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  • Writer's pictureRichard "Pete" Hill, CDE

The Danger of Emotional Ignorance

The Lack of Knowledge

Like my father before me, I was indoctrinated into the Christian faith. Every Sunday my Mother would take me to church and there I listened to countless bible stories and the one I still remember all these years later is Hosea 4:6 - which states, "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge." Admittedly, this passage is about religious ignorance but, I hasten to add, it also applies to workplace ignorance. For the remainder of this article, workplace ignorance and emotional ignorance are used interchangeably.

What is Emotional Ignorance?

Emotional Ignorance is the unwillingness or inability of a leader to empathize with others. Empathy is not the same as sympathy. Sympathy is based on how you feel towards another person's predicament. For instance, you may feel ashamed because you are unwilling to assist a person begging for money, or you may feel helpless because you can't change another person's financial situation. In essence sympathy is simply a substitute for our unwillingness or inability to properly address the physical or emotional needs of a person seeking assistance.

Empathy Defined

Empathy is different. Empathy is about intentionally perceiving the world through the experiences of another. Empathetic leaders consciously consider how the other person perceives an event. Empathetic leaders avoid projecting their perceptions into the equation. Conversely, emotionally ignorant leaders lack the knowledge, skills and abilities associated with resolving workplace conflict. The bottom-line is this, emotionally ignorant leaders over rely on policies, procedures and practices. This approach is problematic for a multitude of reasons, chief of which, is the fact that it is devoid of empathy.

Emotionally Ignorant leaders tend to focus on: deadlines, missed opportunities, and failure to complete assigned tasks. Conversely, Emotionally Intelligent leaders are focus on the social well-being of every employee. Emotionally connected leaders instinctively place themselves in the other person's shoes. Employees working for leaders with high emotional intelligence feel safe. You guessed it, employees working for emotionally ignorant leaders do not feel safe and are more likely to quit the job or worse just quit working when no one is looking.

The Consequence of Emotional Ignorance

Demoralized teams and hostile work environments are the telltale signs of emotionally ignorant leadership. For the record leadership matters. For instance, any team member can be a disrupter for a short period of time. How long a disruptive team member is allowed to violate standards of workplace norms is a function of leadership. Strong emotionally intelligent leaders understand that disruptive behavior affects the team emotionally.

Unchecked emotions are like unbridled power, and are equally destructive. Emotional ignorance blinds an otherwise technically competent leader. This blind leader is unable or unwilling to recognize the damage the disruptive employee is doing to team cohesion. Left unchecked the disruptive employee becomes emboldened and ultimately becomes a workplace bully. Emotionally ignorant leaders are unable to grasp the seriousness of the moment. Consequently, complaints increase, morale declines and allegations of harassment become prevalent.

Creating Safety Is Every Leaders Job

Some of the major responsibilities of a leader include ensuring the workplace is free from: violence, environmental hazards, and noise pollution. Safety measures are enshrined in policies, posted on bulletin boards and are fanatically enforced by first line supervisors. Physical safety is and ought to be every leader’s priority. Emotional safety is equally important but is often overlooked.

Emotional safety is evident when employees and leaders feel safe while engaging in crucial conversations. Emotional safety means leaders encourage honest feedback from the staff and the staff feels safe enough to provide it. Emotional safety is apparent when the follower and the leader are willing to share their thoughts without fear of judgement or reprisal. Emotionally Intelligent leaders create safe environments wherein all employees are free to be their true authentic selves. Emotionally ignorant leaders see no value in relating to employees as human-beings. Emotionally ignorant leaders make no distinction between managing a project and leading people, to this type of leader emotions are a barrier to success.

The Connection Between Emotional Competence and Safety

Emotionally connected leaders are in tune with the social well-being and welfare of every team member. Emotionally aware leaders make no distinction between understanding processes and people. This type of leaders understands you must master the multi-dimensions of humanity as well as the organization's strategic plan. In other words, effective, emotionally aware leaders see the inextricable link between emotional intelligence and leadership.

Well-rounded conscious leaders instinctively create safe spaces for people to: vent anger, discuss ideas, share personal stories and profess their fears. Effective leaders instinctively see the connection between safe spaces at work and the employee's willingness to bring personal problems to the attention of management. Emotionally secure leaders develop mutual respect between the led and the leader simply by being authentically empathetic.

Sadly, many leaders are emotionally ignorant and fail to see the causal connection between emotions and leadership. Emotionally ignorant leaders are usually great at managing things because this task is devoid of emotions. Problems arise when the emotionally ignorant leader attempts to lead people as if they are managing inanimate objects. Trust me, this approach to leadership, never ends well. Emotional Ignorance is a barrier to the creation of safe places at work. Leaders devoid of emotions, simply direct and command.

The Conclusion

The enemy of darkness is light and the enemy of ignorance is knowledge. Knowledge is power and power is simply the ability to influence. There are two books every leader should read if they are truly interested in increasing their influence with peers, superiors and subordinates alike. Daniel Goleman's book "Emotional Intelligence" is a great start and the book "Crucial Conversations," is a wonderful eye opener as well. John C. Maxwell, the leadership guru says it best, "You can love people without leading them, but you can't lead them without loving them."

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