There are some roles for which Emotional Intelligence is an absolute must — school teachers, therapists, doctors and nurses, even journalists.
But it’s becoming increasingly obvious that high E.Q. is a common characteristic of the world’s greatest leaders, too.
Tim Cook (CEO of Apple), Barack Obama (former US president), and Jacinda Ardern (current New Zealand Prime Minister) have all spoken out about the importance of having empathy when working with — and managing — others.
So what is it about emotionally intelligent people that makes them fantastic, and successful, managers? And how can we all take a leaf from their book, to become more emotionally intelligent colleagues and leaders ourselves?
And are there any downsides to showing empathy when you’re the one in control?
Understanding Emotional Intelligence and empathy: it’s not about wearing your heart on your sleeve
To better understand how Emotional Intelligence and empathy can make a person easier to work with, and for, it’s helpful to look at the argument from the other direction — what is someone like when they lack these characteristics?
Low emotional intelligence is defined by an inability to perceive other people’s emotions, as well as your own. It’s also associated with unfeeling behaviors — acting in ways that either disregard consideration for those around you, or that actively go against the group’s common good.
This may manifest itself as being argumentative, making important and impulsive decisions (without input from other people), not listening, passing blame, or having emotional outbursts.
Would you like to work with that person?
How about working for that person?
Absence of Emotional Intelligence and empathy makes someone almost impossible to partner with. Any scope for collaboration goes out the window, and if the goal is fostering psychological safety in the workplace, then that would be severely lacking as well.
Of course, the same could be said at the other end of the extreme. When an employee is overly emotional — perhaps they struggle to take feedback, worry too much about the quality of their input, and struggle to move on from mistakes — then this can be detrimental to a team as well.
But here’s where a crucial distinction needs to be made: being empathetic, and exhibiting Emotional Intelligence, is not the same as being fragile or vulnerable.
To use that much-cited Jacinda Ardern quote:
“It takes courage and strength to be empathetic, and I’m very proudly an empathetic and compassionate leader.”
And high Emotional Intelligence (or E.Q. / Emotional Quotient, as it’s often called) isn’t a female-only trait either — although there is evidence to suggest that these strengths come easier to women than men.
Both male and female leaders can be empathetic — it’s a learned skill, after all.
But why should we try?
When a leader shows Emotional Intelligence, everyone benefits
Harvard Business School breaks Emotional Intelligence down into four key behaviors:
- Self-awareness: understanding your strengths and weaknesses, recognizing your emotions and how they impact others.
- Self-management: how well you can manage your emotions — rash, impulsive (and overly emotional) responses can cause relationships to fracture, and others to pick up on the vibe you’re giving out.
- Social awareness: our emotions affect other people, and self aware individuals can read the dynamics in a room or group, interpreting how other people are feeling, too.
- Relationship management: humans are social creatures, and the success of society relies on relationships being properly managed. Of course, in a professional context this becomes even more important — not just for internal relationships, external ones as well.
Seeing Emotional Intelligence laid out like this, it’s really no surprise that great leaders have E.Q nailed. But let’s take a look at some numbers to back the concept up.
Emotional Intelligence strengthens leadership performance
Emotionally Intelligent leaders — specifically those who master empathy — perform 40% higher in coaching, engaging others, and decision-making.
And in a slightly less recent but still incredibly meaningful study from 1982, 81% of the competencies that distinguished outstanding managers from adequate ones were related to emotional intelligence.
Emotional Intelligence helps create better teams
Of course, working with a high-performing leader brings a long list of benefits for the team. When emotionally intelligent managers lead by example, they help create a culture of empathy and understanding. This, in turn, trains and develops less senior colleagues to strengthen their E.Q.
As Daniel Golman, business psychologist and author of many books on the topic of Emotional Intelligence at work, says:
“In teamwork, emotional intelligence is the crucial social lubricant, providing the capacity to settle disputes well, brainstorm creatively, and work harmoniously. This is all the more true for great team leaders. It turns out that team members who scored higher on the ECI, a test of emotional and social competencies, were most likely to emerge as the natural leaders.”
Eventually, the entire organization is running on Emotional Intelligence — creating the right environment for innovation, collaborative communication, greater engagement and, ultimately, increased competitive advantage.
In this way, E.Q. can deliver a boost for business, too.
Emotional Intelligence impacts the bottom line (both directly and indirectly)
Leaders are often in the position of selling the company to other people — whether that’s during recruitment drives, or when trying to build up the client roster. With heightened E.Q., leaders can interpret what others are thinking and feeling far more accurately. They can flex their pitch; responding to questions and doubts before they’ve even been raised.
This is evidenced time and time again in sales teams. And, at L’Oréal, salespeople with high emotional intelligence out performed their peers by $91,370 each in just one year, creating an additional $2.5 million revenue.
Indirectly, E.Q. helps protect the bottom line by increasing retention rates — sometimes by staggering amounts. In one study, employees were 400% less likely to leave a job if their manager exhibited high E.Q.
Conversely, research from Georgetown University found that 63% of employees waste time by avoiding their low-EQ leader.
Knowing that businesses can waste millions of dollars on lost productivity and recruitment each year, the profit-driving value of a highly engaged, emotionally intelligent, workforce suddenly becomes very exciting indeed.
So we know how Emotional Intelligence and leadership go hand in hand. But what happens if E.Q doesn’t come all that naturally to you as a leader — are you a lost cause?
Far from it.
As we touched on before, E.Q. — empathy, self-awareness, acute social skills, etc — can be learned. Here’s how...
Emotional Intelligence is a learned skill — here’s 4 ways to increase yours…
Emotionally intelligent individuals regard self-development as an opportunity to be better at what they do. They believe that skills and abilities can be learned over time.
So, no matter whether you’re already rating high on the E.Q. spectrum or you feel you’ve got a way to go, these following four activities will support you in your journey.
- Ask for feedback (and embrace it non-defensively)
Before we can take steps forward, we need to know where we are today. That’s why your first piece of E.Q. homework is to ask for feedback from your team.
Sure, it’s never easy to open yourself up to constructive criticism — some of us even find praise hard to swallow! But if you can drum up the courage required, there’s so, so much to gain.
Not only will you be hearing from those whose opinions matter most — the people you lead — but receiving even negative feedback is a fantastic way to develop the skills required for E.Q. Emotionally intelligent leaders can take critical remarks (and kind words!) and see them for what they are: direction.
If your team is calling out for you to consider their needs in team decisions, or to ask for their updates before setting deadlines, then you’ve got a clear route for development ahead. Similarly, if your team feels you’re already exhibiting many of the traits of empathetic leadership, then you know you should keep doing more of the same.
- Be mindful of your emotional impact on others
Chances are, you won’t become a highly empathetic leader overnight. Developing E.Q takes time, and — if you’re doing it right — it’s a never-ending process.
But you can start assessing your impact on others right away.
How does the mood change in a room when you deliver a piece of disappointing news? If you come into work in a good mood, does it rub off on other people? What about if you’ve got caught in traffic, then split your coffee down you, and rushed into the team meeting in a huff?
There’s a delicate dichotomy between being honest, authentic and open with your teams and allowing your own mood to shift the mood of the group.
That’s why mindfulness is often associated with emotionally intelligent leadership. Unless the team would benefit from ‘catching’ your emotion — maybe you’ve got great sales results to share, or you want to galvanize them into action with a healthy dose of “here’s what our competitors have been up to…” — then give yourself a moment to get your emotions in check before you speak up.
As we said at the outset, there’s a crucial difference between being emotional and being emotionally intelligent. The clue’s in the name: E.Q. requires you to be smart with what you say and how you influence other people.
If you can listen to, manage, and then put aside your own emotional response to a situation, then you’ll be able to make emotionally intelligent and empathetic decisions that are still right for the business.
An overly emotional leader may let their anger or upset get the better of them. But you wouldn’t.
- Use 1-to-1 to build empathy and really get to know your colleagues
If you really want to connect with the people you lead, there’s nothing better than a 1-to-1 conversation. Take away the group dynamics, and you’re able to have meaningful conversations about personal and professional development, without fear of what other people might think.
What’s more, by showing employees that you care what they think and feel, you can increase their engagement, satisfaction and productivity levels, too.
Armed with personal insight on each team member, you’ll be able to manage the team’s workload in a way that works for everyone. You’ll know that Rebecca needs to develop her client relationships, and that John needs to clock off early twice a week to pick his kids up from school — and you can organize accordingly.
Empathic leaders understand that their team works as whole, but is made up of individual needs, backgrounds, and skill sets coming together. Pan out to consider the sum, but don’t forget to look after the parts, too.
- Never stop learning — always adopt a “growth mindset”
An emotionally intelligent leader’s work is never done — sorry!
And while we don’t mean you need to work weekends and evenings, you should always be in a “growth mindset”; ready to improve upon the skills you’ve developed already, and to nurture others to do the same.
As we’ve seen, E.Q. can be transformational for a business in all manner of ways. So, the sky's the limit — if you choose to see it that way.