It’s not hard to remember the great managers we’ve had; the ability to motivate, inspire, unite, and lead is not a trait we often forget — or encounter. Good leadership is hard to come by — perhaps, in part, because the skills that make someone a strong, effective leader are generally not taught.
When we attend college to earn degrees, engage in employer-sponsored training to upskill ourselves in the workforce, and seek out external education to further our careers, the emphasis is often on technical skills. But when it’s time to progress in the workplace, the most common career advancement includes a promotion to management — many times without an education on, well, managing.
While there are many ways to improve leadership skills, focusing on your emotional intelligence (EI), or emotional quotient (EQ), is a powerful place to start. High-EQ leaders support creativity on teams, leading to better performance in the workplace. “Cultivating self-aware, emotionally intelligent managers and leaders is the first step of building high-performing teams and boosting engagement,” said Annette Cardwell, Senior Director of Content, Community, and Customer Marketing at Lattice, in our recent webinar, The Value of Cultivating High-EQ Leaders.
Below, we’ll take a closer look at EQ and outline several actionable ways you can improve your own.
The Importance of Emotional Intelligence
EQ is about how well you’re able to understand and influence yourself and others. Psychologist and author Daniel Goleman, PhD is credited with popularizing the concept of EQ in his 1995 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, in which he outlined the four components we now associate with EQ:
- Social Awareness
- Relationship Management
High EQ is linked to improved job performance, leadership ability, and greater satisfaction with relationships. Research finds that emotionally intelligent leadership supports diverse and equitable teams, which leads to more innovative outcomes. When managers cultivate a work environment in which employees feel comfortable expressing ideas, sharing critical feedback, and asking questions — all hallmarks of a psychologically safe workplace — companies are more creative, adaptable, and innovative.
High-EQ leaders have better communication skills and also happen to be a lot more rewarding to work with. “There is a huge difference between being a manager, a leader, and an effective leader — one who garners results but also respect,” said Lori Scherwin, executive coach and founder of Strategize That, a New York City-based leadership consulting firm. “That difference is empathy,” she added — a core component of a healthy EQ.
4 Steps for Improving Your EQ
One big plus about emotional intelligence is that it’s not set in stone — you can improve it. According to an article in Harvard Business Review, coaching programs, accurate feedback, and a willingness to change are all key to increasing EQ.
Emily Goodson, founder of culture-focused HR consulting firm Culture Smart, said that EQ helps leaders form relationships, but also affects their self-awareness — an aspect of EQ that’s sometimes less focused on. “Building your EQ will support you in creating relationships with peers and supervisors, but it’s also really important for self-management, which is essential for any leader,” she said.
As a first step to improving your EQ, Goodson recommended filling out this free, 40-question EQ inventory from the Global Leadership Foundation. “Figure out what quadrant you’re low in and work on that one first,” advised Goodson. But regardless of where you score and how, there are some universal practices you can incorporate into your day-to-day interactions at work to improve your EQ. Here’s what experts recommend.
1. Ask questions.
Asking questions gives you information, but also signals to your direct reports that you want to hear what they have to say, which further supports an environment of psychological safety. By asking your staff members direct questions, you’ll learn more about what’s working in their individual roles, as well as where your help is needed to remove roadblocks and provide resources.
Scherwin said to ask questions earnestly, with a true eagerness to learn. “Ask out of curiosity, not judgment,” she said. She recommended asking questions like:
- How are you? How’s it going?
- Where could you use the most help?
- What can I do differently to ensure you are successful?
- What do you need MORE of from me?
- What do you need LESS of from me?
Prompting your direct reports to share feedback in this way can give them the motivation they need to offer valuable insights and information that will help the whole team.
2. Practice active listening.
‘Active listening’ is more than just listening. According to the Center for Creative Leadership, “Active listening requires you to listen attentively to a speaker, understand what they’re saying, respond and reflect on what’s being said, and retain the information for later. This keeps both listener and speaker actively engaged in the conversation.”
A cornerstone of emotionally intelligent leadership, active listening indicates to the person speaking that the listener values what they have to say. “The thing that emotionally intelligent people understand about listening is that it’s not just about understanding, it’s about making people feel heard,” said Eugene Dilan, PsyD, SHRM, CEO of Dilan Consulting Group, a San Francisco-based consulting firm that specializes in leadership; culture; and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). And, he added, feeling heard “is truly the foundation of a good working relationship.”
An active listener provides clues that they’re engaged and following the conversation. This can include gestures such as making eye contact, nodding along, and providing verbal clues like “Mm-hm.” It can also be helpful to repeat back the gist of what the speaker has said, ending with, “Is that right?” to confirm that you’ve accurately understood what they shared.
“People are motivated when they feel respected and heard.” Scherwin said. “The more you get buy-in rather than simply direct others, the better their productivity — and ultimately yours.”
3. Focus on feedback.
Feedback helps us understand how other people view our performance and experience their interactions with us. When done right, feedback fuels success for individuals and companies and expands the sense of psychological safety on teams. But when done wrong, feedback can breed resentment, insecurity, and frustration in the workplace.
Emotionally intelligent leaders do several things well when it comes to feedback, starting with specifically tailoring feedback to each team member. As individuals, we each respond best to different types and delivery methods of feedback, and managers with high EQ know how to fine-tune feedback so it’s best received.
“Emotionally intelligent people are always calibrating how much or how little feedback they give,” Dilan said. “They also know that people have different currencies for feedback, and understand that feedback or recognition will be most effective when delivered in the appropriate currency.”
High-EQ leaders also seek feedback from those around them, both their direct reports and members of their peer group. With direct reports, leaders should always be calibrating the relationship, said Dilan. Because there’s a power differential, managers won’t always be receiving the feedback they need or are asking for, so they need to both formally ask for feedback from their direct reports, as would happen during a performance review, for example, and also seek feedback in informal ways, like during one-on-ones or a casual project check-in. Scherwin’s previously mentioned list of suggested questions would work well in these instances, too.
Emotionally intelligent leaders recognize the power imbalance with their direct reports, so they also seek feedback from peers to improve their performance. Scherwin recommended cultivating a “personal board” — a group of peers to turn to regularly for input. “Keeping regular dialogue with a group of trusted advisors, formal or informal, keeps you on your toes and gives you a safe space to bounce off ideas and get advice or help as desired,” she said. Feedback supports self-awareness, and “self-awareness is key if you want to empathize with others,” she added.
4. Know your triggers.
Emotionally intelligent people experience the same range of emotions as those with a lower EQ — they just know how to manage them better. High-EQ leaders respond, whereas others may react.
Reacting implies a knee-jerk, instinctual response, whereas responding is more thoughtful and deliberate and requires time and reflection. Reacting — especially in situations of frustration, anger, or impatience — diminishes psychological safety for those around you who are experiencing your reactive behavior, and it can often prevent a team from meeting its goal. For example, if your goal is conflict resolution between colleagues on a cross-functional project, but you grow frustrated and lose your temper in the process, you’ve neither solved the conflict nor brought the project back on track.
“The emotionally intelligent person recognizes when it’s an appropriate time to say something and when it’s not,” Dilan said. “If your goal is to build a bridge and you get triggered and you say something provocative, then the bridge isn’t built.”
One way to improve your ability to respond is to know your triggers. When you’re aware of what is most likely to create an impulsive urge to react, it becomes easier to recognize these situations and the feelings they prompt in you when they're arising and prevent a knee-jerk reaction.
“Know your triggers and take notes on them,” advised Goodson. Be specific and get curious, she said. If you react in a certain situation at work, Goodson recommended asking yourself the following types of questions afterward: “What happened in that meeting [or interaction, etc.] that made me so angry? Was it that I was interrupted? Was it who I was interrupted by? Was it something that was said?”
Then, take some time for reflection and introspection. Look for patterns and create a plan to avoid having the same reaction next time. While everyone loses their cool from time to time, feeling emotionally triggered doesn’t excuse poor behavior — so work to improve yours, especially in situations you find triggering.
For people who enjoy leading others, there has never been a better time to be a manager. Increasingly, we’re looking to our workplaces as sources of community, fulfillment, and connection — which means that leaders and managers get to play an instrumental role in creating a meaningful place to work.
But in order for work to have the capacity to provide meaning, connection, and community, psychological safety is a must. When we feel free to express ourselves, share feedback, make suggestions, and try new ideas without fear of retribution — telltale signs of psychological safety — we connect more deeply with our work and colleagues and perform at a higher level. When our workplace, and specifically our managers, create an environment in which we feel comfortable stepping outside the bounds of convention, it opens the door to creativity and innovation.
“The best leaders create a culture of openness where people understand the value they provide and feel they have an opportunity to contribute,” Scherwin said. But for this to happen, we need managers with high emotional intelligence at the helm. And while some people naturally have higher EQ than others, EQ isn’t fixed; you can apply the strategies outlined here to work on yours. While leading others might never be easy, improving your EQ will make you a more effective leader, creating a more meaningful workplace for everyone.