Emotional Intelligence: Today’s Leadership Differentiator

Emotional intelligence is critical for inclusive leaders

Emotional intelligence is a muscle.  We are not born with a finite amount of emotional awareness and flexibility; it is a learned behavior.  For leaders today, this is a game changer.  Leaders that have the ability to recognize emotion and respond accordingly with their teams, are far more successful.

Often a misunderstood concept, emotional intelligence is not about keeping our emotions locked up.  In my work with women leaders and their male allies, I often hear these emotionally charged scenarios:

  • What do I do when women cry at work?
  • How do I manage men yelling in the workplace?

How men and women process emotion is different.  The difference is that men are gender socialized to express it physically and women are socialized to express it privately.  While both responses are likely triggered by anger, women keep it inside, men let it out.  Neither extreme is healthy.

While these are common emotional situations, there is much more to emotional intelligence than tears and fear. 

Emotional intelligence requires two key skills:

  • The ability to recognize, understand, and manage your own emotions
  • The ability to recognize, understand, and influence the emotions of others

We’ll cover how to assess your emotional intelligence, the neuroscience behind emotional intelligence, and clear strategies to improve your emotional intelligence.

Assess your emotional intelligence

There are a plethora of EQ assessments out on the market.  My personal favorite is EQi®, yet asking yourself some basic questions, can also illuminate where you stand on your own EQ.  According to Fast Company, ask yourself:

  • Empathy: “Do I really listen to people when they talk about their issues, or do I just try to give them a solution? Do people tend to confide in me?”
  • Emotional self-awareness: “When my body gives me physical signals that something is wrong, do I pay attention to it and sense what’s going on?”
  • Self-actualization: “Am I doing the things in life that I really feel passionate about—at home, at work, socially?”
  • Impulse control: “Do I respond to people before they finish telling me something?”
  • Interpersonal relationships: “Do I enjoy socializing with people, or does it feel like work?”

When I reflect on my assessment, I struggle with impulse control the most.  However, I have adjusted my self-awareness and interpersonal relationships to accommodate this known weakness.  As a fast-paced “doer,” I have to pause and reflect before taking quick action.  Just ask my husband, “get it done,” is a common saying in our household, much to his dismay.  Taking the time to pause and process what others are feeling through my relationship and coaching skills helps me tremendously.  Yet, this is a learned behavior.  I have to remind myself of this constantly, and leverage tools like journaling, positive affirmations, and yoga to manage my emotions.  It is a choice to recognize and manage emotions.

What drives our emotions?

Neuroscience 101

Our brains are wired to process emotion and rational thought.  We have two parts of our brains – one is rational (neocortex), and the other is emotional (limbic).  Together, these spheres balance each other out; yet when they operate separately, they wreak havoc.  The amygdala is the gateway of the limbic system and controls our emotions.  Think “fight” or “flight,” the amygdala maps brain activity to the emotional center to make impulsive decisions when we feel we are being attacked.  The amygdala and our limbic systems are the oldest, most primal parts of our brains and helped us survive in the wild when we were the prey of saber toothed tigers.  Yet, in today’s world, “fight” or “flight” is not as helpful.

So, how do we control our emotions?

Strategies to improve your emotional intelligence

One of my favorite exercises to do with clients is a stressors/triggers, positive response, and strategies to create that response exercise.  Check out this generic example to guide your own thinking:

Stressors/ Triggers What a Positive Response Looks Like Strategies for Creating a Positive Response
Having to hold others accountable (scared of confrontation and coming across as mean or intense) Proactively addressing issues as they happen so that they don’t spiral; Taking problems head on without being mean; Being nice but firm
  • Pausing before reacting, giving myself 15 minutes to cool down first
  • Reminding myself that they have positive intent
  • Putting myself in their shoes, considering what else they are facing right now


Using these questions as a guide, think about the last time you had an amygdala hijack moment where you lost control of your ability to rationally think and could only feel emotions.  What triggered it?  Now, think of situations that tend to stress you out, what happens before you feel stressed?  Perhaps it is getting negative feedback, not feeling prepared, having too much on your task list.  Using those stressors and triggers as a guide, replace your negative response with a positive one.  What does good look like?  Now, you can create strategies for positive change.  Some of my clients’ favorites are:

  • Positive intent: Assume that people are coming from a good place, even under stress or when they express emotions, or elicit emotions in you.  Ask yourself, assuming positive intent, what would their intention be?
  • Pause: Take a break before responding.  Think for 7 seconds about what you will say before you say it.  Sometimes it is difficult to take back what we said in the heat of the moment.  Go for a walk or take several deep breathes.
  • Positive thinking: Gratitude journals, positive affirmations, and positive self-talk limit the ability for our negative emotions to take control.

Managing and influencing emotions is key as a leader.  Think calm, cool, and collected.  Emotions drive energy, yet when overly utilized they can paralyze a team.  Leaders that are emotionally intelligent have better business results.  Their teams perform at a higher level through their influence, and clients are happier.

What will you commit to doing to improve your emotional intelligence?