Channeling Your Emotional Intelligence To Become A Leader
Emotional Intelligence: “I don’t think you’re adjusting very well,” my manager declared, matter-of-factly.
“You’re not meeting expectations.” Moments earlier, she’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
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 she’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:
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
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:
Emotional awareness Non-reactivity
Compassion for self and other
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.
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.
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 she’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
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.
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.
What do you think? Please comment below.