Ben Rawal FCCA, lead consultant and owner of Soft Skills

ACCA’s fundamental ethical principles – integrity, objectivity, professional competence and due care, confidentiality and professional behaviour – are among the first areas of learning that members experience. But our ability to uphold these principles means keeping at bay our emotional responses to ethically challenging situations.

An attraction for many joining the profession is having to make sound decisions while facing high levels of stress

Understanding more about feelings, beliefs and motives can offer vital clues to whether individuals are prepared to follow rules, including ethical principles. There are three critical elements – or ‘golden’ areas – of emotional intelligence (or emotional quotient, EQ) that inform our ability to stick to these principles:

  • how effectively we manage our impulses
  • our willingness to consider the wider impact of our actions on others (social responsibility)
  • how our behaviours change (either positively or negatively) as we experience stress.

Those who score low in these three areas of EQ struggle with decision-making and managing their behaviour. Imagine an individual who is frequently impulsive, has no or little moral compass, or struggles to deal with stress; their risk of rule-breaking is significantly greater.

Beyond technical skills

Successful accountants are usually highly effective in the above three ‘golden’ areas of emotion. In fact, these are often an attraction for many individuals joining the profession – having to make sound decisions that benefit others while facing high levels of stress.

But how often do organisations test candidates against these three areas, or seek to develop the accountant’s skills sufficiently to deal with the challenges?

In my experience, employers continue to place too much emphasis on technical skills rather than considering the emotional risk factors that inevitably exist. Of course, this doesn’t mean that traditional recruitment and assessment techniques are obsolete – far from it. But when recruiting, employers need to consider a variety of non-technical skills, including communication, behaviours, body language and stress management, to name a few.

Testing these can be complex and is a judgment area that many recruiting managers prefer to avoid. One of the main difficulties is that by simply asking candidates questions to gauge how they would respond emotionally, the response provided is likely to be based on logic. Furthermore, candidates can (and do) practise possible interview questions as part of their preparation, so this just becomes a test of memory rather than of their suitability for a role.

Feelings of pride can be very powerful in driving the right behaviour

My advice is to try something different from conventional interview techniques. Role plays, deliberately planned ‘unexpected’ events that occur during an interview, mini-EQ tests and possible moral dilemmas can all offer a different perspective on how a candidate is likely to behave under stress or when an instant decision is required.

Another key priority for hiring managers is to develop their own level of emotional intelligence. Over time, it becomes easier to identify individuals who require support and development, simply based on how they behave.

But while ‘being emotional’ is not considered an attribute in the workplace, our emotions – when well managed – can help us to behave ethically. For example, feelings of pride – or, rather, the avoidance of shame – can be very powerful in driving the right behaviour: not letting yourself or your team down, or being sensitive to pressure to ‘do the right thing’.

Tips for good practice

As accountants, we are used to making complex, logical and rational decisions. We also convince ourselves that we rely on nothing other than logic and that our reasoning is sound.

In reality, however, emotion is always involved; the challenge is whether we recognise it before it causes consequences that threaten the pursuit of the profession’s ethical values.

Here are some tips for acting ethically:

  1. Recognise emotion. Poor behaviour and decision-making are nearly always driven by emotion. Recognising and understanding this will help you identify in yourself and others when decision-making is illogical and irrational.
  2. Look at the three ‘golden’ areas. Ask yourself how you’re performing in terms of impulsive decision-making, social responsibility and stress tolerance.
  3. Seek out emotional intelligence in others. How much focus does your organisation apply to emotional factors when recruiting and developing its finance team? An over-emphasis on technical abilities risks missing the attributes that really matter.

More information

See ACCA's report on the emotional quotient in a digital age

Find out about ACCA's Ethics and Professional Skills Module