Leadership

How to Use Emotional Intelligence to Be an Effective Leader

By Sarah AlexanderDecember 3, 2015

IQ. Technical skills. These are often key components in annual performance reviews, as well as professional advancement. But are these the traits that result in highly effective leadership? Not necessarily.

On the contrary, research shows that one’s emotional quotient (EQ, also referred to as emotional intelligence) – not IQ – is a direct indicator of effective leadership. This term has become widely acknowledged since Psychology professors John D. Mayer and Peter Salovey coined it in 1990 and psychologist Daniel Goleman linked it to business leadership in 1995. In the Harvard Business Review, Goleman stated:

The most effective leaders are all alike in one crucial way: they all have a high degree of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence. It’s not that IQ and technical skills are irrelevant. They do matter, but…they are the entry-level requirements for executive positions. My research, along with other recent studies, clearly shows that emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership. Without it, a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great leader.

While the link between EQ and leadership has been debated, numerous studies over the past two decades have concurred with Goleman’s conclusion.

What is EQ?

According to the Institute for Health and Human Potential, EQ is defined as the ability to recognize, understand and manage our own emotions and influence the emotions of others. It is that intangible aspect that affects how we navigate social complexities and make decisions to achieve results.

Travis Bradberry, bestselling co-author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, describes EQ as being comprised of four core skills, which are often categorized under two umbrellas:

  1. Personal Competence refers to your ability to be aware of and manage your emotions and behavior. It focuses more on you individually than your interactions with others and is comprised of:
    Self-awareness – ability to predict, perceive, and be aware of your emotions
    Self-management – ability to leverage your self-awareness to positively channel your behavior
  2. Social Competence refers to your ability to understand people’s moods, behaviors, and motives in order to build relationships and effectively interact with others. It is comprised of:
    Social awareness – ability to pick up on others’ emotions and understand what is going on
    Relationship management – ability to use your social awareness and others’ emotions to successfully manage situations

It stands to reason that you can’t predict emotional intelligence based on how smart someone is. However, it might be tempting to think that because EQ is a flexible set of more qualitative skills, it is directly tied to personality. On the contrary, personality results from hard-wired preferences (e.g., introversion versus extroversion). EQ, on the other hand, can be developed, even if it doesn’t come naturally.

Why is it important?

Having a heightened degree of emotional intelligence can lead to a range of benefits. On a personal level, increased self-awareness can help you respond to day-to-day situations; self-management skills improve your ability to adapt to change; and heightened levels of social awareness and relationship management can lead to a healthier response from other parties when you are faced with a challenging situation.

High EQ also translates to optimal outcomes as a business leader when navigating challenging situations like contract negotiations and terminations, or even in positive cases like company celebrations. TalentSmart tested emotional intelligence alongside 33 other important workplace skills and found that EQ was the strongest predictor of performance, explaining 58% of success in all types of jobs. And according to another HBR, Measuring the Return on Character, there is a strong link between empathetic leaders and financial performance.

Why do so many leaders lack EQ?

If EQ can be taught, and it is receiving an increasing amount of attention, why do so many leaders lack it? Businesses still tend to take for granted that their leaders will be highly emotionally intelligent, and thus, effective. However, the skills needed to rise to the top are often at odds to the skills needed to excel in leadership.

According to Bradberry, “Companies promote leaders for their knowledge and tenure, rather than their skill in inspiring others to excel.” However, he notes, “Once leaders get promoted, they enter an environment that tends to erode their emotional intelligence. They spend less time in meaningful interactions with their staff and lose sight of how their emotional states impact those around them. It’s so easy to get out of touch that leaders’ EQ levels sink further.”

As the saying goes, it is lonely at the top, and it can therefore be easy to lose touch with the rest of one’s organization.

How to Improve Your EQ

How do you go beyond recognizing EQ as important and actually working on it? Emotional intelligence is not something that can be developed by sitting and reading instruction manuals. It requires mindful practice.

Here are 8 techniques to help take a step towards elevated EQ:

  1. Focus more on “we” and less on “me”
    Hugh Downs, TV commentator, aptly said, “To say my fate is not tied to your fate is like saying, ‘your end of the boat is sinking.’” Fight the urge to think only of yourself, and put other people’s needs ahead of yours. Making a conscious effort to be humble and engage your employees will empower them to take initiative.
  2. Use more personal forms of communication
    Seek genuine human contact instead of hiding behind digital communication. Karl Albrecht, founder of the supermarket chain Aldi, said, “Making things happen still required the ability to make people like you, respect you, listen to you, and want to connect to you. And by connect, I mean connect personally, not digitally. The human connection will always, always, always outrank the digital connection as a get-ahead skill.”
  3. Ask questions about others & learn about their expectations
    Be obsessively interested in other people. How long has each team member been with the organization? What fresh perspective from newer members of your team? What has been each team member’s most fulfilling work experience? What motivates them – money, advancement, or a challenge? Answers to these questions will tell you what you need to do to create a more positive, inspired, and productive work environment.
  4. Intensify your attention
    Practice active listening, and listen as if your life depended on it. Paying undivided attention to every individual you communicate with and communicating real interest will result in more engaged employees.
  5. Increase your empathy
    Other people may see things differently than your do, and effective leaders are aware of this. What’s more, they want to learn how those people see things and what those people feel. Practice putting yourself in other person’s shoes and try to see the world from his/her point of view. If you’re in a position to do so, help other rising leaders in your organization do the same. Michael Eisner instituted once-a-month field trip for executives where they had to go out and work alongside other Disney employees, so VPs were working in the laundry and folding towels all day next to housekeeping employees and learning more about each other.
  6. Give generous amounts of recognition
    Leaders nearly always notice when their employees make a contribution or accomplish a notable achievement. However, it can be easy to make a mental note about the accomplishment and move on without saying anything to your employee. Instead, when you care, show it. Everybody wants recognition, it’s easy to give, and there is always something you can recognize. Positive reinforcement will encourage your people to continue going the extra mile.
  7. Be aware of the emotional atmosphere
    Start by watching your emotions like a hawk. Your emotions feed into your behavior, which will impact your one-on-one interactions and how your employees perceive. Once you have improved your self-awareness, turn to the world around you. Great leaders are able to pick up the mood and feelings of their work environment. Turning your attention to the emotions of your employees and showing that you care about their situations will result in increased trust and loyalty and improved performance among employees.
  8. Practice anticipating reactions and responding effectively
    Emotionally intelligent leaders are able to anticipate how their people will react to situations instead of waiting until after the damage has been done to respond. If you are aware that bad news is coming (e.g., anticipated layoffs, business closures, etc.), take the initiative and do what you can to openly respond to them before thy happen.
Sarah Alexander

Sarah Alexander

Author & Contributor

About the Author

Sarah is an elite triathlete and independent strategy consultant with an MBA from Chicago Booth. She is passionate about empowering others to achieve excellence.

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