Emotionally Intelligent Leaders: 6 Steps to Transform the Way You Lead

Emotionally intelligent leaders are good for teams for a variety of reasons. They are more able to discern how the rest of the team is thinking and feeling, can better shape the team’s culture and environment to fit team members’ needs, and they can adjust their vision for the team and how they motivate and guide team members depending on the situation.

If you’ve been following our series on emotional intelligence, none of this should come as any surprise. But while we’ve discussed why emotional intelligence is important for leaders, we haven’t really gone into how that plays out in practice.   

So in the following post, we’ll give you some simple steps you can follow to become more emotionally intelligent leaders. This list will benefit leaders who are interested in upping their skills, obviously, but it will also hopefully help anyone who wants to learn how to become a better teammate or potential future leader. 

Remember, leadership isn’t exclusive to formal leaders or those who hold positions. Everyone can learn about leadership skills and how to become a great and emotionally intelligent leader, no matter what official title they hold.  

6 Ways to Be A More Emotionally Intelligent Leader

1. Be aware of your actions and how they impact others

Awareness is at the forefront of both emotional intelligence and leadership. And this awareness is not only concerning yourself. Being aware of how your actions affect others is the basis for empathy and understanding other people. For leaders this is especially important, given that they are actively engaged in influencing people on a regular basis. 

We often have an image of leadership as being aggressively proactive and independent-minded. We even sometimes justify bad behavior on the part of leaders because they “know how to get things done.”

However, we should interrogate that approach to leadership, and the underlying values that it holds up. Leaders are not independent, nor are they “In control” of their team. Rather, they are guiding their team and providing leadership as part of the team. Therefore, they need to be aware of how their actions are affecting everyone else.

Part of this is self-reflection, which is also important in leaders. Part of it too is about listening to others, and noticing how they react to what you’re doing. This double awareness of yourself and others can make you a more understanding and emotionally intelligent leader.  

2. Be aware of how you use your emotions

For emotional intelligence, the flip side to awareness is influence (or management or regulation). When you are aware of your emotions and the emotions of other people, you can begin to regulate your own emotions or positively influence the emotions of others.

However, this might seem to enter uncomfortable territory for some people. Self-regulation is fine, but influencing others sounds like you are trying to control them. In fact, we all have the power to influence others with our emotions, both negatively and positively, and understanding that is part of noticing how we use our emotions more broadly. This in turn is crucial when it comes to emotionally intelligent leaders, who have to know how to wield their emotions in a way that isn’t manipulative. 

Emotions are powerful, and leaders have to come to terms with that. Emotionally intelligent leaders will use emotions to uplift their team, to inspire, motivate and guide their team members. Emotionally unintelligent leaders may do the opposite–use emotions to provoke, to punish, or to control team members. 

The first step though is reflecting on your emotions and how you use them in social situations. Notice how you use different emotions, in which situations they tend to emerge, and how others react to them. 

Oftentimes we use our emotions unconsciously, so having this level of awareness will help you develop your own leadership style as well as notice when others are trying to influence others with negative emotions.   

3. Stay in tune with the rest of your team

Being an emotionally intelligent leader means acknowledging that you exist within the rest of the team: You aren’t above it or outside of it, and like we said earlier, you don’t “control it”. Understanding this means in some ways self-regulating your emotions to fit harmoniously with the rest of the team: controlling anger, sadness, resentment, and making sure to wield emotions appropriately and positively.  

Staying in tune with your team also means taking note of the general mood of the team as a hole, and being on the watch for any potential issues. Doing this means actively listening to team members, gathering feedback, and taking other team members’ needs into consideration.

A good way of thinking about staying in tune with your team is a symphony orchestra. The conductor may be the one out front, seemingly “controlling” what’s going on. But really the conductor is guiding the rest of the orchestra, which is composed of many different parts. Like a team leader, the conductor has to know what is going on with each player, but the goal is to create a harmonious hole, not an expression of the will of the conductor alone.  

4. Actively create a safe team environment and culture 

As we mentioned above, emotionally intelligent leaders are more capable of creating safe and productive environments for their team. Teams thrive best in psychologically safe environments that are more open and creative, but also give team members a sense of emotional safety and freedom from anxiety. Basically, team members need to feel respected and valued and have the ability to share their thoughts and feelings in order to generate new ideas. 

But in order to effect this type of safe environment, teams need strong and active leaders who are attuned to the emotional needs of the team. Some teams may require a more active effort in order to role model good behaviors, and create new norms and behaviors that can create a more emotionally conducive environment for all members. 

Leaders are influencers, motivators, and guides. So they are critical in the process of creating new environments. Emotionally intelligent leaders especially should work to listen to team members’ needs and look for ways to establish new norms and improve the working culture of their team. Doing this goes hand-in-hand with staying in tune with your team, but adds an extra layer of reflection and active improvement. 

Creating new norms and behaviors that shape a team’s environment–like being more open about sharing emotions, making an effort to accomodate burnout, or becoming more flexible when it comes to time off–is difficult and requires patience. But it starts with leaders recognizing their own role in shaping the team through influencing and role modeling. 

5. Don’t shy away from confrontation

Another important lesson for emotionally intelligent leaders is not to back away from conflict on the team. Emotional intelligence doesn’t mean avoiding all conflict and forcing compromise no matter what. In fact, conflict is often necessary in order to move forward and bring issues to light, especially ones that have been lingering for a while.

The key though is managing those conflicts and finding a way to come to a solution that doesn’t damage the emotions of either side. Conflict resolution and de-escalation are therefore vital skills, but so too is creative thinking. Conflict should not be looked at as a zero-sum game, but rather as an opportunity to come up with a new idea and as a means to collaborate together.

But managed conflict requires understanding emotions well, and working hard to make sure that the conflict doesn’t spill over into interpersonal relationships. Practicing managed conflict instead of trying to avoid confrontation can help make your team more emotionally healthy, and also make you a more emotionally intelligent leader.  

6. Focus on connecting–don’t try to bear it all 

The last point about emotionally intelligent leaders is more of a word of caution. What emotional intelligence says about leadership in terms of emotions and caring has the chance of causing the extreme opposite of what it’s trying to prevent. Instead of a team leader who doesn’t care about anyone else, it’s possible for leaders to become too involved, listen too much, and take on all of the emotions of the team.

When team leaders feel that they should absorb all of the complaints, needs, and emotions of the team, it creates an unhealthy relationship. It becomes too much of a burden to bear, and can easily lead to exhaustion and burnout. In order to avoid this, emotionally intelligent leaders need to focus on connecting team members to each other, rather than trying to be the sole conduit for the whole team.

What this means is that the ultimate goal of team leaders is to help form and shape teams so that they can work together to solve problems and understand each other emotionally. Team leaders don’t need to listen to every issue or problem if there is an environment of trust in place that allows teams to rely on each other for support. 

This inherently involves spreading emotional intelligence to the rest of the team–mentoring and training and teaching team members to be more emotionally intelligent and understanding of each other. It also involves team building and establishing a stronger connective tissue on the team through challenges that strengthen relationships, communication, and trust. In other words, the best way to become an emotionally intelligent leader is to make your team as networked and connected as possible.  

Photo by Antonio Janeski on Unsplash

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