I can't help you if you aren’t already convinced about EI
There are dozens of studies on emotional intelligence and how it impacts all areas of performance and many different aspects of life. If you aren’t convinced that emotional intelligence in leadership is important, we have a problem! In my view that debate is done, the results are in and there is no doubt. For that reason, I wont waste your time or mine convincing you – I am assuming you recognise the importance of emotional intelligence. The focus of this article is on how to be an emotionally intelligent leader.
The barriers to building emotional intelligence in leadership
When we go into organisations and find a lack of emotional intelligence in leadership, it is usually caused by one of these things:
- Belief that the bottom line is all that counts and that emotional intelligence in ‘namby pamby’ nonsense sprouted by a bunch of sooks and wimps. If that belief describes you, refer to my opening comment: I have nothing to offer you. It would be best if you go and try to kill dinner and wait for someone to discover fire or invent the wheel!
- Not realising the importance of emotionally intelligent leadership – this article will help but I suggest you spend some time on Google looking at the weight of research
- Recognising the importance but not knowing what to do about it. (Excellent! Now we are getting into an area this article will help with)
- Misunderstanding what emotional intelligence is generally and how it applies to leaders specifically. Once again, this article should help
- Imperfect self-awareness in leaders about their own actions and the impact of those actions – let’s be honest, that applies to every leader to some extent.
Am I just going to have a bunch of people in my office crying?
A big barrier we didn’t include in our list is a narrow perception of what emotional intelligence means – and, for some people, a deeply ingrained avoidance of emotions!
This is not just about being nice to people. Nor is it just about listening to people talk endlessly about how upset they are. Look at the table to see a range of emotions that can help and hinder high performance in the workplace. This is not a complete list and many emotions can go both ways – but that is often the result of emotionally intelligent leadership.
What is emotional intelligence in leadership?
Daniel Goleman was one of the earliest researchers on emotional intelligence and has written numerous books on the subject. He defined emotional intelligence as awareness, assessment and management of your own emotions and those of others.
There is a logical sequence to that definition
- We can’t manage something we haven’t thought about (assessed) and we can’t assess something we haven’t even noticed. So it all starts with self-awareness.
- We can’t be effective with other people’s emotions if we aren’t effective with our own – once again, it all starts with self-awareness
For leaders this means that you need to make sure you are dealing with yourself well before you have any chance of dealing with the emotions of others effectively. Daniel Goleman described four aspects of emotional intelligence – bear in mind that the following table is our own interpretation. The sections after the table provide a few tips on how to improve each of the four aspects – and each is accompanied by a key question. Those questions come together in a simple sequence that will help you apply emotional intelligence each day
What you notice about your own emotions
Once again, this is not about just being ‘touchy feely’. If you are walking around as a ball of unresolved anger, frustration or disappointment, do you think it may impact the way you deal with others? Absolutely! If you are under a lot of pressure or experiencing a lot of stress, might the people around you feel some of the consequences? Totally!
Even the most hard headed manager has felt ‘flat’, a lack of motivation, fear, frustration and a whole range of other emotions. None of those emotions happen by accident – they are all telling you something.
If you choose to ignore the messenger, two things happen:
- A feeling can’t really be suppressed – it will come back as a bigger form of itself (frustration becomes anger) or will manifest in a different way such as stress, trouble sleeping or a whole range of more serious outcomes
- Maybe the message needs to be heard – maybe the frustration is telling you that your strategy isn’t working and you need to adjust. Maybe the fear is telling you that you need to move carefully.
Next time you have that nagging feeling, stop and listen to the messenger!
Some specific actions: slow down occasionally and analyse what is going on for you. If you feel out of sorts, are acting snappy or things are really bugging you, take some time to figure out what exactly you feel and why it is happening.
The key question: How am I feeling?
What you do about your emotions
Excellent. You have listened to what it going on and are aware of the emotion you are experiencing. Now it needs to be dealt with. Of course, there are healthy and unhealthy options here.
Giving in to the emotion is as bad as ignoring it. For example, if through self-awareness you recognise that you are feeling angry, one option is to give in to that feeling and walk around yelling and screaming at people. However, that is likely to produce a range of other undesirable consequences.
By the way, have you noticed that giving in to the emotion can often feel really good just for a moment – but that it usually followed by a wave of regret? We all have an inner gorilla waiting to get out and play and self-management is all about keeping that primate safely on a leash!
Another example is fear. This is an important message but we should consider a range of responses rather than just ‘giving in’ to the fear:
- Are you about to go into a situation that is genuinely dangerous and should you ‘bail out’?
- Are you just going beyond your comfort zone – and is it a danger that can safely be acknowledged and faced. We have leaders talk to us about experiencing fear when they are doing new things like speaking in public, giving people feedback or implementing an untried idea or strategy. These are all things they need to do and part of that is feeling fear and doing it anyway
Action: when you experience an emotion, build in a pause during which you decide on the best response – which should be more than just fight or flight most of the time!
The key question: What should I do about it?
What you notice about others
It is easy to be so caught up in what is going on for ourselves that we miss how someone else is feeling. Here are a few examples we have seen in leadership situations:
- A manager is so frustrated about lack of progress on a project that they don’t realise that their team are frustrated as well. Instead of an angry manager they need support
- A team member is so defensive about a discussion they are having with their manager that they aren’t open to any of the feedback they are receiving. Hopefully, the manager feels better for having said it because that is the only useful outcome
- A manager allocates tasks but doesn’t realise someone feels ‘out of their depth’ and then wonders why the results aren’t what they expected
Action: you can’t be aware of the way your people feel without doing three things: having your own emotions under control; being perceived by your people as someone that it is OK to express genuine feelings with; and taking the time for these discussions to happen. All three of these things are within your control.
The key question: How are they feeling?
What you do about how others are feeling
You can’t create someone’s feelings for them, you can’t control their feelings and you aren’t responsible for those feelings. Their feelings are their choice. However, as a leader you can absolutely influence what your people feel.
Emotionally intelligent leadership often means observing your people and, instead of blaming them for the way they feel, asking what you have done to help create that and what you could do to influence it positively.
For example, when your team seems de-motivated you could:
- Rant that ‘people these days expect life on a platter and won’t get off their backsides and look after themselves’
- Put punishments for poor performance in place
- Send everyone a memo (you wouldn’t, would you?)
- Think about what may be demotivating to your people and how you may be influencing that
- Consider what strategies you could use to improve motivation including a review of your leadership style
We don’t need to tell you which ones are examples of emotionally intelligent leadership – and we will leave you to self-assess which approaches are most like the ones you use!
Action: when it comes to other people’s emotions, a leader has a strong ability to influence. Use that power for good rather than evil!
The key question: What can I do about it?
How do I use all of this to improve emotional intelligence in my team?
This article called 'Four questions that develop emotional intelligence in the workplace' describes the opportunities leaders have every day to apply their own emotional intelligence and improve that of those around them. In this article, we also apply the four questions to a practical scenario which most leaders deal with frequently.
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Editor's note: This article was originally published in July 2014 and has been revamped and updated for comprehensiveness and better readability.