June 19

Emotional Intelligence & Leadership

“I don’t think you’re adjusting very well,” my manager declared, matter-of-factly. “You’re not meeting expectations.” Moments earlier, he’d requested we speak privately in the conference room.

Overwhelmed with shame, I felt my throat constrict and my eyes well. In the last two weeks, I’d moved across the continent, I’d broken up with my boyfriend and I’d been shifted into a unfamiliar role at work (for which I hadn’t initially been hired). I knew no one in the city, had my first taste of an ‘authentic’ East Coast winter and was living with a 25-year-old from Craigslist who hosted parties at our flat every other night. On top of everything, the company that employed me was in the midst of a crisis and morale was rockbottom.

Wounded, angry and defeated, my mind flashed back to the cushy college counseling job I’d left a few weeks earlier. I’d had a long waiting list of clients. An office with my name on the door. A manager by whom I’d felt empowered and supported.

 Perhaps he’d been right. Perhaps I wasn’t adjusting that well (although coming from the world of mental health and given the circumstances, I thought I was doing pretty frickin’ awesome). But what I needed in that moment was for my manager to care . To attempt to understand my experience — to lay a foundation of mutual respect, trust, transparency and open communication.

I don’t remember how I responded to my boss’s comment about not adjusting, but I do remember that conversation set the tone for a resentful, fear-based, mutually frustrating communication style between the two of us.

What my manager lacked was emotional intelligence, the ability to identify, understand and respond constructively to emotional experience (also known as LIFE). Now, that’s not to say I was the picture of agreeableness and cooperation in our relationship. However, because leaders shape workplace culture, it’s imperative that these leaders bear emotional intelligence. (I’m lookin’ at you, Donald.) And not just because it’ll lead to greater trust, respect and communication from your team: Emotional intelligence actually predicts success.

I’m not convinced. How can emotional intelligence make me better? 

Emotional intelligence increases:

    • Assertiveness
    • Ability to respond constructivey rather than reacting impulsively
    • Ability to take feedback without getting defensive
    • Ability to let go of control and not micromanage
    • Ability to tolerate stress
    • Ability to deal with change
    • Trust from employees
    • Respect from employees
    • A culture of transparency and communication
    • Ability to read people
    • Ability to manage emotions/not be swept away or swayed by them
    • Ability to recognize triggers and react to them in a healthier way
    • Meaningful connection to work
    • Authentic, communicative relationships within and outside of the workplace

OK, whoah — I don’t think I fully understand what emotional intelligence is. Can you explain please? 

I’d be happy to! Physiologically, emotional intelligence involves activation of the logical part of our brain (the prefrontal cortex) in response to the activation of the emotional part of our brain (the limbic system). Experientially, emotional intelligence can be summed up as the ability to recognize emotional experiences in ourselves and others and to respond intentionally rather than react automatically. Yes, friends, counterintuitive as it might seem, paying attention (mindfully) to our feelings allows us to have more control over them!

Let’s break it down further. Here are five specific behaviors emotional intelligence includes:

  • Mindfulness
  • Emotional awareness
  • Non-reactivity
  • Compassion for self and other
  • Empathy

1. Mindfulness

No doubt you’ve heard this term before. Mindfulness is the act of intentionally paying attention to the current moment with compassion and acceptance, and without judgment. You can practice mindfulness toward your thoughts, feelings, breath, and senses. Try this: Close your eyes and focus on your breath for a few minutes and just notice the thoughts, feelings and sensations that come up. Don’t judge them (or yourself), don’t try to push them away and don’t try to hold onto them. Just accept and welcome them as they come and go.

2. Emotional Awareness 

Although it’s (slowly) changing, we still live in a culture that tells us to suppress or numb our feelings . Yet an important facet of emotional intelligence is being able to recognize, identify and express (if conditions allow) what we’re feeling. That means we know the difference between — and have words for —sadness and loneliness, hurt and betrayal, grief and envy and so on. Developing emotional awareness is twofold: first is becoming more in touch with our bodily emotional experience — for example, recognizing what the pit in your stomach or lump in your throat or hollowness in your chest is telling you; second is developing your emotional vocabulary, meaning you learn more words than “happy” and “sad” (consider saving this list) and practice connecting the words you learn to the sensations you experience in your body.

3. Non-Reactivity

Non-reactivity is another essential manifestation of emotional intelligence. This is also achieved through mindfulness, but it deserves its own explanation. You see, mindfully noticing without reacting develops our “emotional tolerance muscles” — the muscles that let us feel angry but not say something (or send an email saying something) we later regret; or that make us feel anxious before a presentation but not say we’re sick and bail; or feel sad after getting rejected but not eat the (entire) gallon of ice cream in our freezer. By practicing “non-reactivity” (or “equanimity”), we actually slow down our response time (in the best way) so we get to choose how we want to react, rather than letting our emotions choose for us.

4. Compassion For Self and Others

For some of us, compassion comes more easily. For others — especially those of us who were raised in neglectful or abusive environments — feeling compassion is a lot more challenging. However, like emotional intelligence, we have the capacity to develop compassion through practice. Self-compassion is a particularly important component of emotional intelligence, as we need it to sit with those uncomfortable feelings mentioned in the last point. Think about how distressful it is to be feeling anxious and have someone say “STOP IT! STOP FEELING ANXIOUS RIGHT NOW!” vs. “Hey, it’s OK that you’re feeling anxious. It’s totally normal to feel that way before presenting. Anxiety is just trying to help you prepare.” Well, that someone is us, and we get to determine if we’re critical and punishing or supportive and encouraging.

5. Empathy

Wouldn’t ya know? Empathy can also be learned! Hoorah! Empathy is being able to put yourself in the shoes of another and imagine what they might be feeling. So if we go back to the situation with my manager, I would have felt supported if he’d said something like, “I totally get you’re feeling overwhelmed right now — there’s been a lot of transition for you in a short period of time. How can we work together to set you up for success given your current situation?”

The other place we can use empathy is with ourselves. When we notice we’re feeling something uncomfortable or that we might typically judge ourselves for feeling, empathizing validates our experience and gives us permission to be the humans that we are .

OK I’m sold. How do I become more emotionally intelligent?

If you’ve spent years (or decades) living by the unhelpful assumption that strong leadership means turning off feelings, you might be lacking in the emotional intelligence department. Fortunately, though, it’s something you can develop through practice. Your best classrooms and laboratories? Yoga, meditation, psychotherapy, executive coaching, journaling, reflecting, and engaging in vulnerable conversations with loved ones.

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Whether you occupy a leadership role or not, I urge you to put some energy toward developing or increasing emotional intelligence. You’ll be happier, your relationships will improve, your company will experience more success, and the world will be a better place as a result.

Megan Bruneau, M.A. RCC is a mental health therapist, wellness coach, writer, and host of Forbes’ The Failure Factor. Read more from her on her blog, One Shrink’s Perspective, and follow her on Facebook,TwitterInstagram, and YouTube