We’ve known about the importance of developing emotional intelligence as a leader for some time now, but there are still some misconceptions about exactly what emotional intelligence is (or is not) and how to increase it. Emotional intelligence isn’t just about having “soft skills.” And it’s not a set of mindfulness practices.
Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize and control your own emotions and recognize and empathize with the emotions of others. Leaders with high emotional intelligence find their teams have better discussions and make better decisions. Emotionally intelligent leaders give better feedback and are better able to communicate and be understood.
In this article, we’ll outline ways of developing emotional intelligence as a leader based on the four elements in Daniel Goleman’s original research: Self-Awareness, Self-Regulation, Empathy, and Social Skills. (Goleman’s model is sometimes presented with a fifth element, motivation, but we’ve covered motivation a lot in the past.)
The first element of emotional intelligence is self-awareness. Self-awareness is your ability to recognize the emotions that you’re feeling. It’s your awareness about your own strengths and weaknesses, values, goals, and drives. Moreover, it’s being aware of the connection between your emotions and your thoughts. Being self-aware as a leader means your decisions are less controlled by your emotions and you are humbler when interacting with your team.
One powerful way to develop more self-awareness is to keep a journal. Spend just a few minutes a day writing down your thoughts, which forces you to confront your emotions. In addition, as a leader, you could keep a “decision journal” where you write down every decision you make, as well as why you felt that was the right decision, and what you hope the result will be. Then, you can review overtime and see if your emotions aren’t causing you to make the wrong decisions.
The second element of emotional intelligence is self-regulation. Self-regulation is your ability to control or redirect disruptive emotions and adapt to changing circumstances. It’s your ability to control your emotions and turn them into constructive behaviors. Leaders high in self-regulation rarely lash out or verbally attack others. They make less rash and unethical decisions. They don’t compromise their values.
When it comes to growing your self-regulation, it helps to remember a quote from Viktor Frankl. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” When your self-awareness leads to recognizing a disruptive emotion, Pause. Remind yourself that you’re in control. Ask yourself what emotion you’d like to experience right now, and what action would lead to that emotion.
The third element of emotional intelligence is empathy. Empathy is how well you consider (or even recognize) other people’s feelings and emotions. It’s how well you can observe the actions of people on your team and perceive the emotions behind them. Leaders high in empathy are better able to coach their team members and provide constructive feedback because they understand how team members will respond to that feedback.
For leaders, empathy also means understanding the collective emotion of the team. To increase in empathy, you may need to check your team’s “emotional pulse” occasionally. This doesn’t mean handing out “pulse” surveys. Instead, it means taking a pause during all-hands meetings to ask how people or feeling or observing how team members interact with each other and imagining the emotions behind their words. And if your attempts to check their pulse aren’t going well, it could be because you’re not open enough about how you’re feeling.
The fourth element of emotional intelligence is social skills. Social skills are how well you manage relationships and build rapport with others. On another level, it’s your ability to use communication to change the emotions of others. As a leader, good social skills help the team move through change and resolve conflicts more easily. Teammates speak to each other more openly because they have a leader who models respectful communication.
For leaders, the best place to start improving social skills is by practicing active listening. When others are speaking, make sure you’re demonstrating that you hear them through your nonverbal communication, such as eye contact, body language, and even small noises that signal comprehension. Ask questions about and summarize what you just heard before offering your own thoughts as an addition. That will not only help you understand your team better, but it will help you be better understood by your team.
As you think through these four elements, one element may have stood out as one you could work on. If so, get started working on it. If not, ask your team. But as they answer, practice the active listening that will grow your social skills. Then make your emotional intelligence development plan based on their feedback. As you do, you’ll find you’ve grown as a leader. And you’ll find your team has grown as well—into a team that can do its best work ever.
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