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3 Ways to Use Emotional Intelligence to be a Better Leader

Explore the power of emotional intelligence in leadership and Uncover 3 practical strategies to become a more effective and empathetic leader.

3 Ways to Use Emotional Intelligence to be a Better Leader

Recently I’ve been consuming a lot of content around the idea of emotional intelligence (EI). Specifically, I’ve been reading Harvard Business Review’s 10 Must Reads: “On Emotional Intelligence.” It's a collection of really great essays and articles on the concept of emotional intelligence. We’ll get into the details of what makes up EI, but this definition from IHHP.com sums it up best:

“We Define EI as the ability to:

  • Recognize, understand, and manage our own emotions
  • Recognize, understand, and influence the emotions of others”

I’ve been fascinated by the concept of EI in its application to business and management. It is the single greatest attribute to what makes a great leader. Many of us advance in our careers from analysts to managers, not understanding that EI is an important attribute that’s just as important as technical skills such as financial analysis, coding, etc. It's also a reason why I think corporate America has it wrong when it comes to promoting people up the chain. Sure technical skills, business development efforts, and revenue generation are great measures for individual employee performance, but it's not a very good measure of whether or not you’re going to be a great manager. Great individual performers don’t always make great managers. So what is emotional intelligence and why is it necessary for a great leader?

If you do a Google search for “emotional intelligence” you’re going to see a lot of articles from Daniel Goleman come up. Goleman has put together a great framework for helping us understand the different components of what makes up EI. In the first essay in HBR’s “On Emotional Intelligence,” Goleman provides a copy of his essay “What Makes a Great Leader.” In this essay, he breaks down the key characteristics of someone who has a high EI.

  • Self-awareness: This is my favorite aspect of EI. It's about recognizing your emotions, moods, and most importantly how they affect others. We all have emotions that are difficult to control, but understanding how these emotions affect others is a characteristic of someone with a high EI.
  • Self-Regulation: This is where you have that zen moment where you don’t let your emotions get the best of you. This is where your head dominates what your heart wants. Yeah you’re pissed, yeah you’re angry, but can you control your emotions so they don’t spill outward onto others?
  • Motivation: The key here is that this is motivation to work for reasons other than financial gain. Someone who has a high EI works because they genuinely love what they’re doing and are focused on achieving the end goal, not just the financial gain. They do it for passion and personal fulfillment. These are absolutely the best (and rarest) kind of employees to recruit.
  • Empathy: It takes a really special person to understand what really pushes the emotional buttons of someone else. More importantly, it takes a really special person to know all the negative emotional buttons and to know how to stay away from those triggers. These are the kind of people who are experts at team building, partnership building, and working in multinational environments with lots of cultural sensitivities.
  • Social Skill: Someone who has a high EI is adept at finding ground between multiple different personalities and finding ways to build relationships with these different personalities. These are the types of folks who are very good at leading change amongst competing interests and stakeholders.

So what’s an example of someone who has a high EI? Let’s say you’re managing a business development opportunity and your team just screws the pooch on the final orals. Someone with a low EI would blow up at the team after the presentation, tell them how they’ve screwed up a large opportunity for the company, and tells them to shape up or it will reflect on their performance reviews. Someone with a high EI would take a step back, take in a deep breath, consider all root causes for the screw-up, and then provide constructive criticism on how to make sure the screw didn’t happen again. As you can see, the person with a high EI is applying self-regulation (not blowing up even though your ass is on the line with your management) and empathy (knowing that the team probably already feels bad that they screwed up).

As someone who manages a small team spread out across the world, I started thinking about my own EI and how that applies to me as a leader. I’ve worked for managers who have extremely high EI and I’ve worked for managers who have almost zero EI. Needless to say, the managers who had the high EIs became mentors, and sources of inspiration and were the ones that I worked 80+ hours a week for without complaining. The managers who had the low EI? Well, that actually resulted in me quitting and leaving the corporate world.

With that in mind, I started to really look at how I manage my team and to see if I am applying principles of emotional intelligence to how I manage. Ultimately my goal is to get my employees to work harder and find a sense of meaning in their work. So how could I use my EI to do that?

Thinking through the EI framework, I realized there were 3 key areas that we as managers need to remember about the people we’re managing:

 

Know that Your Actions Have a Direct Effect on the Lives of Your Employees Before and After Work

How many times have you gone to dinner with your friends and one of them has to spend the entire dinner venting about how terrible and sociopathic their boss is? We forget sometimes that we as “Bosses” have a direct effect on the stress and anxiety that our employees feel when they come home. In fact, I would say that relationships at home (with husband/wife and parents/kids) can be destroyed by a manager who has very low EI.

Know that one of your employees is having a tough time at home? Are they going through some personal issues? Maybe changing your tone of voice or acknowledging that the employee is going through tough times prior to approaching a negative work-related issue is a great way to show some empathy. There have been times when I’ve taken over a task on a deadline because I knew the person responsible for the task was having some personal trouble. This is definitely the exception, not the rule (if you find yourself covering for your employees constantly because they have personal problems there is a bigger root problem).

The point here is that you shouldn’t see this as treating your employees with “kid gloves,” but more so that you’re treating them like an actual human being and showing some empathy for some of the troubles that they’re having at home. Remember, most people probably take these problems home with them, so understand that you have a lot of power over your employees’ emotions and what they take home with them at night before you explode. This will go a long way to building trust and getting great performance out of your employees.

 

Being More Organized and Detailed Helps Employee Performance

As managers, we all want that superstar employee where we don’t have to explain a specific task or project and he/she can just run with it and get it done. The reality is that most employees are not superstar employees. You need to take the time to be as detailed and organized as possible in explaining the task or project. I remember when I started my career as a junior-level consultant, my boss would take the time to walk through the work with me and prepare examples so that I could better understand the task. He also took the time to explain to me how the job that I did, had dependencies on all the other projects. If I made a mistake on this project, it would potentially have an effect on projects X Y and Z. It might have taken my manager longer to explain the work to me than to do it himself, but the end result was that I completed the project on time, without error and I had a solid foundation to work off for future projects.

Have you ever received a project from a manager where they literally just dumped it on you with little to no explanation? This causes a lot of stress and anxiety for most people because very few people can just pick up a project without any guidance and get it right the first time. Without taking the time to explain the project and walk through examples, this is going to lead to mistakes, rework, and stress and anxiety for the manager and the employee. So if you’re a manager, do your best to prepare and be as detailed as you can when explaining or teaching a task to an employee, don’t just dump it on them!

 

Being Forthcoming with Your Mistakes and Weaknesses Builds Trust with Your Employees

If I could add one more characteristic to EI it would be something along the lines of “Vulnerability.” One thing I’ve keyed in with people who I work or partner with is how willing are they to be forthcoming with their mistakes or shortcomings. Do they admit their mistakes readily? Do they admit their mistakes and put the “spin” on them? Do they flat-out deny that they made the mistake?

I’ve noticed that the folks that I perform the best with are the ones who are willing to objectively look at a situation when something has gone wrong and quickly admit fault, understand the root cause of the problem, and provide suggestions immediately on how they will fix it. That’s easy to do when you’re equals or a subordinate, but what if you’re the boss who did something wrong?

For some reason when people become a manager, we lose this sense of vulnerability in the appearance that we’ll seem like a weak leader to our employees. I see things completely the opposite. Just because you get promoted to a manager doesn’t mean that you’re going to stop making mistakes. If anything, there is a GREATER chance that you’re going to make mistakes with the increased responsibilities that you’ll have. But for some reason, we as managers (myself included) are hesitant to admit to our employees when we’ve done something wrong. I’ve realized that even when I admit fault sometimes, I try to justify why I made that mistake, which in reality takes away from me accepting responsibility for the mistake. It's sort of like your subordinate telling you… “I’m sorry I screwed up this report, but I was so busy taking care of all these other things you assigned me, I just didn’t get it right.” That kind of seems like a cop-out answer.

The reality of it is that we as managers expect our employees to admit to their mistakes, find corrective actions, and not provide excuses. Why wouldn’t we expect the same from ourselves to our employees? The ability to own up to a mistake and voice it to your employee is a strength, not a weakness, and is a great showing of emotional intelligence!

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