Business Coach


Unusual times call for exceptional executive leadership -- and it doesn’t always come naturally. Build the skills with these four ways to improve emotional intelligence among executive staff.

Unusual times call for exceptional executive leadership -- and it doesn’t always come naturally. Build the skills with these four ways to improve emotional intelligence among executive staff. Organizations today are increasingly fragile and frazzled. Too many changes, too much turnover, and too much uncertainty make it hard for everyone to pull together and do good work. Executives should be able to calm things down and provide a stable, central example, but many leaders are themselves struggling to juggle priorities, incoming information, and daily operations. They need help to show up appropriately with staff and create a positive, highly engaged workplace.

What can help? Emotional intelligence! In fact, in unusual times like the present, emotional intelligence at the executive level can be the key difference between a functional, supportive team and dysfunctional, inefficient workgroups. That’s why the next few paragraphs will examine four key behaviors executives can practice to grow their emotional intelligence so that they can succeed in the ongoing COVID era.

According to the Adecco Group, some 74% of employees want their managers and executive leaders to demonstrate a leadership style focused on empathy and a supportive attitude. This is a change from pre-pandemic leadership norms, which often were more transactional and aimed at transforming situations. Now, the emphasis is on successfully navigating challenges together, which relies on the leader developing a deep understanding of what’s happening within the teams they manage.

One way to build this understanding and make team members feel heard is for leadership to make an effort to lead less. This intentional move can be extremely difficult, because many executives like to be seen and heard “doing something” about various situations and operational challenges. However, it’s hard to take effective action and build trust without first listening to what’s going on and how employees feel about things. AstraZeneca recommends in meetings that leaders ask questions of employees… and then stop talking. Don’t be tempted to fill every silence. Allow subordinates and team members time to talk, and even time to express emotions beyond purely transactional meeting exchanges. Ask, “How are you doing with this?” and give space for a reflective answer. As a result, executives can build deeper ties with their teams and be more in tune with what employees need and expect.

A second step executives can take is to practice transparent self-awareness. What this means is to take regular stock of emotions, reactions, and behaviors in different situations. Does the leader tend to yell at subordinates in times of stress? Are emails after hours a symptom of feeling anxiety about projects and production? When unexpected changes come up, what’s the first next step?

Once this personal awareness is developed, executives can choose to be transparent with their teams about what’s happening. After all, employees deeply desire to know what to expect from their managers, and sometimes that does mean learning that the end of the fiscal year is a time when the boss is stressed and needs different behaviors from the team. By educating workers on what’s happening, a space is opened for sharing and collaborating to build systems and processes to make life easier for everyone.

Along with practicing more transparent self-awareness, a third tactic managers can employ to build and show emotional intelligence is to create spaces for social connections among the team. While in the past, this might have meant office lunches, happy hours, or sponsored team events together in person, many offices are now hybrid or fully remote. That’s okay. It is still possible to create personal and social connections, even among fully remote and geographically distributed teams.

These social spaces allow workers and management to feel like there is a supportive team culture. COVID has been monumentally divisive and isolating, yet humans are inherently social creatures hungry for meaningful connections. Managers who can acknowledge this core human need and work to fill it make employees feel valued and cared for by their organizations. This is a key factor in retention, and has been shown to raise the perception that emotionally intelligent leadership is in place. An added perk? In building these spaces, executives have the opportunity to rotate among various virtual platforms and moderate schedules, potentially bringing more voices forward from the group and showcasing new talents and employee habitats. This creates more space for learning and listening, and more opportunities for workers to be their “whole selves” at the office (even if the office is online).

A final step for executives looking to build emotional intelligence is showing gratitude. Gratitude is an extremely powerful tool, and it is a behavior that can be practiced as a habit even by those who have not traditionally used it at the office.

To grow gratitude, executives can practice thanking and showing appreciation to their peers and staff. Simple emails, public kudos in meetings (virtual or in-person), or even short hand-written notes can have a huge impact. According to The Conference Board, showing gratitude can dramatically strengthen bonds among team members and improve managerial relations.

The world will continue to be uncertain… but executives with emotional intelligence can help organizations navigate the turmoil. By doing more intentional listening, practicing transparent self-awareness, creating space for social connections, and showing gratitude more frequently, executive leaders can build their emotional IQs and improve their team relationships. As a result, these leaders will more positively perceived and be able to create the kinds of supportive, functional, and high-performing teams that everyone wants to have.