Leading Risk Management Function with Emotional Intelligence

Have you ever felt as a risk manager that business teams don’t want you around them? Behind your back business teams in three words describe you as “critical slimy burger”, in two words “painful preacher” and in one word “#@$&^@#$”. Your ideas and opinions are strongly opposed and good ones too sink due to death-by-association syndrome.

Sometimes, from top to bottom levels of the organization business executives stonewall risk managers’ efforts and the risk management team faces this antagonistic attitude.

Ascending the Maturity Curve - Economist Intelligence Unit

Even the Chief Risk Officer (CRO) and other risk managers fail to cut ice with senior management. A recent report “Ascending the Maturity Curve” published by Economist Intelligence Unit shows that just 28% of business executives consider CRO and other risk oversight members as usually helpful in achieving business objectives. The adjoining graph reflects that thought process of business executives about risk managers.

In light of this, it is clear that risk managers face a challenging and conflicting relationship with business executives. These issues make risk managers’ jobs notoriously frustrating and thankless. Hence, risk managers need a solution to be effective.

 I thought it might be a good idea to study why business teams react negatively and how to make then think positively about risk managers. I read Daniel Goleman’s book – The New Leaders, which covers ways to use emotional intelligence in leadership. It sheds light on disastrous leadership outcomes when leaders deal with teams without sufficient emotional intelligence. There are a number of lessons for risk managers to learn from the book and here are some of them.

Briefly, Goleman has described resonant and dissonant leadership styles. Resonant leaders attune to other people’s feelings and communicate emphatically to move their feelings in a positive direction. While dissonant leaders fail to recognize feelings of the people they are dealing with and create negative emotions – anger, frustration, fear – in them. He has defined six leadership styles, four are resonant and two are dissonant. In my view, risk managers reflect these leadership styles and a better understanding of it will help them in building relationships with business executives and within the team.

1.   Visionary style

According to Goleman, visionary leaders articulate the purpose that rings true for themselves, and attune to the values shared by the people they lead. This also initiates transparency by removing barriers and smokescreens within the organization. However, the downside is that visionary leaders sometimes sound pompous and overbearing.

In my view, when CROs and other risk management seniors adopt visionary leadership they facilitate business teams in seeing the bigger picture. The risk management functions are perceived negatively as they adopt a check box mentality and highlight small regulatory issues as major problems. They sometimes do not spend adequate time with business teams articulating how risk management will benefit them in achieving business objectives. Hence, business executives are resistant to suggestions, as they have limited idea on how their risk management ties up to the overall corporate mission, vision and strategy.

Here, the takeaway is that risk managers need to sell the bigger picture of risk management functions and trust the business teams to identify and mitigate risks. Understand the need of business teams to feel important that their work matters.

2.   Coaching style

Goleman states coaching style builds rapports and deep emotional relationships; however, most leaders tend to ignore it. It is a resonant style if done properly. When executed poorly coaching looks like micromanaging or excessively controlling. He further adds managers are inept at giving performance feedback that builds motivation and not fear and apathy. Hence, give coaching that makes the employee feel that it is in their best interest rather than feel manipulated and attacked.

According to me, this is the crux of the problem. Risk manager’s role – especially the compliance and governance – demands identifying weaknesses in business operations. Frequently, risk managers issue draft and final reports to senior management without really explaining the details to the middle and junior level executives. This causes anxiety and fear in business teams. 

Psychologically, mild anxiety results in attention and energy to the job, prolonged distress hampers work performance.  Secondly, chronic anger, anxiety and sense of futility cause emotional hijacking.  Considering this aspect, it isn’t surprising that in long-term audit or investigation assignments, the business teams are distressed. If risk managers do not provide periodic updates on their observations, the continuous anxiety results in negative reactions. Here regular coaching becomes essential.

Therefore, risk managers must attune themselves to the emotions created by their work and communications in the business teams.  Give feedback in a way that doesn’t diminish the value of work being done by the business team.  Not in a manner where the person feels that, s/he is the problem.

3.   Affiliative  style

In Goleman’s view, affiliative style represents collaborative competence in action. This style is good for relationship building as it promotes harmony and friendly interactions. It allows a person to be kind along with being candid. However, the negatives of this style are that it can drive down performance if constructive feedback is not given or if used in a disaster scenario, the person may appear clueless.    

 In my opinion, risk managers can use this style to build relationships with CEO, CXOs and Board. The risk managers are not getting a seat at the board level or do not have sufficient visibility with the CEO. Hence, a few organizations have a slip-shod approach to risk management.

The messages given by senior management on risk management build the risk culture within the organization. According to Goleman’s study – “Roughly 50% to 70% of how employees perceive their organization’s climate can be traced to the actions of one person: the leader”. Hence, CEO’s actions and sentiments towards risk management get reflected throughout the organization. Therefore, relationship building is critical at this level for risk managers. Become a friend of the CXOs.

4.    Democratic style

Daniel Goleman says that democratic style is generally the most successful resonant leadership style. Leaders discuss issues, listen to others, take feedback and then make a collective decision. The advantage is that there is limited backlash for harsh decisions as it builds trust, respect and commitment. The disadvantage is that over-reliance on this approach results in endless meetings without firm direction.

My outlook is that auditors and compliance officials cannot adopt a democratic style for conducting an assignment, as it will hamper independence.

Nonetheless, democratic style should be adopted for recommendations and improvements in business. For example, if process re-engineering or additional controls are being suggested, it is useful to listen to business teams and discuss the solutions to them. The business teams are closest to the problems. Hence, the style benefits when risk managers perform advisory or consulting assignments. It is also a useful tool to understand the business executives concerns and anxiety points. Let the business teams take decisions about risk management and ownership for the same.

5.   Pace-setting style

Goleman says that in modern times pacesetters are thought of as good leaders since the leadership style adds to the bottom-line in short-run. Pacesetters focus on performance and excellence. However, if the leader drives employees too hard the morale plummets. Pace setting only works when employees are self-motivated, highly competent and need little direction. Meeting high standards of excellence has a cost, as it is task focused and not people focused approach.

There are two key insights to be gathered from Goleman’s analysis. The first one is that if CEO and board are driven by quarterly results and showing good performance, in the long run the organization is likely to pay a huge price. Hence, CROs need to monitor this form of leadership and culture, and guide the senior management.

The second aspect is the CROs and other risk managers need to ensure that they themselves do not become aggressive pacesetters in their functions. Sometimes the targets on number of reports, project timings, and quality of work become so critical that CROs ignore other aspects. In these situations, the star techie gets promoted who may not have adequate leadership and people management skills. Hence, there is burnout in the risk management team and conflicts with business teams. This is a dissonant style of leadership hence use it with care.

6.    Command style

The command style though frequently used is the most dissonant style as per Goleman. It is a coercive style – do it because I say so – being the message that makes employees feel threatened and intimidated. It is least effective as an intimidating cold leader contaminates everyone’s mood and the quality of overall climate spirals down. Employees think of it as a reign of terror so stop bringing bad news as the bearer is killed. The upside is that in crisis this style is effective.

A risk manager may claim that their role is recommendatory in nature and they do not have line authority over business teams. Hence, this kind of situation would not result from their actions.

On the contrary, if risk managers start playing political games and use their negative findings to downgrade a business executive’s career, the same results will ensue. Hence, they definitely have responsibility to ensure that their actions do not intimidate business teams or make them feel threatened.

However, if they are doing a million dollar fraud investigation or detecting a data theft situation, this style will work. It will reduce panic in the business teams since someone is in command and is showing direction.

Closing thoughts

As I read the book, one message was clear – risk managers need a range of leadership styles to be effective.  Risk managers emotional intelligence determines their success and failure in building relationships with business executives.  In Goleman’s words –

“The triad of self-awareness, self-management and empathy all come together in the final emotional intelligence ability: relationship management. Managing relationships skillfully boils down to handling other people’s emotions.”

Here is a clue. Psychologically laughter is the easiest way to create positive emotions. So risk managers leave your serious-brow furrowed look and smile.


Book: The New Leaders – Transforming the art of leadership into a science of results – Author Daniel Goleman

Report: Ascending the maturity curve –Effective management of enterprise risk and compliance – A report from the Economist Intelligence Unit Sponsored by SAP