Leadership and emotional intelligence: Why is it important?

Once upon a time, leadership was all about being an authority figure. Leaders had strong voices, powerful arguments and set-in-stone plans, delivered from the top down. But now human skills, like emotional intelligence, are taking center stage.

Leadership and emotional intelligence
What is emotional intelligence?

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence (EI) can be defined as how effectively someone can identify, evaluate, control and express their emotions. It’s also the way in which they’re able to use their emotions to understand, empathize and connect with their employees and teams. While it’s definitely a ‘soft’ leadership skill, emotional intelligence is one of the keys to workplace success: when EI assessment provider TalentSmart tested emotional intelligence against over 30 other important workplace skills it found that that EI is now the strongest predictor of performance, being responsible for 58% of success in a variety of jobs.

EI is sometimes measured in tests, with participants given an EQ score. While IQ gives an indication of someone’s mental ability and skill set, EQ is being used more and more to identify good leaders, sort out those who are team players and identify people who do their best work alone.

Key elements of emotional intelligence for leaders

Key elements of emotional intelligence for leaders

So, what exactly does emotional intelligence consist of? Writing in The Harvard Business Review, American psychologist Daniel Goleman identified key elements of emotional intelligence for leaders, which have been used as the foundation for subsequent research:


Developing a strong sense of self-awareness not only allows a leader to create a clear picture of their own strengths and weaknesses, but helps them understand how their behaviors and actions affect others.

2. Self-regulation

Self-regulation follows on from self-awareness, allowing leaders to develop ways of identifying potential trigger points or unhelpful responses. Self-regulation helps you stand back and take stock. That way, you avoid acting hastily and behaving in a way that might damage trust, like raising your voice or reinforcing your authority in other unhelpful ways. This helps leaders avoid the negative consequences of acting in anger or frustration.

3. Motivation

Motivation is crucial for any successful leadership. According to TeamStage, motivated employees work 20% more effectively. Plus, they look for ways to improve productivity and help others progress. Engagement and motivation also reduce absenteeism by 41%.

Effective leaders need to develop and keep up their own motivation so they can carry their employees with them. Optimism goes hand-in-hand with motivation, and it’s infectious. A motivated team is a pro-active one, and this in turn promotes wellbeing and teamwork, boosting productivity.

4. Empathy

Empathy isn’t just a great social skill. It’s also a key pillar of emotionally intelligent leadership.

Leaders who show empathy put themselves in other people’s shoes, take their behaviors and reactions on board and develop management strategies according to what they’ve learned. It helps with predicting where there might be challenges or conflicts, assessing how team members are feeling, challenging poor behavior and giving feedback constructively.

And empathy is something teams appreciate: in a study by the Center for Creative Leadership, researchers found that managers who show more empathy towards their teams are seen as better performers.

5. Social skills

Work has evolved dramatically over the past few years. Part of this has been the blurring of the boundaries between work and home and the differences between behaviors associated with each are less well-defined. As their team members expect to be treated at work in much the same way they are at home, leaders need to adapt and consider each person as an individual. This means communicating openly and honestly, showing understanding and respect for the experiences of colleagues.

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The importance of emotional intelligence in leadership

The importance of emotional intelligence in leadership

With the increasing focus on inclusivity and mental wellbeing at work, leaders need to show emotional intelligence more than ever. It’s essential in creating the diverse, positive culture an organization needs to succeed, helping recruit and retain the best talent, and ultimately, boosting the bottom line.

Research from the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations found that EI contributes positively to successful recruitment, increases profitability in account managers and boosts productivity across all levels of employment. It also raises sales and reduces stress levels.

Developing and using emotional intelligence allows leaders to:

Boost engagement

By developing a positive, productive work culture. On the flipside, disengaged employees can become a liability, decreasing productivity, damaging collaboration and leading to high staff turnover. According to Gallup, disengagement costs businesses around $450-$550 billion annually in the US.

Improve interactions

Emotional intelligence helps build trust, bringing out the best in people and allowing leaders to maximize the talent and skill they have in their teams.

Encourage idea sharing

Feeling psychologically safe will help people to create and innovate. Emotionally intelligent leaders can encourage this by giving constructive feedback.

Resolve conflict

Emotionally intelligent leaders have a head start in recognizing problems, like stress, burnout1, or negativity, allowing them to be nipped in the bud

Manage change

We live in an era of upheavals. EI can help build resilience and help employees adapt to change and live with uncertainty.

The psychological principles of emotional intelligence apply as much to the workplace as they do to our lives outside it. Positive emotions lead to positive thinking, a tendency to move towards learning new skills and an enthusiasm for connecting with people. Negative feelings, on the other hand, lead to heightened anticipation of failure or threat, a tendency to mistrust others, an ‘every man for himself’ mentality and narrowed horizons.

How leaders can develop emotional intelligence

How leaders can develop emotional intelligence

Some people have more natural emotional intelligence than others, but it’s a skill that can be developed. Here are some steps you can take.

  • Know what’s important to you. This means re-evaluating the values and principles which matter to you personally, as well as those which drive your business.

  • Be open to admitting mistakes and face consequences. Avoid blaming others, and be prepared to show how you and your actions are affected by being accountable.

  • Practice being calm and rational when feelings like anger, disappointment or frustration threaten to overwhelm you. Standing back, taking time out and breathing techniques can all help.

  • Be aware of your voice and your body language when dealing with others.

  • Be prepared to earn respect and wait for your team to get to know you and trust you.

  • Work on your own motivation. Revisit what drives you and set new goals on a regular basis.

  • Practice optimism. Try to see the positive in any situation and involve others in that process.

How to lead with emotional intelligence

How to lead with emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence isn’t just something you develop. It needs to be applied in the real world. Here are some practical ways leaders can use their EI.

Connect with people on a personal level

Take time to learn about your team members individually and try to understand their diverse experiences. That way, you can factor what matters to them into your interactions, and allow for the way they react to situations and emotions. It’s also important to show you care about them individually. Small gestures, remembering birthdays or work anniversaries, or checking in on a home situation you know they’re facing, go a long way.

But personal connection is a two-way street. You too need to be prepared to open up about yourself and be ready to be vulnerable if it helps improve understanding.

Be generous with praise

Leaders and managers shouldn’t just give praise around results. You also need to acknowledge – publicly, if that’s appropriate – where someone has made significant progress, has been even a small part of something successful, and wherever you notice an improvement.

Listen, and keep listening

You may need to take time before you really hear what one of your employees is trying to tell you. Effective listening also means withholding judgment, creating a safe space for sharing ideas and concerns. As part of developing your communication skills, ask for feedback and be willing to act on it to show that you’ve listened.

Give everyone a voice

Make sure everyone has an opportunity to contribute, and that they feel heard. It may take longer for some people than others to feel confident enough to contribute, so be patient.

Communicate with empathy

Empathy is key to ensure organizational diversity. Put yourself in the place of others wherever you can. Before you communicate, think about how people will receive your messages.

Handle conflict carefully

Rather than using standard responses, learn about conflict resolution approaches for different situations or individuals and be willing to alter the way you respond.

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