why emotional intelligence is important

Why emotional intelligence is important for leaders

Reading time: about 6 min


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In our increasingly uncertain, changing world, applying emotional intelligence to life situations gives us certainty. Emotional intelligence is key to developing resiliency and it allows people to adapt to setbacks, break from tired old thinking, find renewed purpose, or move forward on a bold course of action with confidence. 

More importantly, the presence of emotional intelligence is often what inspires employees to rally around and trust their leaders. Practicing emotional intelligence acts like a beacon to others, letting them know who will look out for them and their best interests and who will make their personal well-being and livelihood a priority.

For better or worse, emotions are contagious. When people reflect on how much they enjoyed (or despised) a job, they often interpret their experience not through the lens of what the actual work entailed on a daily basis or by a laundry list of perks, but by whether or not they enjoyed working with their manager.

This is where emotional intelligence can make or break the work dynamic. Or entire companies.

Before you can really begin to appreciate why emotional intelligence is important in the workplace, it helps to first understand what emotional intelligence is and what can be done to develop it.

Let’s get started.

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence (sometimes called EI or EQ) can be described as your ability to identify, express, and manage your emotional reactions. It also involves your capacity to perceive, evaluate, and respond to emotions conveyed by others.

Another way of looking at emotional intelligence is “street smarts.” Having a knack for reading people and understanding their needs is an ideal complement to a high IQ or “book smarts.” On its own, not even the best college education is a guarantee of success. 

It’s why some people thrive and go on to become effective leaders, motivational speakers, and business owners with only a high school diploma and why others flounder even with an MBA.

While there are those who seem born with the gift of emotional intelligence, with enough time and dedication, anyone can refine or further develop their emotional intelligence. It starts by breaking down the different components that contribute to emotional intelligence.

The components of emotional intelligence

According to the model proposed by the internationally renowned psychologist Daniel Goleman first published in 1995, emotional intelligence is comprised of the following five abilities:

  1. Know your emotions
  2. Manage your emotions
  3. Motivate yourself
  4. Recognize and understand other people’s emotions
  5. Manage relationships (i.e., other people’s emotions)

There are also four quadrants detailing the internal and external areas of emotional intelligence:

  • Self-awareness: An aspect of personal competence, self-awareness is a recognition of how your actions influence others and how their actions also affect your emotional state.
  • Self-management: Another aspect of personal competence, self-management is about keeping control of your emotions, adapting to change, and persevering despite setbacks.
  • Social awareness: An aspect of social competence, social awareness is about being an active and involved listener, showing empathy for others, and noticing changes in moods.
  • Relationship management: Another aspect of social competence, this is your ability to express yourself, get along with people and manage their feelings in a sensitive manner. 

Taken together, emotional intelligence is the constant balance between the internal and external factors that impact our lives. Once you get beyond the basic understanding of the strengths and limitations of your own emotional intelligence, you’ll have a firm foundation for improving on it.

The 4 quadrants of emotional intelligence
The 4 quadrants of emotional intelligence

How to improve emotional intelligence

Improving your emotional intelligence is not a quick fix, but rather, a journey that involves a great deal of honesty and personal reflection. This is especially the case when it comes to examining where you might fall short.

With greater emotional intelligence, you’ll begin to stand apart from those with otherwise similar backgrounds, education, and experience. For executive positions, possessing a keen grasp of emotional intelligence can make a world of difference in your ability to motivate your team and build a strong foundation of trust across your company. 

As a leader, consider these emotional intelligence tips for improvement:

  • Seek honest, constructive feedback from your employees as well as your peers.
  • Talk to your employees in an assertive way, earning respect while being respectful in return.
  • Communicate with more than just words: use body language, gestures, and tone.
  • Track the times when you feel overwhelmed by emotions or easily become upset.
  • Motivate yourself and others by setting goals and facing challenges, big or small.
  • Read stories about people in different circumstances to increase your empathy.
  • Host virtual meetings via Zoom to keep team members from feeling too isolated.
  • Model appropriate EI-behavior and establish norms for how the team interacts.
  • Start recognizing and appreciating those who exhibit emotional intelligence.

In stressful situations, always favor response over reaction. Attitude means everything. Don’t let negativity cloud your actions and behavior. By conveying a positive attitude, you become more approachable. This alone will go far in promoting an environment of transparency and respect. 

Getting everyone focused on a common goal of improving their collective emotional intelligence will enhance how your team communicates and resolves internal conflicts. Additionally, it gives team members the tools necessary to become more productive and proactive, regardless of the work discipline.

Given how introspective it can be to take stock of your emotional intelligence, where is the light at the end of the tunnel? What will it take to achieve real transformation? 

How will I know if I’m making progress?

Depending on your current level of emotional intelligence and self-awareness, it can take time to find your flow. The good news is, not everything needs to be fixed. Start by building on your strengths.

It’s easier to track your progress in a skill where you exhibit some competency, but where room for improvement remains. So, if you’re already great at communicating with team members, challenge yourself to interact with employees or peers in other departments for a comparison.

Seeing gradual progress in these areas will give you the confidence to tackle bigger challenges.

Of course, pushing yourself to confront the areas of weakness in your emotional intelligence will be the most revealing. If addressing confrontation or asserting authority in times of crisis is an issue, become laser focused on how you manage your emotional response in those situations.

For a gut check on the progress you’re making to improve your personal emotional intelligence, solicit the honest, unfiltered opinions of direct reports, colleagues, and supervisors at work. This can be accomplished easily and anonymously by using an online 360-degree assessment tool.

The feedback gathered through a 360-degree assessment often includes a self-evaluation, too.

The most immediate and fulfilling confirmation that your emotional intelligence is increasing will manifest itself in the growing ease (and productivity) of the day-to-day communications between you and your team. In this new normal, where working remotely is more the rule than the exception, it’s those who lead through emotional intelligence that will thrive.

Join Agile experts Emilia Breton and Simon Macpherson to develop strategies to utilize emotional intelligence in your Agile framework.

Watch the webinar!

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