Emotional intelligence might be one of the most underrated skills in the workplace.
But when the average person steps into a leadership role, their emotional IQ may not matter as much as it should.
Often, their technical skills and allegiance to the company rank higher than a person’s ability to manage emotions effectively.
To fully embody the role of leader—and not just task manager—new and existing leaders alike should evaluate the full scope of their emotional intelligence.
Here’s how the best leaders model emotional intelligence in the workplace.
First, what is emotional intelligence?
In his 1995 classic, Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ, Daniel Gorman popularized the idea that emotional intelligence—the ability to understand and manage emotions—can have a colossal impact on our success at work.
The idea may seem like a no-brainer now, but his notions of emotional intelligence have had a lasting influence on the way we think about emotions and behavior, particularly in the workplace.
At work, emotional intelligence helps leaders, independent contributors, and everyone in-between to navigate tricky situations with finesse, motivate and inspire others, and ultimately, bring their best selves to work.
How the best leaders put emotional intelligence to work
For leaders especially, having a high level of emotional intelligence fosters healthy communication and happier employees.
Here are six defining traits of an emotionally intelligent leader:
1. They work on self-awareness
Self-awareness goes deeper than we usually realize. It’s not just about things like knowing when to stop talking during a meeting.
A self-aware leader regularly takes inventory of their strengths and weaknesses and uses this knowledge to refine their interactions with others on an ongoing basis.
Through self-reflection (both ongoing and in-the-moment), a self-aware leader learns their own triggers (positive and negative) and works to understand them so that they can overcome any blind spots to drive cohesion and positivity within their teams.
2. They learn to self-regulate
One of the most telltale signs that a person lacks emotional intelligence is their propensity for sudden outbursts and rushed decision-making.
They rarely stop to consider the impact or consequences of their words or actions and in stressful situations, they act almost entirely on impulse.
When a person self-regulates, they put their emotions in perspective before racing to respond. They achieve this by taking a moment to think through the emotions they’re experiencing versus the people involved and the situation at hand.
For leaders, self-regulation means crafting an internal compass or code of ethics that helps to keep you calm and accountable, even when the going gets tough.
3. They maintain motivation
An emotionally intelligent leader doesn’t succumb to negative thought patterns that sap them of their motivation.
They know they can’t control the way they feel, but they also know they can influence their feelings by exerting some control over their thoughts.
If such a leader were in a situation where they were helpless to change something important for their team, for example, they would not only find the silver lining, they’d also positively re-frame the problem for their subordinates.
Emotionally intelligent leaders are optimistic and encouraging, and they’re able to extend their motivation to those who work with and for them.
4. They possess and show empathy
Empathy may not be the first thing that comes to mind when we think of a strong leader, but the ability to identify with other people’s perspectives is often what separates a great leader from a good one.
Leaders who possess high levels of empathy know how to prevent their colleagues from feeling judged, unappreciated, or imposed on. Empathy enables them to determine how someone feels and respond in an authentic way, which results in higher levels of motivation and better work relationships.
By leading with empathy, managers provide the psychological safety needed to communicate effectively, resolve conflicts with minimal friction, and solve problems collaboratively.
5. They build a range of social skills
Every great leader calls on a range of social skills to help them lead effectively.
It’s not enough to “seem nice” or make friends with members of your team. An emotionally intelligent leader masters the art of communication from top to bottom—a skill that enables them to provide criticism with the same ease as providing praise.
They don’t take a hands-off approach to fostering a sense of unity within their team. They actively look for opportunities to set the standard by modeling emotionally intelligent behavior—whether that means honoring their commitments, volunteering to get in the trenches, or offering balanced and constructive feedback.
Taken together, these characteristics help emotionally intelligent leaders to build one of the most necessary components of a healthy work environment—trust.