Emotional intelligence: 8 ways to improve yours in 2021

As pandemic fatigue hits new highs, your emotional intelligence as a leader has never been more important. Which of these tips and strategies could help you strengthen your EQ?
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Back in the pre-pandemic days of 2016, the World Economic Forum predicted that emotional intelligence (EQ) would be one of the top ten skills necessary for survival in the workforce of 2020.

Turns out, they were right. Two years later, McKinsey & Company declared that the need for emotional skills would outpace the demand for cognitive skills through 2030. TalentSmart, meanwhile, found that emotional intelligence was the strongest predictor of workplace effectiveness, accountable for 58 percent of success across roles; nine out of ten top performers the company studied were high in EQ while just 20 percent of low performers were.

Looking at the year ahead ­– fraught with the continuation of COVID-19 realities and preparations for what’s next ­– it’s clear that EQ will be foundational for CIOs and their teams. “Emotional intelligence for IT leaders and managers is always important, but it will be even more so in 2021,” says Janele Lynn, owner of the Lynn Leadership Group, who helps leaders build relationships through emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence is the cornerstone of not only employee and customer engagement, but also competitive advantage.

EQ is the cornerstone of not only employee and customer engagement, but also competitive advantage, says Erin Kurchina, vice president of people, culture, and learning at Albert Energy Regulator. Let’s examine some actions IT leaders can take to improve their EQ in 2021.

[ Is your team exhausted? Read our related story: Remote exhaustion: 13 tips to reduce fatigue. ]

8 tips to strengthen emotional intelligence

1. Give yourself an honest EQ check-up

“The start of a new year is always a good time to do a ‘performance evaluation’ on your own EQ skills,” Lynn says. What did you do well last year? What can use some work?

Now is a good time to add to ­– rather than just reinforce ­– your EQ capabilities.

“It’s often a lot easier to just do the things you did well last year more often rather than try to reinvent the EQ wheel,” says Lynn. Now is a good time to add to ­– rather than just reinforce ­– your EQ capabilities.

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

2. Gather baseline data

“Emotional intelligence concerns understanding and managing emotions: your own and other people’s. Emotions are high in 2021,” says Gill Hasson, career coach and author of Emotional Intelligence: Managing Emotions to Make a Positive Impact on Your Life and Career and Mental Health and Wellbeing in the Workplace. “The first step is to gather information on the current state of staff well-being in the organization. This will provide evidence of the need for action and will give a baseline starting point from which to measure improvement once action is taken.”

Find out what may be causing anxiety and stress, what strategies are already in place to support well-being and mental health, and how effective those approaches are. “Once you have that information, you’re in a position to plan the next steps,” says Hasson.

3. Don't skip the time-consuming parts of leadership

Pandemic fatigue is real. Remote working is getting old. “The novelty has really worn off. The new normal has become just normal, and we’re not necessarily thinking about how to help our people navigate the adjustment, but instead, we’re focused on just getting our jobs done,” Lynn says. “This can cause us to let some of the more time-consuming parts of leadership fall to the wayside.” However, she notes, it’s more important than ever for leaders to continue to build EQ-enabled relationships to foster productive and energized teams.

[ Read also: Can emotional intelligence be learned? 4 techniques to practice. ]

4. Stretch your self-awareness muscles

Clear recognition of one’s own emotions and emotional triggers is a key underpinning of EQ. “Only with self-awareness and an understanding of our own emotional state can we begin to see or recognize others and their emotions,” Kurchina says. “We can begin to shift our focus outward and truly see others and begin to become more self-aware of our impact on others.”

When feeling emotional or triggered, leaders can take a step back to acknowledge the emotional state – without judgment.

When feeling emotional or triggered, leaders can take a step back to acknowledge the emotional state – without judgment. “[That] is the foundation for helping us understand and acknowledge others’ emotional states with empathy and without judgment,” says Kurchina.

5. Be the change you seek

“Especially during these uncertain times, people will be looking to you to set the example of what to do and how to move forward,” says Leon Goren, president and chief executive officer of PEO Leadership. Any way you slice it, 2021 will be challenging. Companies that saw revenues nosedive must reimagine their future strategies and inspire their teams; those that saw revenues boom must motivate their teams following a stressful year during which they were stretched thin.

One thing leaders can do is to model the behaviors required. “Stop speaking about how resilient others are and develop your own resilient mindset,” Goren advises.

[ How do your words stack up? Read also: 8 powerful phrases of emotionally intelligent leaders. ]

6. Mind social bonds in a remote world

“Building social bonds with co-workers is still a critical component of our jobs as emotionally intelligent leaders, and it’s hard to do when we don’t have the forced closeness of a shared workspace,” Lynn explains. Make the time and effort to steer conversations and interactions away from being task-oriented and refocus some back-and-forth on building rapport and connection.

“It is even harder, but very necessary, to help foster connections between those on your team,” says Lynn. “It can seem trivial and unimportant when there are more critical deadlines at hand, but having strong social bonds within our organization helps our people work more efficiently together, builds trust within our teams, encourages collaboration, and helps resolve conflicts productively.”

7. Focus on what you can control

“As you run into roadblocks, document the problem and then focus on the things you can do now to improve your situation,” Goren says. “Remember you are looking for improvement, not perfection.”

When facing a problem, ask what the one thing is you could do differently to make the situation better. “Consider it a brainstorming exercise that becomes part of your toolbox so that eventually you are capable of operating in this manner 90 percent of the time,” says Goren.

8. Consider one upside of "Blursday"

Sure, it’s hard to work on EQ in the dispersed work environment, but there is an upside. Developing emotional intelligence takes time; it requires daily practice, with breaks built in for reflection and growth. “One advantage to this time is that for many of us, our days look very similar to one another. So what can we do today that’s slightly better than what we did yesterday?” asks Lynn. Leaders can also have regular team discussions about what small improvements the team wants to make over the next day or week.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.

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