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Emotional Intelligence and Leadership

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Emotional Intelligence (EI), sometimes referred to as EQ, is often used when referencing employee performance and leadership effectiveness. So, does EI play a role in one’s ability to be a successful leader?

Initially introduced by Daniel Goleman in the mid-1990s, he provided the following definition in his work, Five Components of Emotional Intelligence at Work[1]:

  1. Self-Awareness – The ability to recognize and understand moods, emotions and drives, as well as their impact on others.
  2. Self-Regulation – The ability to manage disruptive impulses and moods.
  3. Motivation – A passion to work for reasons beyond money or status.
  4. Empathy – The ability to understand and respond according to the emotional status of other people.
  5. Social Skill – The ability to build rapport and build relationships and social networks.

Goleman asserts that emotional intelligence is an equivalent or even more important factor in leadership success than the traditional traits of IQ, determination, toughness and vision.

Two other researchers, Salovey and Mayer, take a slightly different approach to EI. They feel that EI should not be included with personality traits such as optimism, motivation, self-control, or happiness, pointing to successful people who have high charisma and empathy, but consistently lack self-control or motivation.

Their work focuses on an understanding of emotional intelligence as defined in Psychology Today:

“Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others. It is generally said to include three skills:

  1. Emotional awareness, including the ability to identify your own emotions and those of others;
  2. The ability to harness emotions and apply them to tasks like thinking and problems solving;
  3. The ability to manage emotions, including the ability to regulate your own emotions and the ability to cheer up or calm down another person.”

Using this narrower definition, a paper published by John D. Mayer, Peter Salovey and David R. Caruso identifies that emotional intelligence has been shown to positively impact the following traits [2]:

  • Managers with higher EI are more liked by their team and their employees demonstrate higher commitment to their organization.
  • Employees with higher EI and have direct customer contact earn higher performance scores from their supervisors.
  • People with higher EI scores are less likely to engage in problem behaviors such as bullying, violence, tobacco and drug use.
  • People with higher EI scores manage stress better.

In today’s highly competitive landscape business owners and leaders face rapidly changing technologies, social media and a Millennial workforce that values workplace freedom and flexibility. Employee engagement and job satisfaction are closely monitored. Today’s transformative leaders are called to inspire as much as they are required to plan. They manage many tasks that require an understanding of social interaction and complex social problems[3].

Whether you use the Goleman definition or the Salovey-Mayer definition, those who are successful at it show results. A 2015 study produced by KRW International shows that companies run by CEOs whose employees gave them high marks for “character” have nearly five times the return on assets than their counterparts whose CEOs earned low character ratings[4].

But it is an interesting observation of the Salovey, Mayer, Caruso study that in “career tracks in which EI skills may not be either central or necessary, EI may decline going up the corporate ladder.”

It may be the case that while executive leadership can “get by” with lower EI scores than the middle managers in their own organizations, their higher EI peers will consistently outperform them.


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