The importance of emotional intelligence in leadership and bringing out the best in teams

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Emotional Intelligence: Why leaders need it

When you think of effective leaders you’ve worked with during your career, what specific traits come to mind? Someone level-headed, tactful, approachable, passionate, driven, positive, graceful under pressure, a good listener, excellent communicator and empathetic towards the plight of other team members, perhaps?

These kinds of attributes are all examples of a leader with something known as emotional intelligence (EI).

Inkling insight: Leaders high in emotional capital create value and influence through their capacity to identify with the emotional experience and aspirations of their people, and build shared identities with them. Accordingly, they are able to establish trust, understand people’s need to belong to a group and therefore establish effective teams (RocheMartin).

Research shows the importance of emotional intelligence in leadership for leaders to build meaningful relationships, increase job satisfaction and enhance the performance of their teams.

In this article, we’ll explain what emotional intelligence means, why it is important and delve into the key capabilities leaders can work on to improve their emotional intelligence.

What does emotional intelligence mean?

A term originally coined by psychologists John Mayer and Peter Salovey in 1990, emotional intelligence is the ability to recognise how they are feeling, what that emotion means and how it can affect other people.

Emotional intelligence (EQ or emotional intelligence quotient) in the context of leaders in the workplace is defined as a leader’s ability to understand and manage their emotions, as well as acknowledge and influence the emotions of their team both individually and collectively.

Psychologist Daniel Goleman breaks down emotional intelligence skills into five areas that the most successful leaders will be competent in:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self-regulation
  3. Motivation
  4. Empathy
  5. Social skills

Leaders with strong capabilities in these areas (and more) are going to be better at their jobs than leaders lacking in any of these facets.

Why is emotional intelligence in leadership important?

Developing leaders with the competencies to motivate and inspire requires a greater focus on emotional intelligence (EQ), self-awareness, and empowerment than on technical skills. Over 15 years of research into emotional intelligence in leadership tells us not only how to distinguish those who will grow from setbacks from those who will likely collapse, but also how to build the skills of those who will go on to become even more emotionally resilient.

Some of the reasons why emotional intelligence in leadership is important for organisations:

  • EQ is connected to outstanding leadership and success
  • EQ is linked with greater job satisfaction for both leaders and their teams
  • EQ is strongly correlated with job performance

A study by Çekmecelioğlu et al. showed a significant positive relationship between emotional intelligence and satisfaction at work, where employees with higher emotional intelligence were more likely to have higher job satisfaction.

Lee’s research showed training in emotional intelligence abilities increases job satisfaction and decreases rates of burnout.

Hosseinian et al.’s study found that emotional intelligence training boosted employees’ productivity and led to better evaluations by management.

The results of Pekaar and colleagues’ research revealed that emotional intelligence is significantly correlated to job performance, especially the ability to understand and manage your own and others’ emotions.

Inkling insight: We know that having great leaders at every level of the business is the key to attracting and, most importantly, retaining talent.

A survey by CareerBuilder shows just how crucial emotional intelligence is for landing a job and for career progression. Of the 2600 hiring managers surveyed, 71% said they valued emotional intelligence over IQ and 75% said they were more likely to promote an employee with high emotional intelligence.

The great news is that we know one’s emotional intelligence isn’t fixed and can be developed by leaders through training, effort and practice.

A study featured in the Journal of Applied Psychology showed that participants who trained in key emotional competencies displayed lasting improvements in emotional intelligence including improvements in physical and mental well-being, better social relationships and were less stressed.

If you want to improve your emotional intelligence, become a more well-rounded leader and enjoy the numerous benefits above, here are some places to start, broken down across these different facets of emotional intelligence.

Further reading: Why empathy is important in the workplace

Capabilities of leaders with high emotional intelligence include self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, soft skills and adaptability

1. Self-awareness

Being self-aware as a leader is a crucial part of leadership development. Self-aware leaders know how their emotions and actions affect the team, have a great handle on their emotional state, and understand and work on their strengths and weaknesses.

When leaders lack emotional intelligence:

  • Not good at recognising own emotions
  • Difficulty putting feelings into words
  • Surprised by own emotional reactions

When leaders have high levels of emotional intelligence:

  • In touch with and aware of own emotions
  • Able to link feelings to appropriate causes
  • Understands impact of behaviour on others

Research by psychologist Tasha Eurich found that 95% of people think they’re self-aware but only 10-to-15% actually are. Her findings show that working with coworkers who lack self-awareness cuts a team’s success in half, causes increased stress, a decline in motivation and increased turnover.

 Inkling insight: Building this starts with accepting responsibility for yourself and your leadership role. You must decide to believe in the value of who you are and accept the responsibility of leadership. You begin to develop your emotional capital as you recognise that you are a completely self-directed individual and have the power to take responsibility to act accordingly.

Tips for leaders to develop self-awareness:

  • Try keeping a journal
  • Take a breath when you experience anger or frustration and examine why. Remind yourself all emotions are temporary and avoid making a rash decision or reaction when you’re experiencing intense emotion
  • Understand what kinds of situations trigger certain emotional reactions to learn about your emotional strengths and weaknesses and what needs improving

2. Self-regulation

Self-regulation refers to a leader’s awareness and ability to manage and control their positive and negative emotions. Leaders need to remain flexible, keep a positive outlook and direct their behaviour even in the face of stress or adversity. Beneficially leaders capable of self-regulation are less likely to make rushed reactive decisions, have emotional outbursts, verbally attack others, respond negatively to feedback or compromise their values.

When low:

  • Gets emotional in stressful situations
  • Finds it difficult to control anxiety
  • Often impulsive and unpredictable

When high:

  • Can withstand daily pressure
  • Stays composed in stressful situations
  • Not impulsive; tolerance for frustration

The ability to express emotions appropriately and tactfully also means leaders skilled at self-regulation can manage and resolve conflicts and are capable of diffusing tense situations.

Tips for leaders to develop self-regulation:

  • Be clear on your values and what’s important to you
  • Take accountability for your actions, mistakes included
  • Find techniques that work for you to help ease workplace stress and keep a cool head (e.g. breathing exercises, meditation, stretches, physical exercise and hobbies outside work)
  • Take time to think before you react or make important decisions by considering several different solutions and courses of action

3. Motivation

Leaders with high emotional intelligence are conscientious, driven and self-motivated, work consistently towards their goals, are skilled at motivating their team and often have very high standards for their outputs. They are passionate, take pride in their work and get great satisfaction in a job well done, and don’t rely on extrinsic rewards for motivation.

When low:

  • Does not pursue enjoyable activities
  • Shrinks from setting challenging goals
  • Lacks clear purpose and direction

When high:

  • Enjoys setting and achieving challenging goals
  • Passionate and excited about own interests
  • Values a meaningful and balanced lifestyle

Inkling insight: Emotionally intelligent leaders maintain an enthusiastic commitment to long-term goals. They have achieved a level of work/life balance and derive satisfaction from their accomplishments. They enjoy setting challenging personal and professional goals.

Tips for leaders to develop motivation:

  • Re-evaluate your job, what you enjoy about it and set your goals
  • Try to adopt a more positive mindset and attitude. Even in bad situations look for a lesson to learn and the silver linings

4. Empathy

The most successful leaders generally have a knack for putting themselves in others’ shoes, considering their colleagues’ perspectives and leading with empathy. Empathetic leaders help to advance the career of their direct reports (perhaps through mentorship or sponsorship), provide feedback and criticism without chastising or crushing an individual, and feedback is a two-way street where they regularly request it from the team regarding their performance.

When low:

  • Has difficulty understanding others’ feelings
  • Difficult to connect to others at a personal level
  • Does not consider others’ feelings

When high:

  • Good at understanding others’ feelings
  • Described by others as ‘good listener’
  • Sensitive to feelings of others

Leaders that genuinely care about their team members earn their support, trust and respect over time which helps to motivate them to perform to a high degree and go above and beyond the bare minimum.

Tips for leaders to develop empathy:

  • Actively work on considering things from the other person’s perspective and then respond to their request or feedback with this in mind
  • Think about your body language when you listen to someone, keeping it open and positive
  • Respond to feelings and concerns with compassion and offer a solution or be willing to negotiate a compromise

5. Social skills

The most emotionally intelligent leaders have impeccable communication and social awareness. This is beneficial when it comes to creating positive company culture, getting the team excited about a new project, helping the company navigate through change and challenges, and for fair conflict resolution.

When low:

  • Difficulties engaging well with others
  • Seen by others as aloof or impersonal
  • Not interested in relationships

When high:

  • Enjoys others’ company and making new friends
  • Gets on well with colleagues
  • Likes helping people achieve what they want

As such great and approachable communicators, employees feel comfortable delivering both good and bad news that requires a socially competent leader’s attention.

Tips for leaders to develop social skills:

  • Undertake conflict resolution training
  • Sharpen your communication skills
  • Practice active listening
  • Hone your ability to influence and persuade others
  • Pay attention to non-verbal communication and body language

6. Adaptability

Emotionally intelligent leaders can adapt their thinking, feelings and actions in response to changing circumstances. Adaptable leaders bring out the best in their team, are tolerant of others and receptive to new ideas and consider different points of view. They are champions of change.

When low:

  • Prefers a predictable daily routine
  • Finds it difficult to change an opinion
  • Likes to stick with the tested and true

When high:

  • Adapts to changing conditions; goes with the flow
  • Open to new opinions; change of behaviours
  • Enjoys the challenge of adjusting to new situations

Tips for leaders to develop adaptability:

  • Continually find ways to step outside your comfort zone and take risks – this could be on a team-building day, public speaking or taking a course
  • Actively seek out learning experiences – learn a new skill from a colleague, attend industry-relevant seminars, read widely, listen to podcasts etc.
  • Drop the ‘well that’s how it’s always been done’ mentality and look for creative solutions to improve efficiency and existing processes
  • Encourage team members to be open-minded and take the above actions too

Further reading: The benefits of autonomous leadership

How to improve your emotional intelligence: where to next?

Every business challenge has an emotional component, and good leadership involves individuals that are able to read and understand emotional elements to influence others and drive results. Our leadership development experiences focus on building stronger relationship management and emotional skills to make you a better leader by becoming more self-aware, gaining clarity of your purpose, being better able to adopt agile ways of working, building innovation capabilities, and gaining the confidence to navigate and embrace change.

Further reading: Skills that make a great leader in the workplace

At Inkling, we partner with you to build learning experiences that drive mindset and behaviour change. We measure and benchmark emotional intelligence so you can see the direct impacts of our work together and know you’re making progress towards developing emotional intelligence in leadership and throughout your team.

Get in touch today to learn how our high-impact, flexible and evidence-based leadership development programs and learning experiences drive human-centred, adaptive, and inspiring leadership.

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