What Emotional Intelligence Means and Why Leaders Need it Now More Than Ever

Leaders who inspire teams – during hard times and boom times – do so not only by what they say and do, but by how they make others feel.

That’s why the field of leadership development has pivoted in the past quarter century to focus a lot more on feelings and human emotion.

One term that gets thrown around a lot when talking about the skills needed for modern day leadership is emotional intelligence.

What is emotional intelligence, really?

It’s defined as:
the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.
How do you begin cultivating this skill in your everyday practice of leadership? Here are three ways to cultivate emotional intelligence, starting right now:

1. Practice Self and Social Awareness

How do you feel right now? Take a moment and really think about it. And I’m not just talking about the mad, sad, glad triad, as Brené Brown likes to call it. I’m talking about the many complex emotions behind those more superficial feelings that you might be occupied with.

When you’re mad are you actually…disappointed? Frustrated? Annoyed? Hurt?

Your ability to recognize and identify your emotions doesn’t come easily for all of us. We live in a world where men especially are conditioned their entire lives to suppress negative emotions, and interpret them as signs of weakness.

But the very first step of cultivating emotional intelligence is to practice the art of identifying your feelings.

“Use your words,” is something we say often to toddlers and children struggling to express themselves. But it’s too rarely said to our adult contemporaries who need to be challenged to express themselves appropriately as well.

When we identify our current mood, we can acknowledge how those emotions might be affecting us elsewhere. Dr. Marc Brackett, author of Permission to Feel and the Founding Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, shared recently on an interview he gave on Brené Brown’s podcast, that we humans are notoriously bad at acknowledging how our emotions affect our judgements. He cited original research he conducted on professors who graded students papers after being primed to think of a particularly happy or bad time in their lives. Those professors who were asked to think about a very bad day they recently had, on average, gave much lower grades, and the opposite was true for the other professors who’d been primed to think of a recent wonderful day.  But across the board, the professors almost unanimously responded that they did not believe their emotional state influenced how they graded.

Practice identifying your feelings and acknowledging how they may seep into your life elsewhere.

2. Pause before you speak

Great leaders can also cultivate emotional intelligence with a simple – yet difficult practice – of pausing before you speak up.

President Barack Obama was notorious for doing this as a Professor: he would listen intently to everyone in the room make their case before he would pause, lean back in his chair deep in thought, and then render judgement. It was a leadership practice he brought with him into the White House, too.

Author Simon Sinek has a great bit about this concept, in which he says, “You will be told your whole life that you need to learn to listen. I would say that you need to learn to be the last to speak.”  I find this extremely difficult myself, to be honest, because so many of us leaders come to meetings and say, “Here’s this problem we’re facing, here’s what I think we should do about it, what do you think?” And by that point, it’s too late! The nature of power dynamic in teams is such that there’s unspoken pressure to agree with the solution that was just put forth.

There’s actually something called bandwagon bias that plagues all teams: it’s in the inherent pressure to go along. All of us, as social beings, experience this bias that makes dissent difficult.

So the absolute best thing we as leaders can practice to help fully unlock the creative potential of our teams is to pause, listen, and then speak.

3. Lead with empathy

Leading with empathy means starting with a genuine curiosity for and consideration of other people’s feelings. Just like you begin to recognize your own emotions and how they may impact your work and life, it’s important to give the same grace to members of your team.

One way we try and practice this is by starting morning meetings with a check-in on everyone’s emotional state before we get down to business. If I learn that one of my team members was up all night with a screaming newborn, just got stressful news about a family member, or is celebrating an exciting personal milestone with their partner, it can help inform how we set expectations and support one another throughout the rest of the day. Create a safe space to talk about feelings – good, bad, and ugly – and you’ll inherently communicate that your team’s emotional state matters to you.

This means we also have to cease the well-intentioned practice of silver-lining things: or only and always talking about the good. I’m an optimist, but I’m also a realist. We have to acknowledge difficulty, uncertainty, and fear – especially during these unprecedented times. I think that’s partly why so many folks find comfort in the briefings coming from Dr. Anthony Faucci and Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York these days. They’re acknowledging the fear, the uncertainty, and even the pain we’re all going through right now. They’re validating our concerns and our frustrations over the COVID-19 health crisis and it feels good to have our own negative emotions deemed appropriate and understandable.

Now this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t share next steps, your action plan, or your positive news about how you’re moving things forward, but simply acknowledging the struggles, pain, and fear that your team members may experiencing is a way of showing them that you know how they feel, and that you’re right there with them, feeling with others.

That’s what leading with empathy during tough times looks like, and it is so important for building and maintaining trust.

Bottom line: Emotional Intelligence makes for better leaders

In that great episode of Brené Brown’s podcast interview with Dr. Marc Brackett, they underscored how being an empathic leader isn’t simply a nice-to-have trait, it’s a business imperative:

“People felt inspiration 50% more when they were in an organization with a leader with high emotional intelligence. Their frustration levels were 30-40% less, their intentions to leave the profession were significantly lower, their burnout was lower. So many variables are related to the person who’s in charge having the skills to manage people and manage their emotions.”

If you’d like to learn more about how to lead with care, empathy, and emotional intelligence, join my upcoming free online Crisis Leadership Training on How to Care for Your People So They’ll Care for You.






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