Emotional Intelligence and Leadership Effectiveness: Bringing Out the Best

Emotional Intelligence and Leadership Effectiveness: Bringing Out the Best

Time for an honest self-appraisal. Would most people who you’ve worked with you say that you bring out the best or the worst in them?

When I reflect on my own career and the various reasons I either left companies or was willing to move laterally, it was always because of a poor relationship with a manager.

For most of us, it’s easy to name the individuals who have brought out the best in us — and maybe easier still to name people who have brought out the worst. These memories are significant because of the way these managers made us feel.

The late Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Leading With Emotional Intelligence

Whether we’re at home or at work, our emotions are woven into our every interaction. They influence how we react to challenges and opportunities. They determine whether or not we collaborate to resolve conflict. They prompt our willingness to forgive ourselves and others. As we move through our days, our emotions play a role in the amount of effort we demonstrate, what behaviors we display, our psychological health, and our moods.

Popularized by psychologist Daniel Goleman, emotional intelligence is defined as our capacity to be aware of, to control, and to express these emotions. It enables us to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.

Emotional intelligence has the following 4 key components:

  1. Self-Awareness: The ability to know your emotions, as well as your strengths and weaknesses, and recognize their impact on performance and relationships.
  2. Self-Management: The ability to control both positive and negative emotions and impulses and be flexible and adaptive as situations warrant.
  3. Social Awareness: The ability to have empathy for others, navigate politically, and network proactively.
  4. Relationship Management: The ability to inspire through persuasive communication, motivation, building bonds, and disarming conflict among individuals.

The managers who have had a strong impact on my job satisfaction had high emotional intelligence and leadership effectiveness. They brought out the best in me because they were strong communicators, they were empathetic, and they made me feel appreciated.

Why High Emotional Intelligence in Leadership Drives Employee Engagement

The ability to connect emotionally with employees is essential for leadership effectiveness. In part, that’s because the way a leader makes you feel can impact your engagement as well as your productivity. Emotions can weave through every work situation you experience, including:

  • Change and uncertainty
  • Interactions with colleagues
  • Conflict and relationships
  • Effort and burnout
  • Achievement and failure

According to Closing the Engagement Gap, a book by the researchers Julie Gebauer and Don Lowman, only one-fifth of the global workforce is considered fully engaged. That’s especially problematic when organizations go through challenging times like the recent pandemic because, in times like these, employers depend on their employees to help the organization come through strong and equipped for the future.

If employees are committed and engaged, they’re more productive, which positively impacts organizational profitability.

In a study conducted by our researchers, we found that empathy in the workplace (a factor correlated with emotional intelligence) is positively related to job performance as well as our own and other’s emotions. Managers who show more empathy toward direct reports are viewed as better performers in their job by their bosses. On the other hand, disengaged employees can become a liability. To be more empathetic, and to drive higher engagement in the workplace, emotionally intelligent leaders should strive toward these 4 qualities:

  1. Try to see the world as others see it.
  2. Be non judgemental.
  3. Work to understand another person’s feelings.
  4. Communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings.

When I think of my manager who lacked critical people skills, I remember a time in my life that included daily stress, dissatisfaction, and lack of engagement from the types of assignments I’m normally passionate about. During that period of my career, my productivity was low. Instead of applying innovation and creativity to my tasks, I was focused on completing my work as quickly as possible — putting in my 8 hours and limiting my interactions with my manager — just to get a paycheck.

All Emotion is Functional 

Whether your own behaviors or the actions of others are driving positive or negative emotions, it’s important to understand that both are impactful in different ways. Before you can apply new practices and strengthen your emotional intelligence, assess your current emotions and consider the outcome you want.

Positive Emotions Broaden

  • Supporting resiliency
  • Improving our thinking
  • Undoing negative emotions
  • Building new skills
  • Creating psychological capital

Negative Emotions Narrow

  • An indicator of potential threats
  • Calls attention to an issue
  • A mechanism of learning

Oftentimes, our negative emotions are provoked when someone or something presses a “hot button.” Hot buttons are people or situations that may irritate you enough to engage in conflict and produce destructive responses. The “hotter” the button, the more likely you may be to experience strong negative emotions, feelings of personal provocation, automatic and impulsive responding, and increased tension.

How Leaders Can Show Emotional Intelligence

Leaders at every level in an organization benefit from high emotional intelligence. Taking the following actions will help you build your emotional intelligence and leadership effectiveness:

1. Connect with employees on a personal level.

When you demonstrate a willingness to help your employees and to recognize their efforts, you show that you care about them as individuals and that you’re an emotionally intelligent leader. This act of caring builds trust between leaders and their employees.

Empathy has long been a soft skill that’s overlooked as a performance indicator. Research from CCL, however, has shown that today’s successful, emotionally intelligent leaders must be more “person-focused” and able to work well with people from varying teams, departments, countries, cultures, and backgrounds. (Learn more about the 4 ways leaders can show empathy in the workplace.)

2. Unlock motivations.

As important as compensation and benefits are, we know they are not the only things that matter when it comes to keeping employees productive and engaged. These benefits are a part of a larger motivation equation. Most of the time, understanding what motivates your employees is as easy as asking them and listening to their responses. Once you understand your employees’ motivations, you can improve retention, influence job satisfaction, and help them navigate uncertainty. (Learn 3 ways to boost employee motivation.)

3. Seek to understand.

Your ability to understand where your employees are coming from — their social identity and how their experiences may have informed their perspectives — demonstrates a willingness to see the world as others see it, without standing in judgment. Emotionally intelligent leaders who want to harness the power of their employees’ diverse experiences and succeed in the new talent economy must understand and consider people’s different lived experiences to help their teams achieve their full potential.

Even if you have high emotional intelligence and leadership effectiveness, it’s not easy to get to know every employee below the surface. It’s challenging to see the world as others see it and to accept a variety of perspectives in a nonjudgmental way.

Building those skills requires increasing your self-awareness, strong active listening skills, and a willingness to learn and recognize your own emotional triggers and weaknesses. Leader effectiveness is constrained or amplified based on how well leaders understand themselves, their awareness of how others view them, and how they navigate the resulting interactions.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Foster emotional intelligence and leadership effectiveness at your organization with a customized learning journey for your leaders using our research-backed modules. Available leadership topics include Authenticity, Emotional Intelligence, Feedback that Works, Listening to Understand, Psychological Safety, and more.

Access Our Webinar!

Watch our webinar, Emotional Intelligence in Leadership: What’s Needed During Unstable Times, and learn ways leaders can leverage their emotional intelligence skills to improve effectiveness.

June 25, 2020
Shelley Thompkins
About the Author(s)
Shelley Thompkins
Shelley is a Senior Faculty member at CCL, where she serves as an expert consultant, solutions designer, and facilitator for in-person and online leadership development programs. She has a BA in Economics from Howard University, an MBA from American University, a Master of Theological Studies from Emory University, and a PhD in Business Management from Capella University.

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