Why Emotional Intelligence is a Key Leadership Skill

Emotional intelligence has recently emerged as one of the most important skills needed to succeed in the modern workplace. While emotional intelligence, or EI, is a useful ability for just about anyone to have, nowhere is EI more critical than in today’s leaders.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to perceive, use, understand, and manage emotions in yourself and others. While it’s a relatively new concept first popularized in the 1990s, research in psychology has increasingly suggested that EI is an ability that can be improved over time, as opposed to a personality trait.

So what is it about the role of leadership that necessitates, even demands, strong emotional intelligence? Let’s think about the people who are most likely to earn positions of leadership. Typically, they excelled in their previous roles, and they were able to demonstrate strong enough performance to warrant promotion into a leadership role.

What this generally indicates is that people who are promoted into leadership are usually smart, have a lot of business knowledge about their subject matter, and demonstrate a great deal of technical skill. These qualities are all very important, but they don’t necessarily predict how well someone will perform as a leader. Leadership roles involve an entirely distinct set of responsibilities that would be wholly unfamiliar to a new manager – activities such as motivating a team, providing praise as well as criticism, managing conflict, and demonstrating empathy in acknowledging that each member of their team is a human being with a full life outside of work.

Being smart or technically skilled won’t necessarily help a manager excel. In fact, SHRM states that what distinguishes the best leaders from the mediocre ones ultimately comes down to emotional intelligence. Since most managers are already smart, EI is what takes their management skills to the next level. Why is that?

Well it turns out that emotional intelligence is related to a number of other critical qualities that make up a recipe for success. Here are just a few of the ways that emotionally intelligent leaders are better equipped to lead their teams to greatness:

They have greater self-awareness

Emotional intelligence is tied to your self-awareness. How aware are you of your current emotions and how those emotions might be coming off to others? While self-awareness may seem like a basic human quality, strong self-awareness is surprisingly rare. People ironically tend to overestimate how self-aware they are: according to research from the Harvard Business Review, 95% of people think they are self-aware, but only 10-15% are actually self-aware.

The first step to harnessing emotional intelligence in the workplace is to simply be aware of yourself. Without that, you can’t expect to successfully understand or motivate others.

They are able to motivate their teams

Great leaders and managers are able to motivate their teams to achieve a common goal.

Motivation is complicated and often very personal to the individual. External motivators, such as compensation and benefits, are set by the structure of the organization. Internal motivators, such as the need for recognition, or the need to bond with coworkers, vary widely from person to person. Successful leaders can tap into these internal motivators by understanding what motivates each individual member of their team. From there, they can foster the environment needed to help the team do their best work. And it’s no surprise that the people who are best at this type of team motivation have strong emotional intelligence.

They drive employee engagement and job satisfaction

We’ve often heard that people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers. Whether this old adage is true or not, it’s a reality that poor management can contribute to an employee’s decision to leave an organization. A lot of these poor management skills can stem from a lack of emotional intelligence.

Perhaps an employee feels that their contributions aren’t being acknowledged; or a new colleague feels excluded from the social environment at work; maybe a new parent feels as if their need for flexible work is dismissed; or worse, an employee lodges a serious workplace complaint that gets ignored. These are all reasons that might drive a person to seek new employment but could also have been alleviated if the leader was able to demonstrate more awareness and empathy.

On the flip side, a keyed in manager who gets to know what motivates their employees, understands their needs, and listens when conflicts arise can actually drive better engagement for the team. This ultimately increases a feeling of connectedness to the organization and actively discourages people from thinking about finding a new job.

To conclude, today’s emerging leaders need to have strong emotional intelligence if they want to truly excel. Modern workplaces are more diverse, more technology-driven, and more attentive to the changing world around them. Emotionally intelligent leaders will have the advantage in driving their teams forward.