Blog Post

Learning Science: Emotional Intelligence, the Essential Leadership Skill for Today’s Workforce

Dr. Michelle Ellis
September 14, 2023
illustration on picton background

A note from the editor:

Last month the focus was on upskilling and reskilling the existing workforce to meet the talent demands organizations are facing today and will in the foreseeable future. In this month’s article, the focus is on a specific leadership skill and the important role it has in shaping organizational culture and achieving business results. 

As reported in the Leadership Development in the Age of Disruption1 study by Wilson Learning, the past ten years have seen the same top 10 leadership skills identified year over year. However, in 2023 the ranking of these skills shifted significantly—which may be attributed to the constant change and disruption that organizations are experiencing in the workforce, workplace, and technology advancements. 

Source: Wilson Learning. (2023)1

One thing these skills all have in common is their focus on behavior change. Leadership is all about influencing and changing behavior. With the shifts happening in the workforce today, being a people-first leader means a greater focus on behavior change and less on strategy2 (although strategy is still important!).

To effectively lead behavior change, leaders need to become more attuned to why people behave a certain way and what they can do to influence a change in behavior. Another common characteristic that many of the top prioritized leadership skills (seen above) have in common is they require a certain level of self and social awareness. Whether it’s coaching and developing others, communicating change effectively, building relationships, or engaging and inspiring employees' performance, one of the most critical leadership skills comes into play in each of these scenarios: Emotional Intelligence 3. Emotional Intelligence (EQ) 3,4 helps us better understand ourselves and what motivates others. Let’s take a moment to dive into how it does that.

EQ accounts for 58% of performance in all types of jobs and is the single biggest predictor of performance in the workplace and the strongest driver of leadership and personal excellence.” 5

How Our Emotions Supersede Our Thinking

Being able to manage our emotions has been a key factor in our species' survival. It’s at the heart of the fight-or-flight signals that have kept us alive for centuries. This is because our brains are hardwired to give emotions priority over rational thinking. Everything you experience travels through your body through electric signals that ultimately reach your brain. When these signals arrive at the brain, they first travel through your limbic system or emotional center, where feelings occur, before reaching your frontal lobe or rational center, where thinking occurs. Because of this, you experience emotions before rational thinking can happen. Although the rational center cannot stop the emotions being experienced, it can influence them and work together which is the source of Emotional Intelligence or EQ5.

Source: Emotional Intelligence 2.0. (2021)5

Now that we have a basic foundation for how the inner workings of the brain communicate to help us understand and regulate our emotions and thoughts, let’s explore how this manifests itself in our behavior and the relationships we have with others. In other words: Why is emotional intelligence so significant, and more importantly, why is it a critical skill for today’s leaders to master?

How Emotional Intelligence and Competencies Build Leadership Capabilities

In 1996, Daniel Goleman published his framework on emotional intelligence in business which was a catalyst for how we understand ourselves and what motivates others. Within this model, Goleman outlines Emotional Intelligence (EQ) into five categories divided into four sections. It's important to note that there is a specific directionality within the model for how you build your Emotional Intelligence that doesn’t follow a typical cyclical pattern (think: recycle symbol that has a start and continues in a circle). The following is a short orientation to the model that explains how these categories and sections complement each other. 

Source: *Adapted from Emotional Intelligence Dimensions by Daniel Goleman.(1996)7

Looking at the model above, there is both a focus on the self (on the top left) and others (on the top right). The left axis of the model focuses on how your awareness and regulation intersect with both self and others. Emotional Intelligence starts with knowing your emotions through Self-Awareness and regulating your behavior through Self-Management (Arrow 1). As you get to know your own emotions, you can begin to recognize and understand them in others through Social Awareness (Arrow 2). Additionally, as you become more attuned to managing your own emotions (Self-Management, Arrow 3) and understanding the emotions of others (Social Awareness, Arrow 4), you will experience better Relationship Management.

“Emotional intelligence is your ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others, and your ability to use this awareness to manage your behavior and relationships.” 5

Over the years several models and matrices have been developed that outline the competencies or capabilities leaders need to build in order to excel at Emotional Intelligence8,9,17

 Source: Harvard Business Review. (2017)9
Source: Multi-Health Systems Inc. (2023)17

Why is Emotional Intelligence a Key Leadership Skill?

Being a leader has always required a certain finesse and balance of strategic, technical, and interpersonal skills when leading the business and people. However, recently there has been a resurgence in the importance of interpersonal skills—especially Emotional Intelligence2,11

As companies adapt to hybrid work environments and the advancement of automation and AI, there has been and will continue to be greater demand for people-first interpersonal skills like Emotional Intelligence11.   

As we have seen, technical skills will continue to evolve and change and are essential to performing your job. It would be irresponsible to suggest that technical skills, business and financial acumen, and industry knowledge are not critical to the success of leaders or an organization15. However, interpersonal skills, like communication, teamwork, empathy, problem-solving, and adaptability, are crucial for applying those technical skills and are consistent and applicable throughout your career14,16

As today’s business landscape is shaped by the automation of tasks and skills and more human/machine collaboration, more human skills like emotional intelligence will be even more critical as they are the skills that machines cannot do16.  

“People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  
- John C. Maxwell 

Putting It Into Action

To future-proof your leadership skills, take time to reflect, self-assess, and develop your Emotional Intelligence. The following are the three main areas you can focus on as part of your Emotional Intelligence exploration8,13:

Leading Self

Emotional Intelligence starts with leading yourself. 

Here are a few ways you can do that:

Learn more about Emotional Intelligence. Two great places to start are with the books Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves and Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More than IQ by Daniel Goleman. Check out the cited articles at the end for additional reading.

Take an EQ assessment. This will give you insight into your self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship-management skills. (Our friends at Mind Tools have created a free EQ assessment.)

Identify strengths and opportunities. Ask yourself what observable behaviors you demonstrate for these skills (e.g., courage, humility, vulnerability, empathy, compassion, mindfulness, reflection, listening, resilience, curiosity, etc.). Then consider what behaviors you demonstrate that show a lack of these skills. Another factor to consider is how you react when under stress or based on different emotional triggers, whether positive or negative.

Identify strategies that will help you manage through limitations or fears. You can do this by seeking out and observing others who excel at these behaviors and skills. You can also challenge yourself to learn new behaviors by identifying stretch assignments or opportunities for you to apply new skills.

Leading Others

Once you’ve learned how to lead yourself, you can turn your attention to leading others.

Here’s what that might look like:

Educate your others on the benefits of Emotional Intelligence for individual and team development. This could take the form of assessments, book clubs, or lunch and learns.

Empower others to understand and manage their emotions. This might look like providing qualified mentors and coaches as part of your employee development programs.

Be a role model for empathy and emotional resilience. This empowers others to develop a positive mindset and embrace challenges as opportunities for growth. 

Encourage transparency, collaboration, and inclusiveness to build social awareness and manage relationships. You can do this by celebrating wins and encouraging your team to learn from experiences.

Create a positive and productive work environment. This should enable vulnerability and psychological safety, and encourage open communication, feedback, trust, and mutual respect. Encourage others to bring their authentic self to work.

Encourage resilience, an open growth mindset, and balance that breaks down silos. You can do this by checking in early and often on progress to ensure everything is moving in the right direction.

Leading at Scale

The final element of EQ is leading at scale. Here are some ways you can approach this:

Become a role model. Set the stage for transparency, vulnerability, and accountability by modeling it. Inspire others to lean into their passions and strengths by doing it yourself. 

Keep an open mind. Be open to new ways of working and accomplishing goals. Leverage opportunities to experiment with work processes and to work iteratively

Communicate a clear common vision and purpose. This helps to establish that feeling of “team” that we are all working together toward a common goal.

Champion cross-functional projects. These types of projects encourage employees to work cross-departmentally and functionally to accomplish more, building stronger relationships along the way. 

Referenced articles for continued learning:

  1. Leimbach, M., Wilson Learning Corp., (2023). Leadership Development in the Age of Disruption. 
  2. Hale, J., Forbes. (2023). The Most Important Skills for 2023.
  3. Goleman, D., Harvard Business Review. (2004) What Makes a Leader? 
  4. Forbes. (2023)  Do you have the Emotional Intelligence to Lead a Team?
  5. Bradberry, T. and Greaves, J., (2021) Emotional Intelligence 2.0. Talent Smart Inc., SanDiego, Ca.
  6. Landry, L., Harvard Business School Online. Business Insights. (2019). Why emotional intelligence is important in leadership
  7. Goleman, D. (1996). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, 1st Ed. Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd., London.
  8. Riopel, L., Positive Psychology., (2019). Emotional Intelligence Frameworks, Charts, Diagrams, and Graphs.
  9. Goleman, D., and Boyatzis, R., Harvard Business Review. (2017) Emotional Intelligence Has 12 Elements. Which Do You Need To Work On?
  10. Kawarsky, S. The Soft Skills Group. (2023). Emerging Leadership Skills Trends in 2023.
  11. Bughin, J., Hazan, E., Lund, S., Dahlstrom, P., Wiesinger, A., and Subramaniam, A. McKinsey & Company. (2018). Skills Shift: Automation And The Future Of The Workforce.
  12. Guggenberger, P., Maor, D., Park, M., and Simon, P. McKinsey & Company. (2023). The State of Organizations 2023.
  13. Goleman, D., Linkedin. (2021). The Twelve Competencies of Emotional Intelligence.
  14. Williams, R., LinkedIn. (2023). The Importance of “Soft Skills” In Today’s Workplace.
  15. Human Capital Institute. (2013). Leadership and Emotional Intelligence: The Keys To Driving ROI and Organizational Performance.
  16. Daniel, D., TechTarget. (2021). Soft Skills Key To Employability In The Age Of Automation.
  17. Emotional Intelligence Training Inc. (2023). EQ-i 2.0 Reuven Bar-On Competency Model.

About the Author

Dr. Michelle Ellis Speaker Headshot
Dr. Michelle Ellis
Director of Learning & Development
Michelle Ellis has over 25 years of experience in instructional design, including nearly 20 years at Disney, and a PhD in Training and Performance Improvement.. Her experience ranges from teaching in the academic setting to designing, developing, and facilitating education to teach technical, soft, and leadership skills. Michelle came to Intellum as a practitioner to share her experiences with learning and how to build a learning strategy.