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Cultivating Emotional Intelligence as a Leadership Trait

By Julian Mercer

Emotional intelligence is a critical trait for effective leaders. Leaders who possess and practice emotional intelligence with their teams are better equipped to overcome challenges and navigate difficult situations. They inspire trust and loyalty, which is what you need as a leader when the chips are down and it’s time for “all hands on deck.”

Here are five keys to developing your emotional intelligence as a leader:

1. Self-awareness: It’s important to take time to reflect on your own emotions and how they affect your behavior. If you know what things trigger an emotional response, you can manage your circumstances to avoid them. And if you can’t avoid them, then knowing what your triggers are will help you manage your response.

It’s also important to keep regular tabs on your overall stress level. Create a safety valve by taking a moment from time to time to assess your current stress level on a scale of 1-10. If it’s at 8-10+, then you’re at risk of losing control if triggered and should take preemptive actions to decompress.

2. Empathy: Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Active listening is the first step in developing empathy. Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and take the time to consider their perspectives, influences and motivations. As the old saying goes, try to walk a mile in their shoes.

3. Interpersonal Communications: Develop and practice your interpersonal communications skills. Knowing how to control your tone and focus attention on the issue at hand is critical in high-stress situations, and can help you diffuse the negative energy that is looking for an excuse to vent.

To develop your skills, actively seek constructive feedback. If communicating in writing or by email, set your draft aside to allow yourself to cool off, and look at it again latter with a fresh set of eyes before sending. Asking someone else to review the draft is another way to check your work. Sleeping on it before responding is often the best response.

4. Emotional regulation: Everyone has emotional triggers. Leaders with emotional intelligence respond to triggers and manage difficult situations in a calm and rational manner.

Whether you’re feeling anger, fear, sadness or frustration, the key is to force yourself to reflect and make a choice about how to respond. Take a moment to think about your goal and the message you need to send to achieve a good outcome. If you are afraid that you’ll lose control, step away and distance yourself from the situation until you are confident you’ve got yourself under control.

You can also strengthen your ability to regulate your emotions through practices like meditation, practicing positivity, and by confronting the issues that can trigger you so that you rob them of their emotional power.

5. Work Culture: As a leader, you are responsible for creating a positive and inclusive workplace culture that facilitates productivity and strengthens the emotional intelligence of your team. This involves showing respect, encouraging expression of diverse views without prejudgment, setting clear expectations regarding office behavior and group goals, providing regular feedback and support, and fostering an environment of respect, trust, and openness.

In times of great stress and challenge, your colleagues will look for leadership to the person who can remain calm and focused. By practicing emotional intelligence as a leader, you can build stronger relationships with your team, foster a more positive and inclusive culture, and lead your organization to greater success.

Sounds easy, but how do I do this? Here are some practical tips to help you avoid negative interpersonal situations in the office:

  • When you are feeling overwhelmed or emotional, take a step back and give yourself some space. Take a few deep breaths, go for a walk, or engage in a different activity for a short time to clear your mind and restore your calm.
  • Reframe your thinking by focusing on the positives of the situation instead of the negatives. Learn from setbacks instead of dwelling on them. Think about how you can use the experience to move forward.
  • Use “I” statements when communicating in a situation of high emotions, and avoid blaming others or the use of accusatory language. Acknowledge the situation as it is, without judgement or speculation, and then focus on the solution.
  • Try to diffuse the situation and calm an emotional colleague with simple acts of kindness and gestures, such as pouring them a glass of water, offering a seat or inviting them to take a walk. Moderate volume and try to keep the conversation one on one to protect them from embarrassment, and so that the tension doesn’t escalate to others.
  • Humor can be a great way to defuse tension and break the ice. Just make sure the humor is appropriate for the situation and doesn’t come at someone’s expense.
  • Always actively listen to what your colleague is saying and try to understand their perspective. If you’re uncertain, repeat back what you heard to make sure you understand correctly.
  • Communicate needs, requirements and expectations clearly and calmly, without being aggressive or threatening. Reference applicable corporate policies to depersonalize the situation. Speak authoritatively, when necessary, but do so in a respectful and professional manner.
  • When you’re feeling personally overwhelmed or emotional, look to a trusted friend, colleague or mentor who can help you vent negative emotions and offer advice.

Remember that emotional intelligence takes time and practice to develop. By being mindful of the emotional context, communicating effectively, and seeking support, you can navigate the interpersonal challenges that can derail success with grace and professionalism.


Julian Mercer

Julian Mercer is a retired executive, with more than 30 years’ experience in the technology sector as a leader, manager, consultant, and teacher.

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