Emotional Intelligence Leadership: Cultivating and Leveraging Empathy in Management


team working together on a project

Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Peter Salovey, Yale University's 23rd president, and John Mayer, a pscychology professor at the University of New Hampshire, described their theory of Emotional Intelligence in 1990. Since then, the concept has gained ground in both the world of interpersonal relationships and the business sphere—which really go hand in hand.
Emotional intelligence is important for all people, and leaders are no different. It affects the way you feel personally, how you interact with others, how you make decisions, and how others perceive you.
So what exactly is emotional intelligence? How does it affect your ability to lead and work with others? And can it be improved?
What is emotional intelligence?
People who are emotionally intelligent possess acute self-awareness; they are cogniscent of their own feelings and the emotions of others. They are able to leverage these emotions for tasks and skills. They are also adept at managing their own feelings and those of other people.
Essentially, emotional intelligence is the awareness of your own feelings and controlling them to improve your own competencies and relationships with others. In other words, it is an incredibly important skill to have, no matter where you are in your career, what your job is, and where you want to go.
Why is EI essential for effective leadership?
Have you ever wished your boss would have more empathy or social awareness? Well, chances are, your boss has a low EI quotient. Some employees complain that their managers have low self-awareness, empathy for the people who work for them, and ability to recognize what their employees want and need.
However, leaders who have high emotional intelligence work well with others. They have the ability to understand when something is bothering a member of their team—even when it's not work-related. Their high degree of empathy allows them to, well, empathize with others. They aren't quick to jump to anger when you make a mistake or are having an off day. Because they possess social awareness, they have the skills to pause and recognize that some behavior doesn't reflect the whole person or her abilities.
But having a high EI quotient goes beyond having excellent social skills and empathizing with employees. A leader who is emotionally intelligent is often one of the most effective leaders, because she accepts her own shortcomings and welcomes feedback from others, including her team. If you've ever wished that you could tell your manager her weaknesses, know that an emotionally intelligent leader might be amenable to that constructive criticism—the key word being "constructive," of course. That doesn't mean you should lay into her about every fault, but it does mean she might be more willing to accept feedback and incorporate it into her leadership style.
Another valuable skill emotionally intelligent leaders possess is the ability to communicate well. That means they will really listen to their employees and appreciate their ideas, as well as articulate their own expectations. They won't judge or ridicule you for an idea that isn't feasible or doesn't pan out; instead, they will welcome suggestions.
Along with receiving feedback well, these managers will also dole it out. They'll help you cultivate your own strengths and use them for success. And they won't give you feedback that is all criticism; they'll let you know the positive along with areas on which you can improve.
Can you improve Emotional Intelligence?
Whether you want to improve your relationships with employees and family members or are hoping to keep your own emotions in check, fear not. There are some steps you can take to improve.
According to Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, an organizational psychologist, your level of EQ is "firm but not rigid." While it does tend to increase with age, making a real change requires dedication and guidance from others. In the Harvard Business Review, he notes that EQ coaching, which involves working on interpersonal skills such as negotiation and social skills, can yield many benefits. Feedback from others plays a strong role as well. The most important part, Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic notes, is that people have to want to change. People who fear failure and are overly sensitive to criticism need to change their outlook in order to see improvement in their emotional intelligence.
Sara Canaday, a leadership speaker and author, suggests focusing on a couple areas you really want to improve. For instance, if you're quick to anger, you might find outlets to control it, such as mindfulness exercises or yoga. She also suggests seeking feedback from others to better understand how you come across.
Meanwhile, Robin Stern, associate director for the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, suggests taking the time to respond to a trigger. This can allow you to better manage your response, rather than jumping to hurt or anger immediately. She also advises eliminating any negative self-talk. Talking to yourself in a positive way can have a strong impact on your overall mental health.
Improving your own emotional intelligence requires motivation and dedication, but it can be done. The most important aspect is wanting to change. So if you do, you're already on the path to improvement.