also by how you are.

Think back on the various advisers or managers you have had. You may struggle to remember exactly what they did, and whether they beat the budget by 3.7%.

But you will remember vividly what they were like.

You will be remembered the same way – for how you are.

At work, how you are prejudices your performance. If you are positive, proactive and loyal, your clients are more likely to forgive your mistakes than if you are cynical, reactive and less than loyal.

Keys to EQ

Managing yourself effectively is based on two basic principles:

  • You can choose how you feel: just because someone you dislike tries to annoy you, there is no law that says you have to be annoyed. That is your choice. If you let the world dictate how you feel, you are a victim. You have agency and choice about how you feel. Choose well. How you feel will be reflected back to you by others.
  • You can learn productive habits of mind: just like you can learn any other skill.

Become an optimist

Even optimism can be learned.

At the end of each day, write down three good things about the day.

Within a month you start to build an acute awareness of all the major and minor miracles of modern life that we normally take for granted. It’s hard to have a bad day when you wake up to hot and cold, clean running water every day and realise it is a miracle that our ancestors could not dream of.

If managing yourself is hard, managing others is even harder.

To misquote Winston Churchill, it is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. Fortunately, he went on to offer an answer: “But perhaps there is a key. That key is self-interest…” Yet that simply leads to another problem; how do we understand other people’s self-interest?

Answering that puzzle leads to perhaps the single most important EQ skill – listening.

Listening skills

All the best leaders, best communicators and best salespeople have the same characteristic – they have two ears and one mouth, and they use them in that proportion. Listening is far more effective than talking, especially when you are building rapport with your clients. Talking invites disagreement; listening invites agreement.

Listening is effective because it:

  • Helps you discover what the other person thinks, wants and fears. You can then tailor your ideas to their beliefs.
  • Is very flattering – in a time-starved world, listening is a way of showing that you value the other person’s views so highly that you are ready to invest your time in listening to them.
  • Builds agreement – when you listen well, you can find areas of agreement. Focus on those and suggest that your idea has been enriched by their thinking. This flatters, but it also drives to agreement because people rarely argue with an idea that they think they have shaped.

The essence of good listening involves more than strapping duct tape across your mouth. Two simple techniques help:

  • Ask open questions that are impossible to answer with a yes/no reply. Open questions elicit rich responses. A smart question beats a smart reply every time.
  • Paraphrase by repeating back to the person what you think they have said, using your own words. This forces you to listen, shows that you have listened and avoids later misunderstandings. 

It can take a lifetime to master EQ. But the point is not to master EQ – it is to be effective in your role as an accountant. These simple habits and techniques will set you apart from your peers and dramatically improve your effectiveness.

Characteristics of EQ

Author and scholar Daniel Goleman outlines five constructs for EQ:

1 Self-awareness
Understanding your emotions and trusting your instincts or intuition, as well as being able to honestly self-evaluate for strengths and weaknesses.

2 Self-regulation
Managing or controlling your emotions and impulses, including being able to think before acting in different situations.

3 Motivation
Motivated to be productive and effective in everything you do, as well as being prepared to defer short-term results for long-term success.

4 Empathy
Identifying with and understanding the wants, needs, viewpoints and challenges of others, such as being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

5 Social skills
Managing relationships and communicating effectively, including being a team-player and being willing to put the success of others before your own.

How accountants are using emotional intelligence

Chris Conway, director and co-founder of Multiply Accountancy

We have modified our approach to recruiting recently, as we have found that knowledge can be taught, but attitude can’t.

Our approach to recruiting at Multiply Accountancy is now very much focussed on how well we think the candidate’s attitude fits with the Multiply ethos.

We put a big emphasis on quality and service as a company, and therefore need to recruit for people who align well with this. We encourage our people to get to know our clients, and almost become part of their team. It is therefore essential that we get the right people for this and support them in the right way.

Internally, we work hard to understand what motivates an employee. Our employees know that their happiness is as important as the company’s success and, having experienced the opposite first-hand, we are committed to ensuring the employee and employer goals are closely aligned. We firmly believe this creates both a great place to work and a successful business – they are not mutually exclusive ambitions.

Alastair Barlow, founder of Flinder

After leaving PwC, one of the things that struck me was how an employee can continue working unhappily or disengaged for some time without mentioning what’s going on. This can result in all of a sudden them handing their notice in.

The things that were on their mind could easily have been changed but often by this point it’s too late, as they’ve made their decision.

We want to make sure we are way ahead of the game and understand how people feel. Not what they are doing, but how they are feeling.

We encourage our people to self-reflect each Friday (at a minimum) on how they are feeling, so we can get a read on anything that is frustrating them. We then try to discuss with them as real-time as possible to put in interventions and make them happy.

It’s worked well on a number of occasions when we’ve received a self-reflection on a Friday and thought best to speak to them then. This has relieved them of what was worrying them or concerning them.

More information

Find out more about EQ and try your skills with this test.

AAT Comment offers news and opinion on the world of business and finance from the Association of Accounting Technicians.

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