Emotional intelligence at work: The secret power great leaders need

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19 January 2023
Written by Speak First Linked-in icon

Emotional intelligence
Leaders at work need to build relationships, communicate clearly, inspire others and establish trust. A key element of this process is developing emotional intelligence (EQ) – the ability to recognise, regulate and communicate your own emotions, as well as understanding other peoples’ and your effect on them.

With higher EQ, leaders don’t just focus on the work that gets done but have genuine consideration and care for the people around them. By displaying this kind of emotional intelligence, it creates a much more effective, happier and inspiring workplace culture. Many people may brush off the importance of EQ in favour of getting results, but emotional intelligence from leaders make their teams feel truly valued and respected, which leads to them becoming more efficient, effective and willing to go further.


Looking inwards for self-awareness

“That’s my secret,” says Bruce Banner to Captain America, as he begins a controlled transformation into the Incredible Hulk, “I’m always angry.”

This scene from ‘The Avengers’ is a clear example of the benefits of understanding and controlling your emotions. EQ and self-awareness don’t mean that you never feel negative emotions – bottling them up, or ignoring them, is never the healthiest option. Instead, taking a moment to recognise and label how you feel allows you to act in a more deliberate and considered manner.

The first step in this process is to look inwards to recognise and understand your own emotions. As you go about your day, be mindful of what makes you happy, sad, angry, stressed, worried and any other emotions you feel. And pay attention to how you react in those moments.

Our emotions are response mechanisms to the things around us. Fear means we’re in some kind of danger, sadness means we’re hurting, shock means we need to stay alert, and happiness is a signal that everything is good. Once you start viewing negative emotions as a signal towards fixing a problem, you can begin identifying the best responses – not just the ones that make you feel better in the moment, but the ones that actually solve the issue.

Rather than focussing your anger at someone who hasn’t completed a task for you, recognise your emotions are a reflection of your growing concern over deadlines, or your frustration over this person misunderstanding your request. Once you internalise this thought process, you can think about what will actually help the situation. Shouting at the other person rarely solves anything, but calmly asking why they didn’t do it, and working together on joint priorities and timelines probably will.


Looking outwards for social awareness

After focussing on yourself, it’s also important to develop your awareness for how other people feel and react. As well as helping your general interpersonal skills, better empathy has been shown to improve leadership abilities.

The central tenant of social awareness is empathy – being able to understand what a person is experiencing and feeling, and why. This insight allows you to see things from other people’s perspectives, listen to them with more of an open mind and have better discussions (rather than arguments).

When leaders show empathy, they’re much better at building strong relationships with those around them based on mutual trust and good communication. Through empathy, leaders will understand what motivates others and what causes them issues. This allows them to adapt their style to the people they work with, both at an organisational and individual level, making them even more effective. 


How to develop empathy

This empathy comes from a place of understanding and acceptance that not everyone is going to think or feel the same way as you. This ‘Theory of Mind’ is something that children develop from a young age, but many adults still need reminding of the many nuances.

This is probably best shown by the model for human communication, where when someone speaks to you, you receive their output (e.g. words, body language etc.) and process it in your brain via your unique personal filter of your experiences, education, culture, assumptions and much more. This shapes your final understanding of it, which influences how you respond. When you reply, your output is similarly processed through the other person’s own set of experiences, culture, beliefs and so on, with the whole cycle repeating over and over.

When two people’s understanding of language, culture and context differ, it’s easy to have a situation where they talk at cross-purposes with many misunderstandings. With low levels of emotional intelligence and empathy, you may get annoyed when someone processes your words differently than intended. With higher emotional intelligence and empathy, you can recognise how it occurs, and try again to communicate in a way which better resonates with them. Ideally, you should aim to speak in a way which limits these misunderstandings from the start.

For example, when speaking to someone with a different cultural background, consider how you use slang and idioms. In England, and more specifically, London, it’s quite common knowledge that ‘Telling Porkies’ comes from the old rhyming slang phrase, ‘pork pies’ meaning ‘lies.’ If you used that phrase when talking to someone who didn’t have that knowledge, they could become confused and miss your real meaning. This is similarly true with technical and organisational jargon. It’s always good practice to explain yourself as clearly as possible.

Consideration for other people’s experiences extends far beyond language. Even within the same organisation, different people have different daily challenges. When something changes, just because it’s good for you doesn’t mean it will be good for everyone. Take time to consider how other people will feel. This is best discovered by having conversations with the people affected, where you make sure to actively listen free of assumptions.

For leaders, this will help build a sense of trust. People want to know that the people in charge have their best interests in mind and think of how decisions will affect them personally. By demonstrating you’re thinking of them and listening to their experiences, and making decisions based on that, you’ll build trust and create a much happier team. 


When leading a team, you need to communicate effectively and aim to build trust and inspiration. It’s important to demonstrate consideration for how you act towards, and react to, the people and events around you. By developing your emotional intelligence and empathy, you can build a working environment where it’s not a problem when there are disagreements, because the ultimate goal is to understand different points of view and work together to find a path ahead that works for all. This creates a much more effective and productive team. 


To learn more about Business Psychology and discover more ways we can develop your people, take a look at our Learning Solutions.