Why accountants need emotional intelligence in the digital age

Finance directors need to develop softer skills as their role pivots away from spreadsheets and doing the books

Isn’t accountancy about cold, hard facts?

The stereotype of the profession is one where cold, hard facts are all that matters, creativity is either non-existent or slightly dubious, and the day is spent staring at row upon row of numbers.

However, this of course is a myth. There’s much more to accountants and accountancy than that, and the skills they need have always gone way beyond the need to do calculations and have an in-depth knowledge of financial regulations.

Now, it seems, those skills need to go even further.

A new report from ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) examines the importance of emotional intelligence in accountancy as the digital age continues to revolutionise the profession.

“In an era of increasing digitisation, professional accountants need a rounded set of skills that go beyond technical knowledge, important as it is,” says the ACCA report.

ACCA refers to these skills as “the professional quotients”, encapsulating technical excellence, ethics and a range of personal skills including the emotional quotient (EQ). Its report, Emotional Quotient in a Digital Age, looks at both the level of EQ among accountancy respondents in this digital age, as well as the impact of technology on their need for EQ.

Not familiar with EQ? Perhaps you think if it as emotional intelligence.

“Emotional intelligence refers to ‘the ability to identify one’s own emotions and those of others, harness and apply them to tasks, and to regulate and manage them’,” explains ACCA.

Developing EQ — and why accountants need it

ACCA’s research revealed that experience can be an enabler for improving EQ, as scores for many competencies corresponded to the level of exposure to situations needing that competency. This implies EQ can be learned – that, like most other skills, it can be developed and improved over time.

“Many people have an intuitive sense of EQ, often expressed as something to do with emotions and interacting effectively with people,” says Helen Brand, chief executive of ACCA.

“But it is important to go beyond this and critically reflect on the value embedded in emotions in today’s digital age. Being able to effectively harness this value is vital for success.”

The report also explores the impact of technology on the need for EQ in professional accountants. The power of technology to disrupt the accountancy profession has given rise to doom-laden predictions about the future of accountancy — and horror stories asking if there even is a future?

However, the ACCA believe that EQ is a resource integral to who accountants are as human beings, and that is inherently difficult for machines to replicate — and therefore something that accountants would do well to develop to strengthen their competitive advantage.

The report says that in an increasing digital age, EQ will help accountants to:

  • Have a growth mindset: to feel comfortable in their ability to overcome obstacles, challenge their own identity and extend themselves into new areas
  • Have self-knowledge: to recognise the feelings and motivations that underlie and drive their actions
  • Have perspective: to be adaptable, use their own personal learning and see things from the viewpoint of others
  • Have empathy: to respond warmly, making others feel heard and included
  • Have influence: to compellingly affect, inspire and encourage everyone to do well

A growth mindset emerged as a key enabler for the development of EQ overall, and is positively correlated with being at work: the stretching of one’s capabilities involved in achieving results in the workplace correlates with higher capabilities in this area.

The ACCA’s research also identified six areas impacted by digital technology — change readiness, increased diversity, ethics and beliefs, cognition and learning, human–machine interaction, and shifting power.

Change readiness

Empathy is needed for dealing with technology-related job-losses and a growth mindset can overcome fear of change.

Increased diversity

Taking perspectives can help accountants understand the viewpoints of the wider range of stakeholders made accessible through remote working and technology.

Ethics and beliefs

Having influence can enable accountants to advocate an ethical approach to digital adoption, and self-knowledge can help them understand their own beliefs when setting boundaries and ensuring quality of life in an “always-on” environment.

Cognition and learning

A growth mindset will help to challenge cognitive tribalism (e.g. where like-minded people congregate in online environments) and to develop the self-knowledge to understand what to prioritise in an increasingly fast “noisy” era.

Human–machine interaction

Influence is needed to prevent loss of control (for instance, through outsourcing decision making) amid the increasing role of machines, and a growth mindset enables active engagement the gaining of value from interactions with technological tools (yielding insight, not just reporting).

Shifting power

EQ has a role in the softer (rather than directive) forms of influencing needed in a less hierarchical digital workplace, and a growth mindset enables one to engage with new ways of working which may challenge the existing power structures.

“In an increasingly technology-led future, sustainable advantage will not come by trying to replicate the tasks of, or compete with, machines,” concludes Brand.

“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.”

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