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Why emotional intelligence (EQ) is key to great leadership

As a business leader, if we asked you 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, and why you can’t have the latter without the former.

What does “emotional intelligence” even mean?

The concept of emotional intelligence originated in the 90’s, with researchers John Mayer and Peter Salovey, before later being 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, as well as comprehending 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:

  • Self-awareness: 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 and 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.

  • Self-management: 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, causing conflict and 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.

  • 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.

  • 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, who found that employees with average IQs seemed to outperform employees with high IQs 70% of the time. 

This is because emotional intelligence (EQ) is actually the highest predictor of job performance, explaining 58% of workplace successes. On top of that, 90% of top performers rate highly for EQ, versus only 20% of bottom performers.

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, because 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.

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 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, which has become more important than ever in recent months.

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, or risk neglecting employees that they don’t have a soft spot for.

How to develop your emotional intelligence

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!

  • Self-reflection: 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.

  • Active listening: 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, to 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. While it’s fair to say most people work to earn a living, 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: 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.

Feedback is an essential tool for leaders looking to showcase their EQ skills. Our weekly employee check-in provides the perfect opportunity to collect rich, timely feedback from your teams. Why not check it out?