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Emotional Intelligence Has Never Been More Important For Leaders

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EQ doesn't come naturally to everyone—even the best leaders. Here are five key components to work on developing the muscle.

If the last two-plus tumultuous years have taught us anything, it’s that we must be able to deftly adapt to change in both our personal and our work lives. And for business leaders dealing with staff working remotely or on a hybrid schedule, emotional intelligence—using empathy and gratitude—can go a long way in building employee satisfaction that results in an organization’s success, even in uncertain times.

The term emotional intelligence was conceived by Rutgers psychologist Daniel Goleman, who wrote in a 1998 Harvard Business Review article:

“The most effective leaders are all alike in one crucial way: they all have a high degree of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence. It’s not that IQ and technical skills are irrelevant. They do matter, but…they are the entry-level requirements for executive positions. My research, along with other recent studies, clearly shows that emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership. Without it, a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great leader.”

So, what, exactly, defines emotional intelligence?

The following are the five key components of emotional intelligence as identified by Goleman. These qualities, which allow leaders to recognize, connect with, and learn from their own and other people, are:

1. Self-awareness—Self-aware leaders understand not just their emotions, but also their strengths and weaknesses. They acknowledge their egos and work to ensure that their personal traits benefit the workforce. A self-aware leader takes time to process information without immediately reacting, or overreacting, in difficult situations.

2. Self-regulation—No matter how difficult, a strong leader manages to stay in control of their emotions without lashing out and stay calm in the face of chaos.

3. Motivation—A  passion for work that goes beyond money and status. Leaders understand what they want to do and why they want to do it. This requires a certain degree of self-reflection. Emotionally intelligent leaders set high standards for themselves and their staff and offer incentives to motivate employees to do their best. Remaining optimistic is key in helping workers perceive the benefits of a situation and stay committed to accomplishing their goals.

4. Empathy for others—Empathetic managers easily put themselves in someone else’s shoes. By actively listening to their employees, challenging stereotypes, and delivering feedback with equanimity, these leaders can build a positive workforce that fosters loyalty and collaborative problem-solving.

5. Social, or “soft” skills, such as proficiency in managing relationships and building networks—The best leaders are those who are skilled communicators and who can resolve conflict and meet change with a diplomatic, encouraging attitude.

Intertrust Group COO Chitra Baskar, writing for Forbes, noted that amid a global pandemic, it’s easy to get caught up in the chaos and bad news that seem to slam us every day. The key to being a good leader, she added, comes from being grateful, which dovetails with two of Goleman’s five characteristics of emotional intelligence: self-awareness and empathy.

As Baskar wrote:

“As a leader, you should look inward at how you felt with your own circumstances and apply that sentiment and sense of care to the people who work for you now. I believe the pandemic showed the importance of bonding with those close to us—whether that be family, friends, or co-workers—so it’s imperative to look back, cherish and honor those developments and apply them to a new way of managing today.”

As businesses begin to recover from the pandemic, the need for emotionally intelligent leadership will be imperative, as the landscape of the workplace and the way in which organizations work have changed forever. A hybrid or virtual workforce poses specific challenges to leaders, who must recalibrate their management style to help employees adapt and thrive.

According to a study by The Adecco Group—a human-resources and temporary staffing company—74 percent of employees want their managers to demonstrate a leadership style focused on empathy and a supportive attitude, and 70 percent of workers say they feel that the appropriate support for their mental wellbeing is important to their working life after the pandemic. And three in four employees would appreciate continued flexibility and a mix of office-based and remote work going forward.

Emotional intelligence doesn’t come naturally to all business leaders, but it can be learned. Connecting with staff through empathy and communication can foster increased employee engagement. Leaders who listen to their staff, especially those who are working virtually, to understand their thoughts and emotions, will cultivate a workforce that is more content and more productive even during unpredictable times.


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