Emotional intelligence: 5 skills for leaders to master

You don’t have to go too far back to find people rather scoffing at emotional intelligence (also known as EI or EQ) as a ‘soft skill’ in leadership development terms. Today it has become a key attribute for business and people leaders, and the very best ones have it in spades.

But why have emotional intelligence skills become so important now, what are the benefits of higher EI and how can you develop your own or look to develop it in your leaders?

Why are emotional intelligence skills so important?

Perhaps the answer lies in the degree and rate of evolution and disruption in workplaces (and the world around us). Consider the shifts you may have seen in your own organisation or at previous employers with the flattening of hierarchies, the rise of cross-functional and remote working, and the younger generations joining with very different outlooks, traits and expectations.

Against such a backdrop, having higher emotional intelligence – and all that this brings – has quickly become an increasingly important string to a manager’s bow.

Away from the ‘change’ reasoning, it’s also worth noting that as leaders progress to more senior roles, the capabilities and skills they need to be successful often change. So, for instance, people skills become more critical than their own technical knowledge or expertise. While this has arguably always been the case, there’s a strong argument that this kind of leadership progression and promotion hasn’t always been a smooth process (it still isn’t in too many cases).

“Our experience of running diagnostic-based employee engagement survey and 360 feedback programmes time and again highlights ‘emotional intelligence’ (or skills closely related to it) as one of the top three action areas for leaders and managers.”

What is the benefit of having higher EI?

There’s lots, really – and it benefits both the leaders individually and the collective (be that their immediate team or the wider organisation).

Some of the most telling and significant outcomes we’ve seen in teams with higher EX include:

  • Better levels of employee engagement (as measured in the next survey results)
  • Improved manager performance, and ratings of manger by subordinates
  • Increased ability to deal with negative emotional states like stress and conflict at work
  • Leaders feeling well equipped to have good quality (and often tricky) conversations
  • A stronger feedback culture enabling open and honest communication between teams.

5 ways to develop higher EI

Much of the leadership development activity we suggest to our clients is geared to improving a manager’s own self-awareness, making them more aware of those around them and equipping them with the ability to adapt and manage different scenarios.
Training and practical ‘hands on’ learning tends to be most effective here using techniques including coaching, ‘real play’ actors and live feedback.

Here’s a breakdown of five priority areas to focus on:

1. Self-awareness
In order to become more self-aware, you first need to understand your preeminent social style (see below for more on this). This will help you recognise your preferences and understand your strengths and weaknesses.

Grid showing different social styles and typical behaviours

2. Self-management
Once you know yourself better, attention turns to helping adapt your social style to best suit a scenario or person. Exercises here will seek to provide you with a deep understanding of yourself and how best to manage your (emotional) triggers.

3. Social awareness
It’s now time to look outwards, by being more aware of the environment and people around us. This is all about our empathy – being more empathetic helps us when managing difficult conversations and understanding others. This is particularly important when your peers have a different social style to your own.

4. Social management
Being able to manage your impact on others is a key aspect of being able to mediate. And dealing with conflict, business change or other challenging social scenarios is something all people managers need to be able to do well.

5. Communication skills
Good communication skills are, of course, fundamental for managers at all levels. But it isn’t just about what you say as a manager but also what’s unsaid, so you should also focus here on your non-verbal communication.

Further reading?

There’s a more expansive list of the facets making up our emotional intelligence (and some other resources, including how to measure it) on the London Psychometric Laboratory’s website.

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