Leadership, Professional Development, Relationship & Collaboration

Navigate Complex Situations By Strengthening These Two Leadership Qualities

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Our brains are hardwired to act against us key new research claims. Hardly ideal to hear when leaders are facing the biggest crisis since the GFC. Learning to balance your analytical and emotional intelligence is now vital for leaders to avoid miscommunication amongst their teams. Find out if these two vital leadership qualities are working against you…

A recent example… “I’m so frustrated with my team at the moment, Erica.” 

Hearing this at the start of a coaching session sets the stage for an intensive conversation to uncover the reality and opportunity that sits behind the statement. It’s not an uncommon starter to coaching conversations given where so many leaders are at – mid COVID-19, pushing massive hours and wrestling with more meetings than you’ve ever had to run in your life. Employees are fearful, regulators are worried, shareholders are nervous, and bosses are hunting for answers to survive and thrive as a business

Demands are steep on you as a leader to hold it all together right now. To balance finding answers for the business, holding an empathetic space for employees/suppliers/customers, whilst pivoting the organisation and creating a productive remote work environment. Add to this the challenge of navigating a complex, pressured and ambiguous economic environment – pressure on leaders has never been more intense

Fascinated by what makes us tick, as an experienced coach I jump on any research that sheds light on how we can harness our immense natural intelligence and capability to make our leadership life more effective, faster. My client’s interaction indicates there is a mismatch in expectations and understanding of meaning between her and her team. She is an experienced leader and superb communicator… So how is this going so wrong?  

When I delved deeper into why my coachee (let’s call her Eloise) was frustrated, it was because her team is venting to her a lot, when they know she can’t change the current situation. No doubt you or a colleague are experiencing this very same thing…  it’s pretty standard across organisations right now

Her team are frustrated, scared and want to know things will change. Adding to their uncertainty is the knowledge that the industry is being disrupted and colleagues in other companies are losing positions left, right and centre. 

Although she appreciates everything the team is achieving under tough circumstances and is empathetic to their concerns, she wants them to ‘suck it up’ a little and recognise they’re all lucky to still be working. Can’t they see she is doing the best she can for them in a tough, no-win situation?

AN and EN: The opposing brain networks leaders need 

Recent research at Case Western Reserve University helps to shed light on why there may be a mismatch in expectations and meaning between Eloise and her team, resulting in continued venting and an escalation into frustration. Evidence cited in this article shows that there is evidence the two neural networks in the brain Eloise needs for discussions around productivity with her team are actually opposed and actively suppress each other. Say what? As if things aren’t hard enough at the moment… now you have to fight your brain to get harmony with your team? 

Which two networks in the brain are needed in these situations and why? 

As a leader, we have to manage budgets, solve pressing problems, make critical decisions, and allocate resources to help the business survive and thrive. The neural network in the brain that helps with that is called the analytic network (AN). 

We also need to engage and inspire our teams and customers, listen and sense their needs, feel their concerns and respond effectively, with empathy. The neural network in the brain that helps with that is called the empathic network (EN). 

AN and EN network

Most people have heard the terms left brain: logical and right brain: creative but in fact, this is a gross oversimplification and no one’s brain is actually split into two parts so cleanly. We do however have different neural networks with different functions.

When we understand this and are more aware of which neural network is activated in the moment, we can determine whether we have the right balance between the networks for the circumstances we are in. 

Sometimes we can be overly dominant in one network and this was happening for Eloise. She was chiefly using her AN network and this was causing her team to not feel heard and understood – leading to more frustration. Sound familiar? Often, it’s politicians that are accused of having a ‘tin ear’ not hearing the voice of their constituents and missing the mark with their messaging. Sometimes you see it in shareholder meetings where the chairman has misread shareholder sentiment on a topic. Rio Tinto’s handling of the follow up to their recent destruction of indigenous land is a classic example of the AN dominating without an appropriate EN balance. 

Conversely, the Co-Founder and Chief Executive of WEWork, Adam Neumann communicated almost exclusively through the lens of the EN neural network and results and profitability (AN) were very low down in priorities. He was eventually ousted in 2019 on the back of a disastrous attempt to raise capital; where it became very obvious that whilst the drive for purpose and values at WE Work were admirable, the business fundamentals were shaky indeed. 

To be most effective in leading and truly helping your customers and teams you need both networks. We need to understand them, and their specific challenges and we need to relate to their feelings and emotional state. We need to form and confirm our thoughts about their perspective, and we need to be open to hearing and seeing what they hear, see and feel. 

– The Best Managers Balance Analytical and Emotional Intelligence, by Melvin Smith, Ellen Van Oosten and Richard E. Boyatzis

The leader who can quickly toggle between AN and EN to navigate complex situations will be the most effective. The challenge is that you need to strengthen both quite deliberately and learn how to tell when one is in operation vs the other. The more familiar and aware you can be, the better you can toggle between them and be responsive in the moment. You need self-awareness, deliberate practice and conscious intent to strengthen and master the two neural networks. One is designed to suppress the other when being used so you need to have enough presence of mind to know this and trigger the shift back and forth in split-second bursts as required. 

How to distinguish which neural network you’re using in a given moment

AN – Analytic Network (Thinker) EN – Empathic Network (Feeler)

Definitive Wonder
Decisive Curious
Fact based Exploratory
Structured Relational
Outcome focus Discovery focus
Process driven Receptive
Detail and logic Sensory – hear, see, feel, etc.

Which is your dominant network? Sometimes you have a dominant network in all contexts, sometimes the dominance depends on the context. We aren’t always one or the other, we are more complex than that. However, we are living in extraordinary times that require us to be more attuned and responsive than ever using both our AN and EN neural networks. Think of them like mental muscles that can be strengthened with deliberate focus and exercise. 

women in business meeting leadership qualities

Learn to strengthen each network 

AN Network: 

  1. Write and follow a to-do list every day for a month
  2. Link each business project to strategy and create a project plan with milestones for each 
  3. When you ‘feel’ a decision is the right one, step back and find evidence and data to prove/disprove it
  4. When you’ve had a ‘brilliant’ product or marketing idea, sit down with the CFO, COO or risk analysts to hear their perspective
  5. Learn the financial levers which cause profit and loss in the business
  6. When you delegate, make sure you clearly communicate and document what success will look like, how it will be measured tangibly and in what timeframe 
  7. When presenting information to an AN dominant team be less conceptual and more fact-based; and to the point with clear outcomes  
  8. Develop patience and respect the fact that a person with AN dominance will want to understand how all the elements fit. They will often need sufficient data and detail to move forward comfortably

EN Network:

  1. Learn how to ask reflective questions to understand how people feel about an idea/project/decision before moving to action steps. Questions like what might we be missing in our thinking? 
  2. Learn basic coaching frameworks and questions then practise them with your team and colleagues
  3. Start each team meeting with a feeling style check-in e.g. ask everyone to share what they’re most proud of for the week (personal or professional) 
  4. Re-read your email before sending and make sure you’ve built relationship/rapport before jumping to the point 
  5. Infuse business objectives with purpose and values and collectively build a story/narrative that fire up people’s imaginations and feelings
  6. Listen deeply for subtext and what people aren’t saying, ask questions with curiosity and empathy until they feel deeply understood 
  7. Build ‘outside-in’ discussions amongst your team; look at initiatives in other disciplines/industries and explore what-if scenarios for your business 
  8. Spend time in another person’s shoes either figuratively or literally. The more adept you are to experience a situation from another person’s perspective the more empathic you will be   

After Eloise understood the difference between using her AN and EN she was able to reflect on the last couple of conversations with her team members. She could see that because she had processed her emotions around the current circumstances and was moving to practical next steps (AN) she assumed the team were doing the same, not realising that they were still operating in the empathic neural network about the situation. She agreed that for the next few conversations she would be more empathetic and listen with reflective questions to ensure team members felt heard and understood. Once they felt heard, they were more ready to move with her to the more practical AN focus and could focus on next steps with more enthusiasm.

How can leaders easily toggle between the two neural networks? 

This is where the gold is. Strengthening both networks is important but as mentioned, when you’re in your AN network, it will suppress your EN and when you’re in your EN network, it will suppress your AN. Aside from strengthening both, you need to develop your ability to switch between the two rapidly so that both are equally available when required. Presence and self-awareness are essential and attention is the key ingredient to both. Remember our teacher begging us to concentrate at school? Well, that is the second key ingredient. The ability to concentrate our attention on the present moment is fundamental to being able to rapidly toggle between the two neural networks once we’ve strengthened them. 

But before we go too far, let’s unpack the word attention, so we know what we are directing. Attention is a late 14th-century word meaning “to stretch toward”, “give heed to”. What is it we are stretching? Your attention is made from the combined forces of your five physical senses (see, hear, smell, taste, touch) and your perception based upon emotional/mental receptivity. Being curious and open (without judgement or analysis) is recommended to enhance presence in the moment.   

Have you ever been accused of ‘not listening’? Yet you were looking at the person speaking, nodding at the appropriate moments, but your mind was elsewhere? That’s called split attention or ‘listening with ½ an ear’ and we are prone to doing it more often than not. It’s a very inefficient and ineffective way of doing things and not appreciated by those around you. Successful multi-tasking is a myth. Our mind really is ‘one track’ and the faster we learn to respect that and work with it more proactively, the easier life will become. 

Activities to strengthen your presence and self-awareness: 

  1. When introduced to new people, practise remembering their names, the colour of their eyes and one unusual thing about them. Write it down after the meeting
  2. Walk into a room, look around the room slowly for 30-seconds, leave the room and write down everything you noticed
  3. When you’re speaking to someone on the phone, try and get a sense of what they’re feeling, then check in with them to gauge how accurate you were
  4. As people arrive at a meeting, see if you can sense how they’re feeling and see if you can guess what they were doing prior to coming to this meeting
  5. Before an important meeting, play it out in your mind’s eye as if you’re watching you and the other people in a movie. Be as objective as you can, as if you’re a coach, observe the dynamic and consider how the other attendees might be approaching the meeting given their responsibilities and accountabilities and therefore what the impact will be for them if the meeting goes forward as planned. Would you adjust anything after this exercise?

A number of months ago, I worked through this last exercise with an executive I was coaching as he had a very political and contentious meeting coming up. As he experienced the projected agenda from the perspective of others – taking into account their accountabilities, challenges and objectives, it dawned on him that the way he was presenting the information was setting them up for a stalemate. He had misread it and made assumptions about their motives that were not true.

Adjusting his approach and creating a constructive discussion rather than potentially triggering a combative experience paid off. By pre-rehearsing from a place of non-judgement and receptiveness, the exec reported he was able to stay open in the meeting and switch between analytical facts and experiences whilst maintaining relationships as they worked through a difficult piece of work. This is a great example of how executives can step back and use self-awareness before engaging with their team to draw on both their AN and EN neural networks.

Can leadership qualities be developed?

The work of leadership is complex and difficult. It requires a great deal of attention and energy. While some of the exercises here may feel out of your comfort zone, it’s worth keeping an open mind and experimenting. 

Our work specialises in coaching and training driven leaders and their teams to enhance their cognitive adaptability in our resilience training and deeper leadership development programs. If you or your leaders need coaching or support to develop and balance these leadership qualities please do not hesitate to reach out to us.


The Colin James Method® Facilitators train corporate executives to improve their professional communication skills with a proven methodology. Our highly trained Facilitators and Coaches are recognised for their experience in their fields and have worked with many individuals and organisations around the world to master the art of communication.

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