Emotional intelligence (EQ) in leadership is the ability to understand and influence your own emotions and the emotions of your team members.

EQ—the intersection of the heart and mind—is what ultimately sets effective leaders apart from others. At this crossroad, leaders possess the capacity to be aware of, control, and thoughtfully express their emotions.

Since emotions are ubiquitous in the workplace and can often dictate how we act and approach conflict and circumstances, all leaders must learn how to leverage their emotions in a way that facilitates better business outcomes and working relationships with their team members.

Is There a Relationship between Emotional Intelligence and Leadership?

Studies illustrate that EQ plays a vital role in determining leaders’ success when compared to other metrics, such as intelligence or traditional management skills. According to the Harvard Business Review, emotional intelligence is what sets apart roughly 90 percent of high performers from colleagues who possess similar IQ and technical skills.

Moreover, psychologist Daniel Goleman (who popularized the term “emotional intelligence”) states that EQ is the “sine qua non of leadership.” Even if someone has been well trained and can produce innovative ideas, they can only go so far without EQ. As emotional intelligence taps into how your presence, mannerisms, and choices affect others, it’s an essential differentiator when assessing leadership potential.

Why Is Emotional Intelligence Important in Leadership?

Our emotions are woven into every interaction we have with our team members. They influence how we react to challenges and opportunities and how we collaborate with others to resolve conflicts. They also determine our willingness to put our best foot forward.

When leaders possess the ability to be aware of, control, and express their emotions strategically and empathetically, they can help deliver positive outcomes:

Improvement in Work Culture

Errors and conflicts are inevitable in the workplace. When leaders can apply their EQ, they can more easily stay calm in the storm and choose productive responses rather than reacting negatively. This can help drive a positive environment rather than a toxic one.

Chris Underwood, Managing Director at Adastrum Consulting, explains leaders with EQ:

  • Value diversity and team balance
  • Motivate, influence, and inspire team members and strategies
  • Make decisions based on critical thinking

Better Team Engagement

As EQ values team balance and input, emotionally intelligent leaders can help create a more connected team, motivated to help each other reach success. When employees are engaged, this can increase productivity by 22 percent.

Improvement in Change Management

Change is also inevitable at work. When change occurs, emotions shift and discomfort and anxiety can ensue. High-EQ leaders are better equipped to quickly adapt and help team members spearhead change initiatives. They can establish open communication in the workplace and effectively manage the emotions that are often present during transitions.

image representing emotional intelligence

What Are the 5 Essential Characteristics of an Emotionally Intelligent Leader?

According to Goleman, leaders should embody these five characteristics to develop EQ:

1. Self-Awareness

Self-awareness entails understanding your strengths and weaknesses and the impact that your emotions have on your team members’ performance. While 95 percent of individuals believe themselves to be self-aware, only 10 to 15 percent actually possess the trait.

2. Self-Regulation

Self-regulation is the ability to control negative emotions and productively adapt to change. This is useful in conflict and change management.

3. Motivation

Motivation involves being driven by self-gratification (internal motivation) rather than praise or reward (external motivation). Motivation helps individuals stay focused on and committed to their goals.

4. Empathy

Putting aside ego and self-promotion to recognize and understand how others are feeling can help leaders build a positive work culture. Empathy is the doorway to establishing genuine relationships rooted in care, transparency, and authenticity.

5. Social Skills

Social skills are vital in managing the emotions of others, coaching and mentoring team members, resolving conflict, and establishing good working relationships. Social skills require active listening and nonverbal and verbal communication.

How Can Leaders Display and Improve Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace?

Emotional intelligence involves knowing how to respond in the right way at the right time. Here are ways leaders can display and improve EQ in the workplace:


Take time to pay close attention to your moods, emotions, and motivations. How are they affecting the way you approach your responsibilities and relationships in the workplace? Think of ways you can possibly adjust your behaviors.

Be open with your team members about your strengths and weaknesses. Explain how you’d like to improve on your weaknesses and how you’d like to leverage your strengths in your leadership (or other) role.

Assess your self-awareness by seeking out 360-degree feedback. How does your own perspective compare to the opinions of others? This process can help you gain accurate insights into your own behavior, how team members view you, and your strengths and weaknesses.

Begin by conducting these exercises and activities yourself, and then encourage your team members to engage in them.


Avoid reacting to circumstances in the heat of the moment. Take time to pause, process, and reflect. Challenge your own assumptions and the assumptions of others to ensure your response is appropriate.

When you react calmly, this will foster a healthier work environment your team members will appreciate and strive to emulate.

Keep in mind that individuals are motivated by different things. One employee might be motivated by their hard-working colleagues, while another might be motivated by a personal goal:

  • Making a career transition
  • Branching out and diversifying their skillset
  • Developing higher-level professional skills, etc.

Therefore, it’s essential to initiate reflective thinking and conversations with team members on what they want to do and why they want to do it. Help them find ways to stay grounded in their goals and practice “constructive optimism” (seeing the value of a situation, regardless of whether it’s good or bad).


Empathy requires being willing to step into another person’s shoes. You can do this in the following ways:

  • Withholding your judgment and criticism.

Empathy is not about agreeing or disagreeing with someone, it’s about being able to understand someone’s emotions. If a team member is stressed, try to remember that stress comes in all shapes and sizes. Listen carefully and practice patience.

  • Actively listening.

This entails making eye contact, allowing the other party to speak, asking questions to understand your team member better, and using nonverbal gestures effectively.

Social Skills

Developing social skills requires getting to know team members’ unique reactions, personalities, and work styles. These components will determine how you should interact with them. Encourage your team to share this information with each other so they can initiate better communication and relationships.