Emotional intelligence in a digital age

Professional accountants need a whole range of emotional competencies to successfully manage the challenges of a tech-enabled world

Accountants are often portrayed as technically skilled professionals who deal with figures, spreadsheets and cold, hard facts. Not many people would put ‘accountants’ and ‘emotions’ in the same sentence, would they? And, if pushed, many would actually say that emotions have no place in our profession.

You too may believe that involving your emotions could potentially impair your professional judgment and compromise your objectivity, ethics and integrity.

But if this is the case, you are probably confusing being driven by and succumbing to your emotions (or being emotional) with being emotionally intelligent.

Emotional quotient

Back in 2016, ACCA identified emotional intelligence – ‘the ability to identify one’s own emotions and those of others, harness and apply them to tasks, and to regulate and manage them’ – as one of the ‘professional quotients’ of success for the accountant of the future.

Alexandra Gray, senior lecturer at London School of Business and Finance, says: ‘Accountants increasingly undertake advisory roles, which means they need to be able to communicate effectively with a wide range of stakeholders.

‘They also need to be able to motivate and manage teams, dealing with any issues in a non-judgemental way and accepting people’s differences. This all requires the use and management of personal emotions.’

Employing emotions in your work doesn’t preclude the use of a cool, logical analysis in your thinking and decision-making process.

‘In fact, the ability to think logically and objectively, but by taking feelings, values and sensitivities into account, is what makes you personally and interpersonally effective,’ says Jo Maddocks, business psychologist at emotional intelligence training consultancy JCA Global.

EQ vs technology

Being able to express yourself fully, while recognising, applying and regulating emotions, is perhaps even more important now that we have entered the digital age.

‘Communication has never been easier, yet it has never been more complicated either,’ says Matthew Knight, principal at strategy and innovation practice Foxlark. ‘We can now work remotely and collaborate with people all over the world, but this means we lack many of the useful cues we need to connect – body language, tone of voice, eye contact. It’s very easy to say or write something that those you work alongside might take in the wrong way.’

Also, as artificial intelligence, robots and machine learning continue to take over the more mundane and repetitive technical tasks, accountants’ roles are shifting towards interpretation of data to provide recommendations both outside and inside their organisations.

So, while analytical skills are as important as ever, there’s now even more emphasis on cooperation, team working and the ability to build trust.

‘Sustainable advantage will not come by trying to replicate the tasks of, or compete with, machines. It is more likely to come by leveraging the competitive advantages inherent in our humanity – in effect, by being human in a digital age, and emotions are fundamental to being human’

James Poyser, chief executive at inniAccounts, says: ‘Trust is at the core of any good team. It comes from knowing who we are, knowing our own emotions, being honest about them and regulating them.’

ACCA has recently explored the need for EQ in professional accountants of the future. The findings and recommendations are included in the report entitled Emotional quotient in a digital age, and this is how Helen Brand, ACCA chief executive, sums them up: ‘In an increasingly technology-led future, sustainable advantage will not come by trying to replicate the tasks of, or compete with, machines. It is more likely to come by leveraging the competitive advantages inherent in our humanity – in effect, by being human in a digital age, and emotions are fundamental to being human.’

How to improve your EQ

The good news is that EQ is not an innate quality – you can develop it over time. According to the report, the best way to do this is to work on these five emotional competencies:

Growth mindset
As more and more tasks are being replaced by tech, a growth mindset and a willingness to learn enable you to overcome the fear of change and engage with new ways of working.

‘Having a growth mindset means you are flexible, willing to move outside of your comfort zone and try new things without becoming negative,’ says Maddocks.

Of course, change is difficult. ‘It’s also constant and will push forward, if you're ready or not, so I'd encourage you to bring “growth mindset” to the fore, and work on it as you would on any other professional competency,’ Poyser says.

Knight adds: ‘It’s not enough to hope that the skills you’ve learnt so far will take you through to the end of your career. Without the ability to embrace change and be open to new challenges you will fall behind.’

Empathy
We need empathy – the ability to understand and take into account the feelings and emotions of others – to work effectively with increasingly wider pool of stakeholders, made accessible through remote working and technology tools.

Poyser says: ‘Empathy is also a prerequisite to innovation: effective innovators solve people's problems, and you can’t do this successfully without listening and being empathetic first. So, learning to listen while asking questions to deepen your understanding is the perfect place to start developing your empathy skills. If you can hone these skills and put them into practice, you'll be strides ahead of artificial intelligence.’

Perspective-taking
As tech brings more and more people working together, you need to be able to put yourself in other people’s shoes.

‘You need to learn to look at things from different perspectives and this will, in turn, help you understand and take into account the viewpoints of others,’ says Gray.

In a fast-paced, digital work environment, it’s easy to rush to conclusions.

‘That’s why considering alternative points of view is a skill we need to constantly practise,’ says Knight. ‘We need to rely upon human analysis and our emotional intelligence to make more considered judgments.’

Self-knowledge
Do you know what to prioritise and how to set boundaries in an ‘always-on’ environment so that your quality of life doesn’t suffer?

If you struggle in this respect, you need to work on your self-awareness.

Maddocks explains: ‘Self-awareness or self-knowledge is the degree to which a person is in touch with their feelings, wants, needs and intuitions. This is necessary so that you can be realistic about what you are capable of and not over-estimate your capacity to deliver.’

She warns: ‘Low self-awareness can have potentially serious consequences. For example, if you don’t recognise your feelings of frustration, these feelings are more likely to grow into anger or despair. Or if you ignore how you really feel under pressure, you may fail to manage stress effectively and risk burnout.’

Influence
Digital workplaces tend to be less hierarchical, so people of all levels can now find themselves in a position where they are expected to lead, motivate and influence their co-workers without any formal authority.

Accountants also need to be able to exert their influence to advocate an ethical approach to digital adoption, so that we do not lose control through outsourcing decision making to machines.

Finally, we shouldn’t assume that influencing and other emotional competencies are only required for human-to-human interaction.

‘In future more of us will need to work alongside robots, requiring just as many partnership and collaboration skills as when we are working with a human teammate,’ says Maddocks.

#PowerOfDigital

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