Building Emotional Intelligence in Leaders
Building Emotional Intelligence in Leaders

Building Emotional Intelligence in Leaders

Emotional Intelligence, Leadership Development, Employee Learning & Development   — 4 MIN


We know the importance of hard skills at work. No matter what field or service, it’s how leaders get the job done and tend to the bottom line. But there’s another set of skills we can’t ignore, especially when leading people.

These are soft skills, more recently called power skills, which are the non-tangible talents of successful team leads, managers, and executives. No matter where they fall in the organizational hierarchy, they’ll need a suite of capability and expertise that creates Emotional Intelligence (EI) in leaders.


Why? Because emotions matter. As much as we might like to shut them down or shift them aside for the sake of clarity and productivity, they play an important role in the workplace. Emotionally intelligent leaders can manage negative emotions while leveraging positive ones for improved employee engagement.


The Center for Creative Leadership reminds us that both “bad” and “good” emotions have their benefits. For example, typically negative emotions can serve as a canary in the coal mine, alerting leaders to potential threats while offering opportunities for growth and learning. On the other side, positive emotions support resiliency, increase productivity, and promote innovation and collaboration. Thankfully, emotional intelligence is much like any other skill, meaning that with practice and intention, it’s something we can learn and continually improve.


Common characteristics of
emotional intelligence


Now that we know how important emotional intelligence is, let’s look at what emotional intelligence in leaders is via its essential characteristics. Many sources, including Indeed, suggest there are five core qualities of emotional intelligence, including:


Self-Awareness: As the foundation for emotional intelligence, self-awareness helps us honestly evaluate ourselves. As Indeed tells us, this basic building block “allows leaders to recognize their own emotions, strengths, weaknesses and values and how they impact others.” When leaders understand themselves, they can better understand others. Put self-awareness to work by implementing a cycle of feedback that invites constructive critique of emotional reactions. Leaders should consider taking a less formal approach to discovering their teams’ impressions, such as discussing issues over coffee or lunch.


Self-Management: Also known as “self-discipline” or “self-regulation,” self-management is the ability to control emotions and reactions, even during stressful times. From staying positive in the face of upheaval to viewing obstacles as opportunities, self-management utilizes reflection and objectivity for the sake of meeting challenges head-on. Leaders can practice self-management by setting manageable personal goals, keeping a journal for reflection, and taking the time to identify and understand their emotional reactions to various situations.


Social Awareness: Since social awareness promotes trust and open communication, it requires a heavy dose of empathy and compassion. Leaders can strengthen their social awareness by active listening and curiosity, employing a sympathetic tone of voice, and displaying positive nonverbal communication.


Relationship Management: Being an effective leader means excelling at relationship management. This means maintaining effective communication and empathizing with peers and team members to lead effectively. Leaders can improve their relationship management skills by asking questions, encouraging honest communication and critique, and having clear expectations for their team from the beginning.


Effective Communication: Finally, the trait that facilitates all others is communication. Communication is the tool through which we can practice our empathy, boost relationships, and learn from and value others.


Common signs of
emotional intelligence in leaders


Once leaders have assembled and strengthened the five building blocks of emotional intelligence, it’s time to dig deeper into the various traits and activities of leaders who successfully embody EI. As director of Influenceo Global, Inc., Shadé Zahrai writes for Forbes, emotional intelligence “directly affects how a leader perceives, uses, understands and manages their own emotions and the emotions of others.” Which, when put into practice, looks a bit like this: 

Understand their impact. Picture emotions like a stone dropped into a calm pond of water. The disturbance ripples out from the epicenter, eventually affecting the entire pool. Emotionally intelligent leaders understand that their emotions and reactions impact their entire team, and they focus on positivity to help steer the group in the right direction.


Strategically leveraging emotion. Like with emotions, solutions and innovations are a spectrum. They’re often complex, nuanced, and impacted by perspective. For emotionally intelligent leaders, this can be a gift. Such leaders, Zahrai writes, “understand that emotions contain valuable data, and they are open to capitalizing on this information to facilitate problem solving and creativity.”


Value cognitive and emotional empathy. Empathy is two-fold, including understanding the cognitive (the specifics of a situation) and emotional (how that situation makes someone feel) components of a person’s experience. Putting this double-sided empathy to work involves staying attuned to the team’s emotional “pulse” and caring about their well-being. 


Recognize what goes unsaid. Emotionally intelligent leaders prize their ability to read between the lines. That’s because what goes unsaid is often just as important as what people openly share. As Zahrai writes, this allows leaders “to synthesize what they know about a situation, a person, and the emotional and behavioral components, to derive a clearer picture of what’s happening.”


Maintain a positive team climate. Leaders set the tone for their workplace’s overall culture, for better or worse. Emotionally intelligent leaders know this and utilize it to build a positive working environment that emphasizes psychological safety and values employees’ whole selves.


Build an emotional vocabulary. Walking the emotionally intelligent walk also means talking its talk. Emotions are complex, occasionally paradoxical, and impactful, which makes discussing them even more vital. As Zahrai writes, emotionally intelligent leaders have a “richer and more nuanced emotional vocabulary,” which helps them “consciously reflect on and navigate their emotional experience at that moment.”


Building emotional intelligence in leaders of all levels


Being an emotionally intelligent leader can feel like a big ask. Leaders are already busy and, managing the emotional well-being of their entire team might seem impossible. But in the end, emotional intelligence in leaders is not about having the correct answer all the time. Instead, its value comes from a leader’s willingness to care about their people and do what they can to maintain a workplace culture that champions psychological safety, belonging, and inclusion. Examples of this effort include doing the work to dismantle their own unconscious biases, reading books seeking out narratives by people with different identities, and generally making an effort to keep an open mind.


Emotionally intelligent leaders create a workplace culture that prizes open communication, values team members as individuals, and champions self-and social- awareness to cultivate collaboration and engagement. Leaders who are emotionally intelligent are in a great position to help upskill their teams. For example, checking in with employees to see how they are doing with their workload encourages employees to be aware of their feelings, communicate efficiently, and share their successes and challenges on an ongoing basis. 


Emotionally intelligent leaders also recognize that there is always room to develop and challenge themselves to upskill as often as they can. L&D teams have the difficult task of finding content that accommodates these individual personality differences and familiarity with the concepts. Recognizing how these factors impact topic areas and how to leverage these unique experiences to build emotional intelligence across the leadership ladder is vital for growth. So, what can L&D teams do to provide the most widespread impact across the organization?


A solution that provides meaningful training for busy leaders is microlearning. Blue Ocean Brain produces lessons daily on soft skills, including emotional intelligence. Our in-house team of experts allows us to create content ranging from the fundamentals to more advanced topics such as connectional intelligence. Providing learning for leaders regardless of where they are on their journey is an invaluable tool to give them. It ensures that your leaders are ready for whatever challenges arise in the workplace and support them in creating a safe and inclusive environment across all levels of the organization.