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The Importance of Emotional Intelligence in Leadership

Two people having a discussion about the importance of emotional intelligence

As today's workforce evolves, the skills needed to be a successful leader are also changing. In addition to professional experience and technical skills, the importance of emotional intelligence in leadership is becoming increasingly clear.

Emotional intelligence, which includes soft skills like self-awareness and emotional regulation, has a significant impact on the success of a leader and their team, said Christina Perry, director of organizational learning at Peregrine Global Services, a company providing educational and professional development services.

“Emotional intelligence means acknowledging that we are not rational human beings and that emotions really regulate more of our decisions and behavior than we realize,” said Perry. “Emotional intelligence is being aware of your emotions, aware of emotions in others and understanding what’s going on below the surface of decision-making.”

It’s no surprise, then, that emotional intelligence in leadership is a growing trend in the business world. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF) 2020 Future of Jobs report, many industries around the world say they are looking for leaders with high emotional intelligence (WEF PDF source).

Keep reading to learn what emotional intelligence (EI) is, why it’s essential to effective leadership and how you can develop EI. With emotional intelligence, you can help transform organizational culture, empower your team to boost performance and take your leadership skills to the next level.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence refers to the capacity to recognize, understand and manage your own emotions, as well as the emotions of others. Individuals with strong emotional intelligence are believed to be skilled at navigating social interactions, building relationships, communicating effectively and even coping with stress.

Emotional intelligence includes skills like:

  • Empathy
  • Motivation
  • Self-awareness
  • Self-regulation
  • Social skills 

But while emotional intelligence has been shown to be critical to success as a leader, it’s not a skill that is necessarily built or developed while working your way up the corporate ladder, said Perry.

“When you start off and you’re not a leader, your job is to do your job well,” Perry said. “Hopefully if you do it well enough for long enough, you get promoted to leadership. But then all of a sudden your job is making sure your team does well and they have success."

This shift isn't always easy. The skills that may have made you a great employee are often different from the skills needed to be a great leader, Perry said.

"(As a leader), you have to be inquisitive, curious about other people and inspire them to be their best selves," she said. "You have to care more about others than yourself, and that can be a hard transition for some leaders.”

Building emotional intelligence can make that transition easier, Perry said, and is critical to your ability to work well with others, build trust and respect and help your team achieve goals.

Infographic with the text Emotional intelligence includes skills like:  Empathy, Motivation, Self-awareness, Self-regulation, Social skills

Research into the value of emotional intelligence in the workplace backs this up.

A 2018 study in the Journal of World Business, for example, found that workers reporting to leaders with high emotional intelligence are more likely to be high performers and have more job satisfaction than workers without a high EQ leader.

In more recent years, businesses and organizations around the world have started to place more value on emotional intelligence when looking for and developing leaders.

The World Economic Forum 2020 Future of Jobs report predicted emotional intelligence would be among the top 10 in-demand workplace skills in the U.S. by 2025. This focus on emotional intelligence in leadership was seen across many industries, from education and government services to agriculture, finance and healthcare.

Why is Emotional Intelligence Important in Leadership?

There’s a reason so many businesses are looking for leaders with strong emotional intelligence: A company’s leadership can have a significant impact on its employees — and its bottom line.

A 2020 survey from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that 84% of American workers say poorly trained managers create unnecessary work and stress. Half of those surveyed also said their own performance would improve if their manager received additional training in skills like communication and building company culture.

Christina Perry with the text Christina Perry Poor management can lead to significant costs for businesses, including high employee turnover. If these leadership problems are not addressed, it can also impact a company’s ability to attract and retain talented employees in the future.

Beyond the numbers, Perry said that having a strong sense of self-awareness and emotional regulation can go a long way toward building a strong team.

“Being able to understand what is going on in people’s lives and show interest allows them to be more honest, more likely to take risks and more likely to let you know when they have problems,” Perry said. “It fosters psychological safety and better communication among teammates.”

What Are Some Examples of Leaders with High Emotional Intelligence?

While every leader is different, leaders with strong emotional intelligence typically share some common traits and practices.

According to Perry, these examples of high emotional intelligence include leaders who listen as much as they talk and who aren't afraid to admit that they don’t have all the answers.

Emotionally intelligent leaders are also skilled at putting others at ease and meeting their employees at their level, so they feel comfortable sharing their insights and opinions.

“An emotionally intelligent leader is one that seeks to understand another’s perspective before sharing their own,” Perry said.

What Are the Benefits of Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace?

Infographic with the text Benefits of EQ in the workplace:  Improved job satisfaction, Better communication, Increased performance & productivity, Less conflictEmotional intelligence in leadership doesn’t just make for great leaders: It can also impact company culture and performance as a whole.

Some of the most common benefits of emotional intelligence in leadership include:

1. Improved Job Satisfaction

Emotionally intelligent leaders are skilled at helping their employees feel heard and valued, Perry said, which can boost job satisfaction. These leaders are not afraid to seek out advice or new ideas and are skilled at understanding their employees and their emotions.

2. Better Communication

Because emotionally intelligent leaders have strong self-awareness and awareness of others, they are typically good at communicating with their employees in ways that work for them.

For example, if an employee does not like being the center of attention and is unlikely to speak up during a conference call, an emotionally intelligent leader might schedule a one-on-one meeting to seek their input and help them feel heard, Perry said.

“When you show people they are valued in a way that they like, you have people that care about each other and not just the work,” she said.

3. Increased Performance and Productivity

Research has shown that teams with high emotional intelligence in leadership and workers have more effective individual interactions and higher rates of productivity (Purpose & Performance Group PDF source).

When a team feels safe to communicate, Perry said, they are more likely to share out-of-the-box ideas, bring up concerns and address problems more effectively.

“When you rely on other people to reach a goal, there has to be good communication between each other,” she said. “When a team can give feedback and have tough conversations, you create a more innovative workplace.”

4. Less Conflict

Another benefit of emotional intelligence in leadership is reduced conflict among team members. When a leader is emotionally intelligent, they are better aware of their own emotional triggers and those of their team members, Perry said.

“If you’re aware of your own emotions and tendencies and start to become aware of other people’s, you can head off conflict before it starts,” she said.

If you want to be a leader that not only achieves professional success but also leads your company to have success, then building your emotional intelligence is just as important as developing technical skills.

How to Build Emotional Intelligence as a Leader

While skills like self-awareness and emotional regulation are not typically taught as part of a college degree program, it doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to improve and evolve your emotional intelligence.

A lot of the work of developing emotional intelligence in leadership can actually start with self-reflection, said Perry. Activities like journaling, practicing gratitude and even just taking time to reflect on your feelings each day can help build self-awareness.

A blue infographic piece with the text GMAC reports 94% of U.S. recuriters planned to hire MBA grads in 2022If you want to build your emotional intelligence while also learning other key leadership skills, earning an MBA could be a good fit. A growing number of MBA programs focus on teaching soft skills like communication, people management and critical thinking in addition to more technical professional skills.

MBA degree holders are also in high demand for leadership roles across many industries. According to the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) 2022 Corporate Recruiters Survey, 94% of U.S. recruiters planned to hire MBAs in 2022 (GMAC PDF source).

If you’re not ready to earn an MBA or already have one, professional development programs focused on emotional intelligence are also available from industry organizations and continuing education companies, Perry said.

But Perry said that one of the best ways to build emotional intelligence in leadership is by working with other leaders and organizations that make EI a key part of the company culture.

"Being very clear on what your values are, setting out your norms and knowing what is expected of people is key," said Perry.

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Danielle Gagnon is a freelance writer focused on higher education. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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