Emotional Intelligence in Leadership: What It Looks Like

Updated February 27, 2023

Effective leaders boost team morale, create strong relationships in the workplace and help others embrace challenges confidently. All these key skills require emotional intelligence (EQ).

In this article, we discuss what emotional intelligence in leadership is, review why it’s important for leaders to have and explore five attributes of a leader who leads with emotional intelligence.

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Emotional intelligence in leadership

Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and manage your own emotions and interactions with other people. It is recognized as a key component in effective leadership.

Emotionally intelligent leaders practice self-awareness, regulate their emotions and clearly express how they’re feeling to others. They can effectively gauge the needs, wants and expectations of their co-workers and team members.

Whether you’re aspiring to be a leader or trying to improve your current leadership skills, emotional intelligence can improve your relationships in the workplace. When you apply emotional intelligence in leadership, you will be able to stay calm in stressful situations, communicate strategically in times of conflict and show empathy to employees.

Related: 55 Tips for How To Improve Emotional Intelligence

The importance of EQ in leadership

Leadership is the process of leading others to achieve a goal. To get a better outcome, leaders need to understand themselves and their employees through emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence in leadership helps you communicate with your team and collaborate with others. The way you relate to others can set the tone for leadership within the organization. Leaders without emotional intelligence cannot relate or understand others, resulting in lower employee engagement and higher employee turnover.

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5 attributes of emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence for leadership is an achievable skill that will help you create strong workplace relationships. Practice these five attributes to develop your emotional intelligence and enhance your leadership skills:

1. Self-awareness

Self-awareness is the basic building block for emotional intelligence. This characteristic allows you to recognize your own emotions, strengths, weaknesses and values and understand how they impact others. To bring out the best in others, you first need to bring out the best in yourself through self-awareness.

Practice self-awareness by reflecting on your emotions and instinctual reactions and learning techniques to change your mood. Emotionally intelligent individuals take a deep breath and try to resolve the causes of stress instead of letting them overrun their decisions. Leaders who are aware of their own emotions help influence attitudes in the workplace and are invaluable to a business.

For example, your co-worker gives you constructive feedback on a project you worked hard to complete. To develop self-awareness, mentally note how you felt and why you felt this way. Notice if you only focused on the negative critiques instead of the positive feedback. Now, you can objectively look at the critiques and realize your co-worker was only trying to help you improve the project.

Consider using these tactics to improve your self-awareness:

  • 360-degree feedback: This process can help pinpoint areas for improvement. Ask supervisors, colleagues and others to assess your emotional reactions.

  • Low-profile approach: Simply ask trusted colleagues for their impressions. Use an informal setting like a coffee shop or over lunch.

Related: 360 Degree Appraisal: What It is, Pros and Cons

2. Self-management

Self-management is also known as “self-regulation” or “self-discipline” and is extremely valuable for leaders to have. People with strong self-management tend to stay positive and calm in stressful situations. They see an obstacle as an opportunity for improvement and an enjoyable challenge for their problem-solving skills.

Much like self-awareness, you can use techniques like reflection, journaling and objectivity in stressful situations to help you to develop self-management. The more in tune you are with your emotional intelligence, the easier you can make the transition from reaction to response.

For example, a co-worker is struggling with a task. They know you’re a helpful person who tries to assist others when they’re busy or stuck on a project so they ask you to take on their assignment in spite of your already heavy workload.

Consider how you would react in this situation. An emotionally intelligent employee would take a moment before reacting to think about how to remain positive, calm and constructive. Then, they might suggest that their co-worker and their supervisor make a plan for the project together.

Consider using these tools to improve your self-awareness:

  • Set measurable goals: Start with simple, obtainable steps like eliminating outbursts or greeting co-workers by name.

  • Keep a journal: Write down what you’re feeling and why. This will help you understand your feelings.

  • Quiz yourself: Ask yourself or a business coach about why you’re feeling a certain way and how to use those emotions in a more productive way.

Related: Guide To Self-Leadership

3. Social awareness

Empathy and compassion are characteristics that contribute to social awareness. Social awareness promotes trust and creates open communication among your peers. Being empathetic means understanding another person’s state of mind and feelings.

Aim to imagine someone else’s experience, then communicate your understanding and support for their situation.

Becoming an empathetic person in the workplace can facilitate a better team rapport, which may lead to smoother resolutions when conflicts arise. The more you can relate to others, the better you will become at understanding what motivates or upsets them.

For example, you are a supervisor and an employee asks to meet with you to tell you they’re unhappy that another colleague got a promotion they wanted. Carefully consider how you could show empathy as a leader in this situation. Good leaders are confident in their own decisions.

Consider using these techniques to improve your social awareness:

  • Use active listening: Show that you are listening by repeating or rephrasing what they’re saying.

  • Demonstrate a sympathetic tone of voice: How something is said can be as important as what is said. Notice the energy behind what co-workers says to get a better sense of how they really feel.

  • Stay aware of nonverbal cues. Be aware of your nonverbal cues and that of the employee. While learning to recognize these nonverbal communication cues will require extra effort, it can go a long way.

Related: Social Emotional Skills: What They are and How To Practice Them

4. Relationship management

Relationship management allows you to build and nurture workplace relationships to create positive outcomes. It refers to your ability to influence, coach and mentor others while resolving conflict effectively.

To learn how to foster healthy and productive relationships, focus on the three characteristics mentioned above. Be aware of your emotions and reactions, show empathy through listening and learn to communicate effectively.

Focus on the relationships between you, your team and supervisors. By caring for and supporting others in your workplace, you’ll create a positive environment and demonstrate your emotional intelligence leadership. You must communicate effectively and properly manage relationships to move a team of people in a desired direction.

For example, you lead a small team at work. Your supervisor gives you the chance to take on a big project that you both know will help build your career. You encourage your team to think creatively and when it’s time to present the project, you publicly praise the hard work your team put toward the project to make it a success.

In this situation, you helped encourage and develop your team, showed them that you care about their careers just as much as yours and showed your supervisors your leadership skills.

Consider using these tips to improve relationship management:

  • Listen actively: Give others your undivided attention, limit distractions while you talk and consider everything that’s said.

  • Ask questions: This will encourage teamwork and innovation in the workplace.

  • Set clear expectations: Identify and clarify expectations from the beginning. This will help prevent confusion or conflict down the road.

Related: Building Rapport: Tips and Examples

5. Effective communication

Effective communication promotes greater understanding between employees in the workplace and leads to increased productivity. Cultivate your verbal and nonverbal communication skills to become an emotionally intelligent, effective leader. Every communication is an opportunity to manage your emotions, practice empathy and improve your relationships.

Actively listening to a colleague is an invaluable skill and a key trait of effective communication. It shows maturity and selflessness. Try asking questions about your colleague’s concerns to show you’re listening.

Nonverbal forms of communication, including facial expressions and gestures, are another key form of effective communication. Try being aware of your own nonverbal cues, along with those of others.

You have many opportunities to display both your verbal and nonverbal communication skills at work, including explaining a new task or making a presentation. Try to use clear and concise speech, smile and be aware of your use of other nonverbal cues, such as hand gestures when speaking.

Consider using these tools to improve communication:

  • Focus on nonverbal communication: Maintaining eye contact, limiting hand gestures and having good posture create a positive impression when meeting someone for the first time.

  • Practice public speaking: Regularly speaking in front of a group will magnify your strengths and weaknesses and force you to develop great communication habits.

  • Develop a filter: Leaders need to know how to express their thoughts and feelings to those around them. It’s important to know what’s appropriate to say or do in different workplace situations.

Related: Communication Goal Examples for Effective Business Communication

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