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Why emotional intelligence is key to successful leadership

Why emotional intelligence is key to successful leadership

6 min read
  • Leadership & teamwork

Leaders have an enormous responsibility to ensure that their teams are productive and engaged. As a leader, it can be difficult to consider emotions when making decisions, especially when your own emotional resources are constantly utilised.

However, an abundance of research has highlighted the importance of emotional intelligence in effective management. Leaders need to be able to relate to and work well with others, and have a good understanding of how their actions and emotions can impact those around them, otherwise they may unintentionally create a toxic work environment.

But what exactly is emotional intelligence and why is it so important?

What is emotional intelligence?

The term emotional intelligence was popularised in the mid-90es by journalist Daniel Goleman, who later defined emotional intelligence as “the ability to be aware of and to handle one’s emotions in varying situations”.

People with high emotional intelligence are able to accurately label both their own and other people’s emotions, discriminate between different emotions and consequently use this information to guide their behaviour and thinking. As a result, researchers created three models of emotional intelligence to comprehensively cover the concept:

  • The Ability Model – Individuals with high emotional intelligence are able to recognise and process emotional information so they can use it within their social environment.
  • The Trait Model – Individuals with high emotional intelligence reflect on their emotional dispositions and how good they are at understanding and managing emotions. Essentially, the model focuses on how a person perceives their emotional world.
  • The Mixed Model – Individuals with high emotional intelligence have five key skills and competencies: self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, self-motivation and relationship skills. These are not innate skills but can be learned and developed over time.

Why is emotional intelligence important for leadership?

Leaders can make or break the work environment culture and research shows that they can greatly influence the behaviour of their employees. As a result, both managers and leaders must cultivate a positive work environment – otherwise, it could result in low employee engagement and high turnover rates, which can have long-lasting negative consequences.

Emotional intelligence is one way to do this. It is an essential skill for effective leadership as leaders need to recognise, understand, and manage emotions within the workplace. Successful leaders are those that can reflect on experiences, interpret environmental cues, develop relationships and relate to employees.

What does the research say?

Research shows that the most effective leaders are those with resonance. Resonant leaders have high emotional intelligence and exhibit the five key skills and competencies from the Mixed Model. They communicate effectively, encourage a positive workplace culture, and take the time to explain the reasoning behind their actions so they can engage and inspire the people that they work with. The opposite are dissonant leaders, who take a more authoritative approach to leadership and prioritise organisational achievement over the individual. As a result, employees feel alienated and lose their motivation.

One study explored the underlying neural mechanisms of having a good relationship with a resonant leader. Using fMRI scans, managers were asked about their personal experiences with resonant and dissonant leaders. The researchers found that 14 regions of the brain were activated when managers recalled their experiences with resonant leaders. Key regions that were activated included the mirror system (the right inferior parietal lobe), which is involved in mirroring the behaviours and actions of others, and the anterior cingulate cortex, which is involved in arousing attention, impulse control and empathy.

In contrast, only 6 regions of the brain were activated when recalling experiences with dissonant leaders. These included the left posterior cingulate cortex which is associated with less compassion, and the posterior inferior frontal gyrus, which is associated with more negative emotions. In fact, 11 regions of the brain deactivated when managers recalled their experiences with dissonant leaders, including the mirror neuron system. 

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The link between leadership and mood

It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. This saying is particularly true for people in leadership positions as their mood can greatly transform their social environment. Research shows that 70% to 93% of communication is non-verbal and people are more sensitive to these non-verbal cues than initially thought.

At the end of the day, who is going to inspire loyalty from their team? A leader who stays calm, collected, listens to their team and considers emotional cues, or a leader who takes their stress out on the team and prioritises performance over well-being? Of course it’s going to be the former, as these types of leaders maintain confidence, enthusiasm and trust in the workplace. Why? Because emotions are contagious.

The mirror neuron system that was activated when managers recalled their experiences with resonance leaders is thought to be the cause of emotional contagion. By mirroring a leader’s behaviours and actions, employees are in a better position to understand and relate to their leader’s emotions and intentions and thus respond accordingly. Interestingly, research shows that our unconscious emotional states can influence the emotions of those around us before they or we know it.

Researchers also suggest that negative emotions are more contagious than positive emotions. This is because negative emotions trigger the Sympathetic Nervous System, which can lead to cognitive and emotional impairment. On the other hand, when leaders inspire positive emotions in their employees, this activates the Parasympathetic Nervous System which encourages the development of new neurons, a greater sense of well-being and better emotional functioning.

How to develop emotional intelligence?

So how can you actually improve your emotional intelligence to become a better leader?

Manage relationships effectively

Research from Harvard Business Review highlights that unaddressed conflict can result in employees engaging in unproductive activities such as gossiping and, on average, wastes about eight hours of work time. Not only is this time-consuming, but it can be costly to the company and impact the productivity of the team through creating a toxic work environment.

Leaders must act responsibly and use the appropriate conflict management skills to resolve conflict. Engage in active listening as this helps create genuine two-way communication between you and your employees. But active listening is more than just paying attention, it’s about considering and responding to emotional cues effectively, utilising body language appropriately and repeating key messages that have been received.

Get better at self-management

As a leader, one of the best things you can do for your team or organisation is to manage your thoughts, feelings and emotions and not take your frustrations out on the team. Avoid emotional outbursts by taking some time to reflect on a stressful situation and how you’ll respond.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s okay to take a break to focus on your mental well-being before returning to work, as neglecting your negative emotions will increase your risk of burning out.

Gain social awareness

Research shows that leaders with high empathy levels perform 40% better in employee engagement and coaching compared to those with low empathy. This is because they can effectively read the emotional and non-verbal cues their employees are exhibiting, as a way to either inform their understanding or start a conversation. Observe facial expressions, tone of voice, office dynamics and regularly check in with employees so you can manage situations efficiently.

Improve self-awareness

Research shows that 95% of people think they have good self-awareness but only 10-15% actually do. As a leader, low self-awareness can be extremely detrimental as this can decrease employee motivation levels, increase stress levels and reduce the team’s success by 50%. This is because when we have low self-awareness, we’re at risk of not realising how we come across to others, which can hinder the development of good rapport.

Leaders can improve their self-awareness by:

  • Seeking feedback from employees
  • Being mindful of their strengths and weaknesses
  • Setting boundaries about how they present themselves
  • Recognising their emotional triggers
  • Looking beyond assessments and numbers to the individual

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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