Emotional intelligence: 7 essential tips for leaders

A new year brings new opportunities – and plenty of unknowns. Use this advice to conquer fears, handle stressful situations, and lead with emotional intelligence
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In 2019, leaders told us time after time that emotional intelligence helped them conquer their toughest challenges at work. Whether going into a difficult conversation with a colleague, motivating a team, or dealing with the stresses of the unknown, leaders relied on their EQ to keep their emotions in check and model positive behaviors.

Emotional intelligence has become a top trait that IT leaders look for in new hires – and an essential component for effective leadership, says Sanjay Malhotra, CTO of Clearbridge Mobile.

Emotional intelligence skills help you deal with stress and model positive behaviors.

“When you occupy a leadership role, you are required to anticipate and control your emotions, understand emotions felt by others, and continually adjust your communication style to fit varying situations. In other words, leadership performance relies heavily on emotional intelligence. It’s vital for leaders to nurture the growth of their EQ in order to practice genuinely effective leadership,” says Malhotra.

[ How does your EQ stack up? Read also: Emotional intelligence test: 5 self-evaluation tools for leaders. ]

With 2020 fast approaching, it’s wise to add emotional intelligence development to the top of your list of resolutions. We gathered some of the best tips we shared in 2019 to help you lead with emotional intelligence in the year ahead and tackle difficult situations that come your way.

1. Counteract the fight or flight response

Think back to a difficult situation you dealt with in 2019. Maybe work piled up, deadlines were missed, or a co-worker was getting on your last nerve. Did you want to scream? Run? Fight? Emotional intelligence can help you pause, breathe, and take notice of how stressful situations affect you.

“In critical conversations, avoid triggering the fight-or-flight threat response by creating a sense of safety,” says Halelly Azulay, CEO of TalentGrow. “Ensure that the conversation is based on constructive intentions – and communicate those openly.”

Doing this consistently takes a lot of practice. “The key to not reacting emotionally in critical conversations is to learn to regulate our emotions,” Azulay notes. “Three ways from scientific research to regulate our emotions during critical conversations are labeling our emotions, reframing them, and becoming more mindful and present to the moment by shutting off the internal ‘narrator’ in our head.”

[ Read more tips for dealing with difficult situations at work. ]

2. De-personalize criticism of your work

Jaeson Paul, senior strategist at CI&T wrote a five-step process for dealing with negative feedback from a colleague, and it’s a master class in emotional intelligence. He recommends that we de-personalize the message when people criticize our work. 

“Our natural response is the opposite of this,“ he points out. “They say 'that color is not working,' and we hear 'you are bad at picking colors.' They say 'this rollout strategy is not thought through,' and we hear 'you are a bad strategic thinker.' 

“Instead, consciously keep the focus on the work itself, where it belongs,” Paul advises. “If you are so attached to the work that even that feels like a personal attack, it’s a signal to reevaluate your relationship with the product. You are the work’s way into the world, not the work itself.” 

3. Prepare for the unexpected

Margery Myers, a consultant and coach with Bates Communications, shares a method for dealing with sudden or unexpected issues: It's dubbed, appropriately, “ABC.” We can think of a number of other stressful situations that the "ask-breathe-count" approach can be applied to in order to keep negative emotions from derailing your day.

  • First, ask questions. Instead of reacting, ask for more information. “That is a great way to make other people feel heard and for you to learn more about a situation, as long as they are non-judgmental questions,” Myers says. “It is also a way to put a pause in the situation and buy some time to think.”
  • Second, breathe. Take a few deep breaths. “Breath control is an important method to refocus the brain when you are feeling tense or emotional,” says Myers. “Breathe in through your nose on a count of three and exhale on a count of three, to calm and focus yourself.”
  • Third, count. Pick a number that works for you – three, ten, whatever. Then, when confronted with a tense or emotional situation, count to that number to give yourself time to get control of your emotions and respond more calmly.

[ Read more tips for staying calm in high-pressure situations. ]

4. Embrace what you don’t know

Do the words “I don’t know” make you feel defeated? Use emotional intelligence to recognize this as a perfectionist tendency, then reframe it as an opportunity – to make a connection, learn something new, or solve a problem.

“Perfectionists think they need to be in the know,” says psychologist and executive coach Dr. Melanie Katzman. “Don’t understand what’s being asked of you? Pick up the phone – or better yet, walk down the hall. Have a verbal interaction. Sometimes the person requesting your services doesn’t really know what they want, but together, you can articulate the ‘right’ question.”

How are your listening skills? Let’s explore:

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.