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Why emotional intelligence (EQ) is key to great leadership

As a business leader, try to imagine the ideal manager. You might describe someone who’s smart, confident and hard-working. And those are all wonderful qualities to have, for sure. But would employees who were due to work under that manager come up with the same elements first? You see, brains and gumption aren’t the be-all and end-all of what makes a great manager. So, let’s talk about the relationship between emotional intelligence and leadership. It's time to look at why you can’t have the latter without the former.

What does emotional intelligence mean?

The concept of emotional intelligence originated in the 90’s, with researchers John Mayer and Peter Salovey. Later, it was popularised by renowned psychologist, Daniel Goleman. Emotional intelligence (also known as emotional quotient, or EQ) is the extent to which someone is capable of understanding their emotions and regulating their reactions. But it's also the ability to comprehend the emotions of others and acting accordingly.

But before we explore the relationship between emotional intelligence and leadership, let’s break down the four key factors of EQ:


This is the ability to recognise your emotions and how they affect your thoughts. But it’s also your understanding of your own strengths and weaknesses. Someone with low self-awareness might be angry that they were passed over to lead a project. If left to their own devices, they might let that anger fester. A more self-aware person would realise that, although it’s frustrating, that other person’s skills make them better suited for that particular task.


This is the extent to which a person can control their emotional reactions, and not act impulsively. Sticking with our earlier example, the angry employee with poor self-management might start vocally complaining about being passed over. This leads to cause conflict, reducing their team’s engagement and productivity. On the other hand, someone able to self-manage would realise that throwing a tantrum will likely get them ignored again in the future.

EQ demands managers to have social awareness

Social awareness is our ability to pick up on and empathise with the emotions of people around us. It’s knowing when to crack a joke, and when to maintain a veneer of serious professionalism. It’s also knowing when people are struggling, even when they don’t come out and say it. So, it's an essential aspect of emotional intelligence and leadership in the workplace.

Relationship management

Social connections are like plants. You can’t just set them up and leave them, they need maintenance. It’s not enough just to realise that people in your team are having a bad time. You can’t reap the benefits of emotional intelligence in the workplace without being pro-active about managing your workplace relationships.

A fifth factor that’s sometimes included is motivation. But we’ll be talking about that in our section on developing emotional intelligence.

Why EQ is essential for leadership

The power of emotional intelligence at work can do great things, as shown by research from TalentSmart. Their research found that employees with average IQs seemed to outperform employees with high IQs 70% of the time. 

This is supported by a good deal of other research:

  • A study from UC Berkeley found EQ was four times more likey to predict a person's success than their IQ.
  • People with high EQ earn, on average, $29k more than those with low EQ.
  • 90% of top performers in companies have high EQ scores.
  • At PepsiCo, managers with high EQ outperformed annual revenue goals by up to 20%.

The best way to promote the benefits of emotional intelligence in the workplace is by modelling them yourself. But it’s most important for business leaders improve their EQ. The reason is that managers account for up to 70% of variation in employee engagement stats. It’s possible that you might have made manager due to your technical skills. But, without a strong EQ, you’ll struggle to make it any further.

Connecting emotional intelligence and leadership in the workplace is essential because managers set the tone for their team’s whole experience. Emotional intelligence is often thought of as a so-called “soft skill.” But that belies just how important it is for being able to manage others effectively.

Developing your EQ as a manager

Firstly, managers need to be able to self-regulate. If you’re the kind of boss who takes their frustrations out on their employees, you’re liable to make them thoroughly disengaged. And, if you can't turn it around, you'll even drive them out of the company.

But managers also need to be socially aware. If you can’t pick up on the emotional state of your team, then you’ll struggle to safeguard their wellbeing. It's all about being able to take feedback as well as give it. Feedback isn't just about correcting employee performance. It's also about allowing them to be heard and to have a say in work culture.

Finally, you need to be able to manage your relationship with your team effectively. This includes everything, from how well you stimulate buy-in and motivate your staff to pursue their objectives, to how you handle fairness and transparency, and give out rewards and promotions. A good manager should rise above favouritism and social politics. Otherwise, you risk neglecting the employees that you don’t have a soft spot for.

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How to develop your emotional intelligence to be a great leader

Our algorithm can do a lot to help you analyse employee sentiment, which can be a lifesaver if EQ isn't your strong suit. But there's no replacing the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes, or read a room in the moment. We’ve been talking about emotional intelligence and leadership. But, whether you’re a senior manager or a ground-level employee, you can still benefit from developing your EQ!


We spend so much time compartmentalizing stress that it can be hard to stop. Try to pay attention to how you’re feeling throughout the day, and question why certain things get under your skin. Journaling can be a great way of doing this, because it gets your thoughts down on paper for you to revisit.

Practice stress management and self-regulation

Pressure builds, and if you don’t find a way to release it, something’s going to explode. It could be yoga, meditation, or even just breaking stuff in a rage room. Stress management at work can even just be stepping away from your desk at a certain time to maintain work/life balance.

Self-regulation is more about letting cooler heads prevail. If you’re anxious about a big decision, or a team member is really getting on your nerves, give yourself time to breath and think rationally. It’s about having a well-thought-out response, not an emotional reaction.

Leadership with EQ have great active listening skills

You’ll always struggle to be socially aware if you’re always talking. But, whether it’s in a 1:1 meeting or a group meeting, taking the time to be quiet and listen can go a long way. But it’s not about just waiting for people to move on so you can talk about your thing. As you listen, try to find questions that can expand the discussion. This will show that you’re interested in what your team has to say.

Examine your motivations

According to the work of Daniel Goleman, the motivation we have to do work can significantly impact the state of our emotions and ability to self-regulate. It’s fair to say most people work to earn a living. But truly mastering EQ requires a stronger internal motivation than money, such as pride or passion in one’s work. This could explain why feeling valued at work can be a more powerful motivator than financial incentives.

Invest in soft skills training to improve leadership emotional intelligence

If you’re a progressive manager set on bringing emotional intelligence to the masses, the absolute best thing you can do is work with HR to develop training initiatives and other educational opportunities. EQ may be a soft skill, but it’s one that will really benefit workplace culture.

And finally, remember that boosting your EQ can be a long road, but it’s totally doable. Some people have more of a knack for emotional intelligence and leadership than others. But, with hard work and diligence, you’ll definitely get there.

Want to learn what great leaders and managers do and mistakes to avoid? Download our latest best practice guide: Be a better manager.