The Emotional Side of Leadership: Why You Need to Care About Emotional Intelligence & What to do About It
Recently, I listened to a seasoned Command Sergeant Major, who was new to his senior enlisted leader billet, lecture a room of Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs; predominantly Sergeant First Classes with 11-17 years in the Army) on his leadership philosophy. His #1 point: emotional intelligence is paramount. While I could not agree more, I could tell the impact of his words were a bit lost on the audience because many NCOs in the room did not know what he meant by “emotional intelligence.” I think numerous formal and informal leaders can relate; this is a complex and often confusing concept. It’s important we clarify emotional intelligence for leaders. It drastically amplifies our leadership impact on our people.
What is “Emotional Intelligence” and Why Do I Need to Care About It?
Emotional intelligence (also referred to EQ – emotional quotient) has two sides to consider. First, it is our capacity to be aware of, control, and express our own emotions appropriately. Second, it our ability to handle relationships with others well; this involves those “squishy” topics like empathy.
Simply, EQ is what enables us to best leverage or control our emotions in our thinking, decision-making, and how we interact with others as leaders. We can probably look at our past experiences as leaders and recall a particular moment when we should have better regulated our emotions and, conversely, times when injecting a bit of our emotion into a situation positively contributed to the outcome or impact.
Developed EQ enables us to do a number of things better as leaders:
- Balance emotion vs. reason and logic. We know when and how to integrate emotion into our daily activities or not, especially our decision-making.
- Live out the saying “no one knows how much you know until they know how much you care” more clearly and effectively. We can better attend to others’ mental and emotional needs in all interactions.
- Be present and invest in the moment with others.
- Be more authentic in our leadership and influence style.
- Create environments of high psychological safety and engagement across our team.
Ultimately, I find myself often sharing with mentees that despite accomplishing all of the schools, jobs, experiences, and certifications that I have wanted to up this point in my career, none of that “stuff” is what has earned me the opportunity and privilege to impact others’ lives through leadership. I’ve found my #1 leader influence in the last decade has been EQ-related skills: love, empathy, listening, compassion, caring, and so on.
So, How Can I Better Understand EQ?
With a deeper appreciation for why EQ is important as leaders, it’s important to have a detailed understanding of what it is. Considering all of the research done on EQ, it can generally be broken down into four core competencies, shown below.
The model’s competencies are segregated into two main dimensions. The columns consider self: looking introspectively at ourselves, and others: looking externally towards other people. The other dimension is represented in the model’s rows. The top row addresses an awareness of emotions; are we able to accurately recognize, be aware of, and consider emotions in ourselves and others. The bottom row is regulation, which considers our ability to properly respond to those emotions. Based on these two dimensions, you can see what the four competencies mean:
- Self-Awareness: The ability to accurately recognize and understand your thoughts, emotions, and needs, as well as their impact on others. This includes knowing our inherent perceptions and biases that we bring to the table every day.
- Self-Management: Self-control skills; being able to put your self-awareness into action. It is our ability to control and manage our own emotions, moods, and impulses in a particular moment or situation. This is not about completely removing emotions, but knowing how to properly employ our feelings as needed. While some situations of decision-making may require a suppression of emotion with a high reliance on logic, other times may call for us to more deliberately rely on our “gut feelings.”
- Social Awareness: The ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people. It is using empathy in treating others according to their emotional reactions and their needs.
- Relationship Management: Putting your social awareness into action to handle relationships well. It’s our proficiency in working well with others, building networks, being able to find common ground and build rapport with others.
As we can see in the model above, the arrows represent how these competencies influence one another. We use our own self-awareness to better understand others and to better regulate our behaviors. It all leads to being able to best manage and employ our relationships with others on our team.
But if you’re still asking why I need to care about this EQ stuff, I point you to the expanded model below. While there is a science to things like team effectiveness, to motivating others, leader development, and organizational change (like Kotter’s 8 steps), I argue that EQ helps inform and equip us for the art of working with others and accomplishing those things. EQ enables us to navigate all of the murky, intangible, and soft issues tied to our and others’ performance on our team. EQ is a hard-to-grasp but critical aspect of leading and developing our people and our teams.
How Can I Develop EQ?
Just as important as understanding the value of EQ, leaders also need to know how to develop our skills across these four competencies. To conclude, I offer a list of ways that we can all practice our EQ skills, broken out across the four competencies introduced earlier.
- Know your “pet-peeves” and what pushes your buttons: Intentionally explore your inherent biases or perceptions – the things that subconsciously influence your thinking, decision-making, and mood.
- Reflect on your emotions through journaling: Outright express your emotions by capturing them on paper. It can be a great way to help process your feelings. You can do it weekly, daily, or even immediately following a particular impactful or triggering moment. Journaling your emotions over time can reveal trends as well, helping you to attend to the previous point.
- Deliberately explore your bad moods: Think through why you’re in a bad mood. This can help us not get caught up in our emotions and prevent a bad mood from impacting others on our team. I often use a talking partner – a close teammate that can help me check if I’m way off base with my emotions and find out why.
- Ask yourself why you do the things you do: We can all think back to awkward interactions we’ve had with others and ask “why did I do or say that?” Expand that thinking to more of our routine thinking, feelings, and behaviors to better diagnose why we do what we do.
- Achieve clarity and commitment to your values: Improved clarity on our values enables improved alignment to them in our daily behavior. We should all structure ways that we can routinely re-visit our values to reflect on them and honestly assess how well we are living them out.
- Seek feedback: There may be formal feedback loops in our teams for assessment, but I bet they leave plenty of room for more opportunities for feedback. We need to build our own feedback loops in our lives and seek it out from others up, down, and across our team.
- Make your goals and learning public: Sharing your goals and what you’re learning as a leader improves accountability towards those things. This is one reason why I choose to write this blog.
- Take a pause before you react or decide: If time and the situation allow, can you take a little more time before you commit to a decision or reaction? I like to sleep on things if possible.
- Talk to a mentor or coach that is skilled in self-management: Is there someone that role-models self-management for you? Consider spending more time observing and talking to them to better understand how they do it.
- Don’t be a victim of your circumstance: Focus on your freedoms and opportunities, not on your restrictions or limitations. Things like a SWOT analysis for decision-making help clarify this for us. I encourage you to continue to practice choosing an optimistic attitude.
- Talk to a third party: Is there someone in your life that can provide a less biased, less involved viewpoint on your issue? Talking to others that are not emotionally invested in the issue can improve clear, logical thinking.
- Structure “reset times” in your schedule: What enables you to recharge and reset? Can you structure that into your day to keep you grounded? For me, that is running; it enables me to process through unstructured thinking so everything in my head falls “back in place.”
- Learn and talk about empathy more: Empathy used to be my leadership weakness. Now, I assert it is one of my strengths. I believe I grew my capacity and skills by spending more time learning and talking about it. My wife is/was my empathy role-model, so I observed her and talked to her about it. I read more about it including Daring Greatly, by Brené Brown, which I believe had the biggest impact on me in that area.
- Make it personal: use names when you greet people, remember their names, know important personal things about them, and keep checking in on those things to show others that you care about them.
- Obsess over body language: Commit some personal mental investment in conversations with others by continuously assessing theirs and your body language. What message is it sending? If my body language, is it sending the message I intend?
- Maintain a reserve “check-in” question: I keep three go-to questions to address others’ feelings and issues without awkwardly asking them outright. I like to ask, “what’s on your mind?”, “what’s going really well right now; why?”, and “what is your biggest challenge now; why?”. These questions get others talking a lot and always addresses emotional impacts.
- Practice the art of listening more: Improving our listening never stops. As a leader, my questioning and listening are paramount. I encourage you to learn more about habit #5: seek first to understand, then to be understood from Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
- Go people-watching: these can be free case studies to practice paying attention to emotions and body language more.
- Check-in with your team: If running a meeting or giving a lecture, take pauses to assess the mood of the room. You can even ask questions to test for accuracy. When teaching, I pause and say, “ok, it seems we are feeling ____. Is this accurate? How are we doing?”
- Be open and curious: And do so in all instances, even when making corrections or holding others accountable.
- Create moments for others: Make your interactions with others as special as you can for them. Recall important information about them, their family, or ask about what they enjoy (hobbies, sports, etc.).
- Take feedback well: Just like empathy, mentioned earlier, learn about the art and science of taking feedback well and then practice it. You’ll improve your skills and also be a role-model for others to do so too.
- Actually use an “open-door” policy: Too many leaders preach open-door policies, but unintentionally create too many barriers to making it effective. Such things can include our lack of approachability, giving the perception we are too busy to others, or forcing people to go through too many checks before coming to talk to us. Is your open-door policy effective right now?
- Only get mad on purpose: We need to lose tunnel vision, remove our “blinders,” and not take things personally as leaders.
- Embrace the uncomfortable for others: Don’t avoid hard, uncomfortable conversations. When engaging in them, own the challenges for the other person or group. Even simple statements like, “I know this is hard to talk about,” can put others at ease because they know that you know this is hard.
- Explain your decisions: Knowing the why for others helps explain context for them; it provides clarity. You may want to consider explaining if/how your emotions or gut-feelings influenced decisions too.
- Give direct and constructive feedback: Fluff and “feedback sandwiches” (positive comment – constructive feedback – positive comment) make feedback less impactful and even confusing. Tie your comments to observed or tangible data points (“this is what I assess, and these are the things that lead me to think that”) to give context to the other party. And always form your feedback from a place of love; I often call feedback “truth in love.”
This article is far from everything that we can or need to learn about the complex topic of EQ. If you’re interested in learning more, I encourage you to check out some other recommended resources:
- Emotional Intelligence 2.0, by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves. A number of the above EQ development recommendations are inspired by this book.
- Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, by Daniel Goldman.
- How Emotional Intelligence Became a Key Leadership Skill, by Harvard Business Review.
- Emotional Intelligence Has 12 Elements. Which Do You Need to Work On?, by Harvard Business Review.
- 10 Ways to Increase Your Emotional Intelligence, by Inc.
- 13 Signs of High Emotional Intelligence, by Inc.
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