Leadership and Emotional Intelligence: Prioritizing Self-Awareness for Growth

AI in the HR world is moving beyond simply automating processes to supporting strategic talent management and workforce planning goals. It is an evolving human and technology partnership. - BY DAVE DESOUZA

Measuring emotional intelligence to identify effective leaders and the leadership skills needing development has been popular for more than two decades. What has changed is a better understanding of how emotional intelligence is crucial to effective leadership in various conditions and situations. Effective leadership means transformational leadership rather than being purely transactional. How leaders respond to employees influences productivity, inclusion, belonging, and organizational culture. Emotional intelligence supports transformational leadership and leaders' ability to engage with employees positively, promoting change when necessary. Developing emotional intelligence in current and rising leaders means developing self-awareness about personal perspectives and how relationships are managed in the workplace.

Feelings are Important in the Workplace

For organizational leaders, the ability to coach, collaborate, give and receive feedback, assist employees through conflict and crises, and promote good working relationships are just as important as technical skills. Influential leaders inspire and encourage employees to pursue personal goals through work efforts.

As a result, a leader can be technically savvy, but if their people skills are weak, that leader is likely to operate in a purely transactional manner. This can lead to low employee engagement, which brings low productivity and higher turnover. Feelings matter in the workplace and are at the core of workplace relationships. Employees may say, “I don’t feel like my manager understands our team issues,” or “I don’t feel a sense of belonging in the workplace.”

Thinking About Self First

Psychologist Daniel Goleman popularized the term emotional intelligence, and named five components of emotional intelligence. They are self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy for others, and social skills like being good at relationship management and network building.

Notice the components include recognizing a personal mental state, which helps with recognizing the mental state of others. It is easy to see that high emotional intelligence in leaders is a strong predictor of performance, and the ways in which managers with low emotional intelligence may struggle. They have trouble empathizing and frequently place blame rather than coaching employees to find collaborative solutions. They are not thinking about others and feel no need to nurture relationships. Emotions are a natural driver of human behavior. They drive how employees interact with coworkers, communicate, respond to uncertainty, express empathy, express their perspectives and ideas and much more. A leader’s level of emotional intelligence impacts their ability to develop a culture of inclusion and belonging because inclusion and belonging require a willingness to hear new perspectives.

Elements of Emotional Intelligence

During periods of disruption, leaders must demonstrate emotional intelligence. Most employees have met managers who do not understand how they come across to others. Leaders who are unaware (lacking a critical element of emotional intelligence) are likely ineffective leaders. They do not listen to feedback, cannot understand perspectives different than their own, and usually take credit for successes that should be shared. Self-awareness is thus the first element for developing emotional intelligence because it creates a foundation for change.

The second element of emotional intelligence is self-management, or the ability to manage personal emotions. Without the ability to manage emotions, the leader likely reacts rather than responds to personal feelings and employees. Judgment is also likely made quickly, effectively blocking the ability to understand the perspectives and feelings of other people. The third element of emotional intelligence is motivation. Leaders who are self-starters can inspire others to take action, too. Leaders who lack inherent motivation fail to inspire action in others, dropping the productivity of everyone around them. The fourth element is social awareness, which refers to the ability to recognize the emotions of others and group dynamics or interactions. A leader who does not have emotional intelligence will forge ahead without practicing empathy for individuals or group interactions. This minimizes opportunities for collaboration and team growth.

The fifth element of emotional intelligence is relationship management, which is the ability to coach, mentor, and guide others. It also is the ability to address conflicts, uncertainties, and even crises. Leaders must be willing to have tough conversations, address productivity issues, address conflicts between employees, and discuss topics like diversity, inclusion, and belonging. Emotionally intelligent leaders are good at conflict management, inspiring people, and teamwork.

Changing Self Through Practice

How does a leader develop emotional intelligence? Korn Ferry analyzed data from Korn Ferry Hay Group leadership and employee surveys and developed ESCI competencies for development purposes. The competencies are behaviors that can be learned and developed. They include learning active listening skills, empathy, coaching and mentoring, motivational and engagement, communication, conflict management, and relationship skills.

These skills can be built through practice. Sonali D’silva, an Inclusive Leadership Facilitator, Leadership Coach and D&I Consultant, notes that the key to developing leadership skills is first to understand the difference between talking and thoughtfully responding. She proposes several ways to become a more emotionally intelligent leader.

First is to think, feel, regulate, and then move forward thoughtfully to events and people. Next, focus on deepening emotional awareness each day, learning to read people better, and offering empathy when needed. Exercise empathy by stepping back and focusing on empathetic communication instead of pronouncing judgments or offering unwanted advice.

However, it is important not to confuse expressing empathy with the need to offer frank feedback. One must also not blame others when things go wrong, but instead, be accountable and manage the situation in collaboration with team members. Finally, leaders must read, accept, and address work issues when they arise, even if they create discomfort. Holding difficult conversations about things that need to change is not easy, but an emotionally intelligent leader works with employees to develop tolerance and resilience. In this way both leaders and the team grow.

Start With Honest Self-Reflection

Developing emotional intelligence as a leader is not easy because it requires honest self-reflection. A leader must be willing to assess their personal perspectives, communication skills, and relationship skills. That serves as the foundation for building emotional intelligence, a skill set that is vital in today’s volatile business environment.

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