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The Learning Curve

Great leaders cultivate “emotional intelligence.” Here’s how

In an environment of impressive IQs, emotional intelligence makes all the difference.
A man and woman demonstrating emotional intelligence while sitting at a table with a laptop.
Malambo / Adobe Stock / collage by Big Think
Key Takeaways
  • Leaders set the emotional tone for their teams and organizations.
  • Research shows that emotionally attuned leaders are more effective and increase job satisfaction among team members.
  • To bolster your “emotional intelligence” (EI), find the time to work on its core competencies.

What separates those who stagnate in their careers from those who excel? According to psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman, a sizable distinction will come from their capacity for emotional intelligence (EI). Emotional intelligence is, broadly speaking, a person’s ability to manage their feelings, recognize how others are feeling, and then utilize both to build healthy relationships.

But that skill rarely appears on any recruiter’s wish list. Peruse any job posting, and you’ll spy a litany of on-the-job experiences and technical expertise. Qualities such as empathy, teamwork, a can-do attitude, and passable small talk may be present but read like a gratuity.

As Goleman explained in an interview, every business role comes with a “floor” or a baseline of capabilities. You don’t become, say, an engineer without having an above average IQ and developing specific skills. When all your coworkers are also engineers, however, these are no longer stand-out qualities. Instead, a person’s ability to adapt, communicate, solve problems with others, and self-regulate their emotions will be what sets them apart.

“You have to coordinate, you have to influence, you have to persuade, you have to be a good team member,” Goleman told Big Think. “So when you think about it that way, it makes sense that even among engineers, emotional intelligence will predict who is a star and who is just mediocre.”

There is one position, however, where emotional intelligence leaps from a mark of excellence to an imperative — and that’s leadership. Goleman’s research has found that the higher one’s position in an organization, the more important emotional intelligence becomes. Here’s why.

Setting the “emotional tone”

As with engineers, there exists a floor for business leaders. Most start their careers after receiving an MBA (Master of Business Administration). There are exceptions, of course, and recognizing this doesn’t diminish the accomplishment. But again, when most people in a field hold a certain degree and corresponding skills, these are no longer distinguishing factors.

Nor should they be. A leader’s job isn’t finance or analytics. Those are elements of their job, but their function within an organization is mainly to motivate others to do their jobs and help them do so effectively. And setting a proper “emotional tone” is pivotal to both.

A team steeped in negative emotions and interpersonal conflict will not function well. Team members lose time managing their inner and interpersonal conflicts. That extra emotional labor degrades motivation and a sense of commitment. If the leader can’t re-establish a positive emotional tone, apathy can easily slide into hostility.

Conversely, attuned leaders model emotional regulation, setting the timbre and manner of expression for their team. These leaders can detect the “subtle undercurrents of emotion” being expressed and direct those currents to either galvanize motivation or prevent conflict. Should conflict arise — and it will — they manage the conflict to find opportunities for compromise and to reaffirm affiliation.

“The emotional tone set by any leader ripples downward with remarkable precision,” Goleman writes in Working with Emotional Intelligence. “When successive levels from top to bottom of an organization are analyzed, the effect is very much like a set of Russian dolls, one stacked inside the other, with the leader containing all the rest.”

The emotional competencies of leadership

In his analysis of CEOs, Goleman looked at the competencies that separated the lackluster from the outstanding. He found three competency clusters, two of which fell under the heading of emotional intelligence. The first is personal competencies. These included qualities such as achievement, self-confidence, and commitment. The second is social competencies, such as empathy, influence, and social awareness.

This even proved true for organizations like the U.S. Navy. While pop culture trades in the cliché that military leaders are stiff and humorless taskmasters, and some can be, the excellent leaders within its ranks are quite the opposite.

Goleman cites research showing that the most effective squadron leaders are warm, expressive, sociable, cooperative, and democratic. These leaders still took on a decisive role. They were mission-oriented, could be firm when required, and did not hesitate to take charge. But when compared to their more authoritarian and domineering peers, emotionally attuned squadron leaders had the most efficient, safest, and best-prepared squadrons.

A table with a bunch of vases on it.

“A leader’s strength or weaknesses in emotional competence can be measured in the gain or loss to the organization of the fullest talents of those they manage,” Goleman writes. “In this sense, the leader is a mirror, reflecting back to the group its own experience.”

And while Goleman’s book is starting to yellow at the edges — it was first released in 1998 — more current research continues to support its conclusions. Several meta-analyses have found correlations between emotional intelligence and effective leadership. Others show links between emotionally attuned leaders and job satisfaction among team members.

Now, none of this is to say that emotional intelligence is paramount. Goleman’s third cluster centered on cognitive competencies such as strategy, information analysis, and conceptual thinking. So while emotional intelligence is important, it’s not the be-all and end-all of leadership.

Creating time for emotional intelligence

Which leads to the question: Can a leader become more emotionally attuned? Research suggests the answer is yes, but how this can be achieved may depend on the precise nature of emotional intelligence.

There is still some debate as to whether emotional intelligence represents an ability or a personality trait. If the former, then practice makes perfect. If the latter, then improvement may require more deep-seated changes to one’s behaviors and self-perception.

To start, determine what competencies you want to improve and then devise a strategy to consciously strengthen those. For example, if you want to cultivate better self-awareness, you should dedicate time to activities that build it directly, such as journaling or certain mindfulness exercises. If you want to be more empathic, practice active listening or asking probing questions at social events.

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The next step is to devise ways to establish a positive tone for your team. Leaders have to be proactive here. They can’t assume such a tone will sprout naturally.

We need to create an environment where we help ourselves remember the positive. If you do that, we can create a much more thriving kind of organization.

Chip Conely

As Chip Conely, hospitality entrepreneur and emotional intelligence proponent, told Big Think+ in an interview: “What you need to do is create an environment where… people start believing in themselves. Because the biggest problem that tends to happen in the opposite of a thriving scenario is that people start losing faith or confidence in themselves.”

Conely’s solution is remarkably simple: Carve out time at the end of meetings to recognize peoples’ accomplishments. Such recognition exudes positive emotions, bolstering motivation and a sense of commitment, and because it comes at the meeting’s end, the team takes those feelings with them back to work.

It’s little moments like these, alongside positive social and interpersonal interactions, that go a long way toward setting a positive emotional tone. And by way of the ripple effect, it creates emotionally intelligent teams that allow people to commit fully.

“Remember that we tend to hold onto the negative and let go of the positive,” Conley added. But as leaders, “we need to create an environment where we help ourselves remember the positive. If you do that, we can create a much more thriving kind of organization.”