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How emotional intelligence makes you a better leader (and how to improve yours)

Emotional intelligence is not just 'nice to have' in a leader — it's the crux of effective leadership.

It’s no secret that society (and business) often values intelligence above all things. There’s nothing wrong with valuing intelligence: the ability to learn, understand and apply knowledge.

The only issue? We usually focus on just one kind of intelligence. 

Instead, we need to recognize that intelligence is much more nuanced and represents more than a high grade point average or scoring in the highest percentile of a standardized test. 

Think of people you have known over the years. Some could be amazing students and ace any trivia night yet struggle in forming connections with others. 

The TV show The Big Bang Theory based its whole premise on the concept of book smart geniuses, especially Sheldon, needing the help of their neighbor, Penny, to guide them with social situations. 

The best leaders have both – intelligence in the traditional sense and emotional intelligence as well.

Table of contents

What is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence, the ability to recognize emotions in yourself and others, and act on them appropriately, has garnered a lot of attention in recent years. 

Coined by Salovey and Mayer in 1990 and then popularized by psychologist Dr. Daniel Goleman in his 1995 book, emotional intelligence encompasses both personal competencies (Self-awareness, Self-regulation, Motivation), as well as how we handle relationships with others (Empathy and Social Skills). 

Just as motor oil and continued maintenance are essential for a car engine to run properly, these skills are key ingredients that facilitate stronger relationships (both personal and professional) and ensure they have the ability to run for the long haul. 

When you actively take the time to consider the impact of your behavior on others and try to understand the perspective of the other person, it will guide your every interaction. You will not just see things as us and them or black and white; instead, you will begin to recognize the complexities in all of our interactions and strive to see a bigger picture than surface differences. 

The Connection Between Emotional Intelligence and Success

Various studies over the past 25 years have shown a correlation between emotional intelligence and success. A research team at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations explored “What Predicts Executive Success?” as part of a study for the organizational consulting firm Green Peak Partners and concluded that harsh Machiavellian leadership tactics hurt the bottom line, while self-aware and socially skilled leaders delivered better results. 

It makes sense when you think about it from an employee perspective. Would you rather give your all to a person who cares about both your performance and you as a person, or someone who sees you merely as a disposable cog in a corporate machine? 

Why we want to cultivate Emotional Intelligence – 5 ways it will make you a better leader

1. You’ll be even more motivated

Goleman describes motivation as one of the five main pillars of emotional intelligence and defines it as “a passion for work that goes beyond money and status.” 

As a leader, motivation is hugely important for sustaining your energy and focus, even when the chips are down. It’s not surprising that F4S research shows successful mature-stage entrepreneurs are 11 percent more driven to achieve, in comparison to those who experienced business failure. 

Leaders with emotional intelligence demonstrate resilience and understand that every great undertaking will have ups and downs. 

Whether entrepreneurs or leaders of a Fortune 500 company, they are believers in the long game. They have impulse control and the ability to delay gratification, which will not allow them to get as easily distracted by shiny objects as their peers with less emotional intelligence. They remember why they are working so hard and focus on their end goal, even if that does not reap rewards right away. 

Think of Warren Buffet’s advice about stocks. Mr. Buffet says, “our favorite holding period is forever” and "if you are not willing to own a stock for 10 years, do not even think about owning it for 10 minutes."

When it comes to increasing motivation, we have to agree with Goleman. While money and status are definitely markers of success, they ultimately shouldn’t be your primary driving force because they can be fleeting. 

Instead, think about how your product or service is going to change the world. Your passion and belief in what you are doing will drive you to put in the extra hours needed to take your company and lead your team to the next level. 

Review your F4S profile and see what motivates you.

2. You’ll communicate better

Empathetic competencies, such as understanding and developing others, may seem obvious, but can be quickly forgotten in the tumult of everyday work life. 

Sure, it takes effort to go above and beyond and consider the perspectives of others, but a team that feels understood, utilized and uplifted is going to drive your business towards far greater things.

One of the best ways to increase empathy is affective communication – using non-verbal cues, like gestures and even smiles. This lets your team know what you want and makes them feel listened to as well. Successful entrepreneurs are 21 percent more likely to rely on affective communication methods. Even more reason to smile.

Dr. Goleman published What Makes a Leader in the Harvard Review and discusses how leaders with empathy improve companies in important ways since empathy opens communication channels by tearing down walls. 

When leaders create a safe environment, team members are freed to move beyond politics and jockeying for position. Instead, they can devote all that energy to the mission at hand and that’s when breakthroughs can occur. 

The Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations outlines studies which show that teams with greater empathy have more sales, stronger collaboration and higher levels of productivity.

3. You’ll be truly connected with your team

Social skills are the bedrock of emotional intelligence, yet being friends with teammates might not be at the top of your priorities, especially when you’re so busy calling the shots. But hold that thought. Research shows that a lack of energy for bonding, belonging and building personal relationships at work (also known as ‘affiliation’) can seriously impact your opportunity for success.

For an example of business doing it right, just look to Salesforce, number one in the 2017 Companies That Care list. At the core of their approach is the concept of “Ohaha” (family), bringing teams together with breakfasts, networking events and volunteering activities.

Busy? Sure, everyone is. But at the same time, it will do you and your business a lot of good to join in team lunches, organize outings and even take five minutes out of your morning to chat about the latest Netflix series. (And, most importantly, care about your employees as people first!)

4. You’ll find a balance when it comes to assertiveness

There are so many scenarios thrown at us throughout the day that it can be difficult to control our emotions – and how they are displayed. 

That’s where self-regulation comes in. People with high emotional intelligence are able to manage impulses, reflect on their situation and adapt their social responses to different crowds. They are not a pushover, yet they have the confidence to know that they don't have to throw their power around – they have more important things to do like consider the ramifications of their actions and how these fit into their company’s strategy.

In F4S research, a high motivation for assertiveness in entrepreneurs and leaders is a good thing – but it must be balanced with sensitivity and listening. Barking orders doesn’t get you far!

Leaders with high emotional intelligence take Stan Lee’s lesson for Peter Parker to heart – “With great power comes great responsibility." 

Beyond the realm of superheroes, that means those with emotional intelligence understand that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. 

  • A powerful CEO has influence over all of his or her employees and can make sweeping policy changes that can impact their lives for better or worse. 
  • Leaders with emotional intelligence recognize the potential impact of their actions on others and proceed with caution. 
  • They see strategy and deliberation as key to guiding the company forward with purpose and consider various scenarios that are not based on a whim. 
  • They heed the advice of experts and rely on more than a gut feeling. 

5. You’ll become more self-aware

Leaders who demonstrate self-awareness, a primary pillar of emotional intelligence, cultivate a positive environment that encourages motivation and extra effort. 

A study conducted by Korn Ferry Hay Group research concluded that of the leaders showing a high level of emotional self-awareness, 92% had teams with high energy and high performance

Dr. Goleman states that, “Leaders who are self-aware can recognize when their emotions have a negative impact on their work, or on the people around them….They are then better equipped to address it in an effective way, such as through creating opportunities for feedback, experimenting with different ways to motivate their team, or being more open to creative solutions.”

Keep in mind that self-awareness is not something that is all or nothing – it can be developed over time and the desire for self-awareness is a key step. 

Using the findings from our world-first 20-year study, the F4S platform shines a light on your strengths and blind spots, so you can get more out of yourself and your team. It’s this self-awareness that can help you reach new heights in your ventures.

Strategies to Boost Your Emotional Intelligence

What does this mean if emotional intelligence does come naturally to you? First, don’t fret. Like so many things in life, it’s a skill that can be developed over time. Here are a few things you can do now:

  • Recognize that developing your emotional intelligence will help you both professionally and personally. You are not as likely to make the effort to try something new unless you can understand why it would enrich your life.
  • Keep a journal for a week. Become more in touch with your own feelings regarding social and work situations. Think about what motivated you through various situations. Make note of times when you regulated your feelings (talking yourself through a hard situation, thinking before speaking), when you demonstrated patience with others, when you were adaptable, and when you felt good or bad about yourself. What factors surrounded those feelings? Would you handle any situations differently? 
  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes the next time you find yourself in the midst of a conflict or adversarial situation. Practice empathy and envision how this other person is perceiving a situation. Consider there may be circumstances in their life that impact the way they see a situation and it may have nothing to do with you. When appropriate, ask questions. Sometimes people will tell us why they are behaving a certain way if we just ask and actually listen to their answer.
  • Read fiction. Immersing yourself in a character’s world is a great way to practice empathy and help you see the world through the eyes of another. You may have nothing in common on the surface and your views may differ, but being open to seeing the perspective of another can help you when faced with diverging viewpoints on your teams.
  • Avoid knee-jerk reactions. When confronted with distressing news or situations, see if you can take a day or at least an evening to reevaluate the situation and play various scenarios in your head. We often react in an emotional manner when we are stressed or upset. Give yourself time to process what happened, get additional information if possible, imagine different scenarios of how you could react and what would come next, envision best and worst outcomes, consider a few solutions, and get some sleep. Let all these ideas percolate and see emerges as the best course of action. 
  • Make a list of people in your life who are resilient. We all know people who don’t sweat the small stuff and seem to always remember what matters most. Ask them how they stay centered and what are tricks they have learned through the years to stay steady through life’s storms.
  • Write down 5 things you are good at and 5 things you accomplished (personal or professional) that you didn’t think you could. Having a healthy sense of self and a mix of humility and self-confidence will allow your emotional intelligence to grow. When you feel confident in yourself, you look at the world differently. The world can shake us to our core from time to time (especially during crises like a global pandemic and recession). It’s helpful to remember times when we overcame obstacles and thrived in spite of the circumstances. This exercise will remind you of the value you bring to others and hopefully encourage you to consider ways you can contribute to the world.

Ways to incorporate emotional intelligence into your company’s culture

A hallmark of leaders with emotional intelligence is the commitment to letting their team shine.

Great leaders:

  • Are confident in themselves and know that having people thrive in their midst is the way for innovation to flourish.
  • Don’t get caught up in paranoia or manufacture competitions among their staff.
  • Reject Machiavellian leadership advice and see the futility of running a company or team by fear. 

Instead, emotionally intelligent leaders surround themselves with great people and provide them the resources, support and autonomy to succeed. They understand that no matter the title, we can all learn from each other and the best ideas can come from people and places that surprise you if you have an open mind and you truly listen.

When building teams, be sure to instill an expectation of mutual respect where each team member feels valued and where differences are seen as opportunities to enrich each other. When teams are receptive to ideas and challenge each other in a positive way, that’s when you open the door for next level solutions and collaboration. 

This is especially important with so many companies navigating uncharted waters of going partially or fully remote.

Improve your emotional intelligence with free personalized coaching from the world's first AI-powered coach! Get started now.

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This article was co-written by Tiffany Franklin and Rachel O'Regan.

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Increase EQ

Explore, develop or strengthen your emotional intelligence (EQ). Awareness of your and others’ emotions is at the heart of influencing, ‘reading people’, impactful communication, deep relating and authentic connection at work and in life.

5 - 15 minutes
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