Psychologists Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer conjured up the term "emotional intelligence" (EI) in 1990 to describe a form of social intelligence that includes “the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and action.” In practical terms, you can define emotional intelligence as the ability to understand and manage one’s own emotions as well as influence the emotions of others – and it can make the difference between a good leader and a great one. In his 1995 best seller, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman argued that EI, in fact, outweighed cognitive intelligence as the best predictor of business success.
Some three decades on, EI has been shown to be a critical factor in nearly every aspect of leadership effectiveness – from managing change to working with teams to navigating interpersonal relationships.
[ How strong is your EQ? See our related article: Emotional intelligence test: 5 self-evaluation tools for leaders. ]
10 emotional intelligence tips for leaders
Yet EI is not simply a skill IT leaders acquire and put on a shelf, but something that takes diligence and practice to incorporate into daily interactions. To help with that, we’ve gathered some timeless tips from experts for bringing EI to bear at work. Think of it as a master class in emotional intelligence.
1. Be the change you seek
Want more emotionally intelligent behavior from your teams? Look in the mirror. Leaders in EI have a kind of superpower: They set the tone for an organization by modeling the EI they wish to foster, instead of reacting to events and circumstances. “This means [leaders] need to spend some time thinking about what behaviors they want out of their teams and think about their own behaviors and how their actions may be contributing to the culture of their workplaces,” says Janele Lynn, owner of the Lynn Leadership Group, who helps leaders build trusting relationships through EI. “They’ll need to apply their emotional intelligence skills to be aware of their own behaviors and apply self-control over those behaviors to set the temperature [for] their team.”
2. Listen with your third ear
It’s easy to hear what someone is saying; to listen is another matter. People high in emotional intelligence listen with their third ear," says Dr. Steven J. Stein, founder and executive chairman for Multi-Health Systems, which develops and administers Emotional Quotient (EQ) assessments.
“It’s not just what somebody says to you, it’s also the underlying message,” Stein says. “What do they really mean? When somebody says they’re fine, for example, is that really true? Or is there more going on in their life that they’re avoiding talking about for now?” Gather data beyond what is being said.
In addition, active listening can help to fill in the gaps. “Be fully present and focused on what [the other person is] saying, without thinking of a reply,” says Harvey Deutschendorf, author of The Other Kind of Smart: Simple Ways to Boost Your Emotional Intelligence for Greater Personal Effectiveness and Success
3. Stop brain hijackings: Pause
During the Brainpower webcast series, Goleman explored how leaders can build their capacity for emotional intelligence by understanding the neuroscience behind negative emotional reactions. When the amygdala senses a threat, Goleman explained, it literally takes over the prefrontal cortex in what he refers to as an “amygdala hijack”. The result? A sudden emotional reaction – anger, fear, despair – that leads to a response that is often inappropriate, disproportionate, or ineffective.
The solution? When you sense this is happening, pause. Practice a mindfulness exercise. Focus on your breath. Go for a walk. Or simply take a moment to acknowledge the reaction. Any of these pauses can serve to deactivate the amygdala and energize the prefrontal cortex.
4. Know thyself
One of the most important qualities of a leader with high emotional intelligence is that they know themselves – especially how they feel. “While many people know if they feel good or bad, high EI people know if they are agitated, anxious, excited, fearful, or nervous,” says Stein. “It may sound trivial, but it’s not. By clearly understanding your feelings, you are better able to manage them. This has been well documented in research over the past 25 years.”
There are a range of situations where you might not be clear about how you feel or your feelings are overwhelming you. “Take a minute to think about it,” says Lynn. “Taking the time to engage the thinking part of your brain and become aware of how you feel about a particular situation can help you respond in an emotionally intelligent way.”
5. Identify your triggers
You can’t predict your reaction to every situation, but there are some circumstances that you know will push your buttons. Gill Hasson, career coach and author of Emotional Intelligence: Managing Emotions to Make a Positive Impact on Your Life and Career, suggests writing down those situations so that you’re not blindsided by them every time.
What can suddenly make you unsure or doubtful? What immediately frustrates you? What sort of situations leave you feeling disappointed and resentful? What do you know for certain will leave you feeling embarrassed or humiliated?
“Periodically ask yourself what you are feeling in a variety of situations,” says Andrew Atkins, senior vice president of research, innovation, and practice at executive coaching and assessment firm Bates Communications, who suggests even setting alerts on your phone to check in on your feelings.
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