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Why Emotional Intelligence Matters

When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.
— Dale Carnegie

Chip Kelly caught the NFL by storm when he took over as Philadelphia Eagles head coach before the 2013 season following a successful run in college. Less than three years later, a perceived lack of emotional intelligence (EI) on Kelly’s part was largely to blame for his firing with one game left on the Eagles’ regular season schedule.

During the press conference CEO Jeffrey Lurie spoke about his vision for the team’s next leader. “You’ve got to open your heart to players and everybody you want to achieve peak performance,” Lurie said. “I would call it a style of leadership that values information and all of the resources that are provided and at the same time values emotional intelligence. I think in today’s world, a combination of all those factors creates the best chance to succeed.”

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Oftentimes, the biggest obstacle for a new leader has little to do with how well she knows the job or whether she possesses the right technical skills. In fact, most leadership experts identify poor interpersonal qualities and practices as the main reason that so many new leaders stumble out of the gate. They suggest that such relational transgressions as not communicating often, not being available for people on a consistent basis, and being unpredictable emotionally are primary contributors to new leaders failing to gain traction.

These and other negative interpersonal behaviors may mean that a person is weak in the area of Emotional intelligence (EI.) EI refers to a person’s ability to understand and manage his/her personal emotions and interpersonal conduct, as well as those of the people around him/her. People who rank high in EI are in tune with their feelings and emotions and can accurately predict how they might affect other people.

EI is an important quality for leaders in particular to possess. Leaders need to have a good feel for what others are thinking and feeling while also staying in firm control of their situational responses. This is particularly true in times of challenge. People most prefer leaders who stay in control and calmly assess situations over those that lose control when under stress. Such explosive behavior also stifles open communication and causes staff to walk on eggshells.

EI has become popularized through the research and writings of psychologist Daniel Goleman. Goleman lists five primary elements of emotional intelligence:

  1. Self-awareness.
  2. Self-regulation.
  3. Motivation.
  4. Empathy.
  5. Social skills.

Leaders who are self-aware are in check with their emotions. They understand what they are feeling and can identify the triggers behind their emotions. They also have a good sense of how different emotions and reactions impact those around them.

Self-aware leaders can list their strengths and weaknesses. They know what they do well, as well as where they struggle and need help. Such awareness tends to humble them as they recognize that they simply are not great at everything.  This, in turn, lends to a more collaborative work environment.

To improve your self-awareness, consider taking time to identify triggers. How did a certain comment or response make you feel? What emotion was activated in a particular situation? Why is that so? In general, how well equipped are you to react to different scenarios? The more aware that you are about yourself when you are not “in the moment,” the better you will be able to respond when you actually need to. 

Self-regulation is about being in control of one’s emotions and reactions. Leaders with strength in this area are able to avoid the kinds of serious, hurtful comments or negative actions that can set them back and damage relationships. (Research shows that most people don’t want to work for hostile bosses, regardless of the pay.) They keep their values on the forefront of their minds and regularly ask themselves whether their thoughts and actions are consistent with what they hold most dear. Leaders who self-regulate effectively tend to be more flexible and committed to personal accountability.

Leaders can improve their ability to self-regulate by looking first in the mirror. Before blaming others for errors, take the time to see what you may have done to contribute to the problem, either directly or indirectly. Taking responsibility will help you react more evenly and fairly. You’ll quickly earn the respect of those around you.

Also consider practicing being in challenging situations before they actually occur. Run various scenarios through your mind and determine the best course of action in each case. While you cannot predict every possible situation, advance practice and consideration will help you remain calmer, more composed and on target when things begin to escalate.   

Lastly, take the time to review your values often, to the point that you can recite them by heart and offer examples of how they play out in the workplace and elsewhere. The more that you are in touch with your values, the likelier you will feel synergy and inner calm even when times get tough.

The next element of EI is self-motivation. Leaders who are self-motivated work consistently toward their goals and hold extremely high standards for the quality of their work. Motivation comes from a variety of sources, including an inner drive to succeed and a quest for the material and other benefits that success will bring.

Sometimes our motivation can wane when we fail to see results or encounter resistance. Leaders can counter this effect by finding at least one good thing about every situation. It might be something small, like a new contact, or something with long-term benefits, such as a meaningful lesson learned.

Empathy is about standing in someone else's shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place. Daniel H. Pink

Empathy refers to a person’s ability to put himself in someone else’s situation. Empathetic leaders can relate deeply with those around them and offer guidance, support, and comfort when things go awry. They help develop the people on their team, give balanced, constructive feedback, and offer a listening ear to those who need it.

The result of empathy is positive energy and synergy. Stephen Covey said it this way: “When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That's when you can get more creative in solving problems.” If you want to earn the respect and loyalty of your team, be empathic and show that you care. Research also shows that Caring bosses drive increased productivity and promote employee retention.

Leaders can become more empathetic by seeking to put themselves in others’ positions and looking at things from their vantage point. Try to step into an impartial role in which you do not try to justify or criticize but rather to understand.

The last element of EI is social skills. To be effective, leaders must have a solid understanding of how their emotions and actions affect the people around them. The better a leader relates to and works with others, the more successful he or she will be.

Empathy together with social skills together comprise social intelligence, which is the interpersonal part of emotional intelligence. Socially intelligent leaders do more than just make people happier at work. According to Goleman, a survey of employees at seven hundred companies revealed that the majority said that a supportive boss mattered more than how much money they earned.

Leaders who have good social skills communicate well, and not only when things are looking up. They find positives in people’s work and make regular deposits through praise and recognition. They are also good at managing change and resolving conflicts diplomatically. Conflict resolution involves acknowledging the conflict (rather than ignoring or suppressing it,) discussing its impact, and then agreeing to a peaceful resolution that puts the team first.

Socially intelligent leadership begins with engagement; disengaged leaders can’t put others at ease. An engaged leader, on the other hand, can discern how people feel and why they feel that way. They can then express appropriate concern and encourage more positive thinking. And since emotions have a ripple effect, leaders must uphold their responsibility to maintain a productive environment.

This post first appeared in SmartBlog on Leadership.