The 5 characteristics of emotional intelligence in leadership

a woman showing her big heart as one of the 5 characteristics of emotional intelligence

Have you ever known someone who was highly intelligent, yet struggled socially and seemed to get in their own way when it came to their career progression?

Now, think of the opposite.

That person navigates even the trickiest social situations with grace and has a way of making other people feel comfortable. They pick up on unspoken communication cues and can turn a chance meeting into an opportunity.

It’s likely that these two people differ in their emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is the quality that enables you to understand and manage your own emotions, as well as others. By identifying your own emotions and recognizing the impact your behavior has on others, you are empowered to use this knowledge to facilitate more effective communication with those around you, both in personal and professional settings.

Table of contents
Why is emotional intelligence important in leadership?
The link between communication and emotional intelligence
What are the 5 characteristics of emotional intelligence for successful leadership?

Why is emotional intelligence important in leadership?

Emotional intelligence, more than any other factor, more than I.Q. or expertise, accounts for 85% - 90% of success at work... I.Q. is a threshold of competence. You need it, but it doesn't make you a star. Emotional intelligence can.
Watten G. Beenis, known as the father of leadership development in the U.S.

A Yale-led study in the Journal of Creative Behavior (2020) found that leaders who exemplified emotional intelligence fostered happier and more creative employees.

The link between communication and emotional intelligence

F4S has spent more than 20 years researching workplace motivations. Our research shows a link between EQ and communication preferences.

For example, people who have a high motivation for nonverbal communication are correlated with higher emotional intelligence. People who are more sensitive to nonverbal communication pay attention to the tone of voice, gestures, and other non-verbal expressions. They intuit on a deeper level the emotional components of expression and are not solely focused on verbal communication. By picking up on subtle forms of communication they develop excellent communication skills.

What are the 5 characteristics of emotional intelligence for successful leadership?

Psychologist Dr. Daniel Goleman popularized the term 'emotional intelligence' in his 1995 book. He describes emotional intelligence as:

  • three personal competencies: self-awareness, emotional regulation, and motivation
  • how we handle relationships with others: empathy and social skills

Let's look at these 5 characteristics of emotional intelligence. We'll also share the benefits of these critical leadership skills and how you can develop them to become a successful leader.

1. Self-awareness

Self-awareness refers to the ability to recognize your emotions and understand the potential impact of your behavior on others. You are introspective and able to step back and evaluate your strengths, and weaknesses, and try to unravel how your emotions affect your interactions with others.

Michael Scott from The Office is a perfect example of a character without self-awareness, which leads to an endless array of awkward situations. This serves as the basis of the cringeworthy humor that makes the show great but would not be something an intelligent leader would want to emulate.

  • A person with self-awareness understands the role their emotions, communication style, and subsequent behaviors play in their own relationships. (Learn how to get your communication on point)
  • Individuals who are self-aware make an effort to take responsibility for their actions and are not ruled by their emotions. That’s not to say self-aware people are not emotional, rather, they identify those emotions and attempt to catch themselves before allowing the emotions to lead them to words or actions that could be destructive to themselves and others.
  • For example, a person who had a tough client meeting may go into their following meeting feeling out of sorts, bringing negative emotions with them. However, if this person is self-aware, they may give themselves 5 minutes between meetings to reset. While they may have a good reason for being upset, they can pinpoint why they are frustrated and see how taking their anger out on their co-workers would be hurtful and could damage the professional relationships they have worked so hard to build.

Benefits of self-awareness

Dr. Goleman outlines the benefits associated with self-awareness including having confidence and being receptive to constructive criticism.

When someone is self-aware, they see themselves as continually evolving and are open to learning ways to improve. This is important in the workplace where professional development is vital to employees, especially with such uncertainties in the global economy. Recognizing areas where you can improve can be part of your career growth strategy.

  • If you are looking for a job, identify parts of target job descriptions where you need work and take a course or find other ways to improve those skills.
  • If you are hiring members of a team, recruit people with an array of skills so everyone can learn from each other, regardless of titles. As an effective leader, remember to be humble and recognize how you can learn from your team.

  • By being self-aware and identifying your strengths and weaknesses, you can improve your emotional intelligence skills at work and be a better leader.

How do you know if you are self-aware?

  • You are good at identifying and monitoring how you feel at a particular moment.
  • You have been in difficult situations where you felt strong emotions such as anger and then caught yourself about to say or do something out of frustration and stopped yourself.
  • Your co-workers and friends' description of you matches how you think of yourself.
  • You are aware of your emotional triggers.
a person looking in the mirror sees themselves wearing a mask, showing poor EQ

What are ways to improve self-awareness?

  • Complete a self-performance review. Take a piece of paper and write down your strengths, weaknesses, and how you would describe yourself. Now, have people you trust in your life describe you. Compare the two and look for patterns. What surprised you about how people see you?
  • Spend a week tracking your social and professional interactions. Keep a few notes on what you were feeling and how people responded to you. Can you see links between your emotions and the reactions of others?
  • Think about a person in your life who seems in touch with their emotions and remains even-keeled in the face of adversity. Ask them for advice on how they roll with things even when they are tempted to get swept away in a whirlwind of emotions.
  • Take our free Increase EQ coaching program. It's been developed to help you increase your emotional intelligence skills and confidence while learning how to better read others and communicate your emotions.

Self-awareness and thinking through consequences

No one can keep a positive outlook 100% of the time. We all have bad days and are not expected to be robots unaffected by the stress life throws at us. However, someone with emotional intelligence has the insight to recognize when they are stressed and then consider how it’s not the stressor that matters, but their reaction to it that makes a difference.

This leads us to the next component of intelligence: self-regulation.

2. Self-regulation

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” - Benjamin Franklin

While Franklin said that in the context of fire prevention, the saying holds true in social contexts as well. A person high in emotional intelligence excels at not only identifying their emotions (self-awareness) but also managing (self-regulating) those emotions as well. They take the time to consider the impact of their emotions and behaviors on others and how this could affect their personal connections in the future.

Dr. Goleman explains that individuals high in self-regulation are flexible and not afraid of change. They demonstrate resilience and grit, and are skilled in conflict management and negotiating tricky situations.

These self-regulators are high in conscientiousness and express themselves, but they have a sense of how and when to do so in an appropriate manner for the circumstances at hand. They see their impact on others and maintain accountability for their own actions.

Years to build, minutes to compromise

Self-regulation is like a social insurance policy, that can prevent you from getting yourself into sticky situations, rather than necessitating damage control after you explode and attempt to pick up the pieces.

Building trust with friends and clients takes a while, but it can be compromised in a fraction of the time. By thinking before you speak, you could save yourself from some proverbial fires.

It’s not enough to say, okay, I’m angry because I’m stuck in traffic and about to miss a big meeting. Self-regulation is about what comes next. There’s the course of action the frustrated version of yourself might feel like (yelling, honking the horn, taking it out on unwitting the person who calls you at a bad time) or a more constructive way to handle the situation (identify the frustration, talk yourself through it, problem solve).

Once you are calm, you could call the meeting members, explain your situation, and offer to conference via phone from the car or reschedule the meeting time. When calm, you are in a much better position to think strategically and navigate a tricky situation.

What are the benefits of self-regulating?

  • Effective leadership requires you to know how to manage your emotions. Self-regulating allows you to cultivate a positive reputation with your direct reports. You will earn respect for your clear head and leadership under pressure.
  • Self-regulation is a vital component in relationship management. It’s easy to get caught up in emotions and jump to conclusions, but taking time to consider the impact of your words and actions on others can go a long way in fostering effective communication that prevents unnecessary arguments.
  • It's easier to navigate change and remain flexible when you are skilled in self-regulation. Change can be scary, but with the right attitude, one can see it as an opportunity rather than a liability.

Do you self-regulate?

  • Do you speak and then think about your words or take a moment to consider the impact of your behavior on others?
  • Do you bring home the stress of your work to your personal life? Has your significant other or family been negatively impacted by it?
  • How did you handle the last crisis situation in your life?

How can you develop self-regulation?

  • Give yourself a few minutes to process stressful situations (if possible). Think about what you are tempted to do/say and what the outcomes would be. When you're in a challenging situation, consider a calmer approach and envision a better outcome.
  • Own up to your mistakes and try to make things right.
  • Find ways to control your stress levels whether that’s meditation, yoga, walking, breathing exercises, or other activities.
a woman taking a break at work to self-regulate with yoga

3. Motivation

Emotionally intelligent individuals have a firm sense of the intrinsic motivation that drives their decisions. They are motivated by internal rewards like a sense of purpose or accomplishment, and they understand this about themselves and others. They thrive when pushing themselves to do something they didn’t think they could do, like run a marathon.

Think of entrepreneurs launching a business. A founder will dedicate all of their free time to pursuing a dream that may never materialize, yet they are propelled in their endeavor by a sense of passion and belief in what they are doing.

How to find out what motivates you?

Take the free F4S assessment - it's more than 90% accurate and is based on our evidence-based research into workplace motivations. In just 15 - 20 minutes you'll uncover your highest motivations and see how your emotional intelligence ranks with the world's top entrepreneurs.

F4S dashboard reveals what motivates you so you can develop emotional intelligence in leadership
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You'll gain access to our AI coaching programs, such as Increase your EQ.

Personalized insights for your goal

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What are the benefits of motivation?

  • Provides focus, which increases the likelihood of success (even if that success does not look the way you originally envisioned)
  • Helps you deal with inevitable challenges in the journey to your goal
  • Increases your sense of self-worth
  • Inspires those around you

Are you motivated?

  • Are you proactive and like to set goals?
  • Are you open to deferring immediate gratification for a promise of something greater down the road?
  • Do you love a challenge?

How can you develop motivation?

  • If you feel bored in your current role, consider what drove you to that position in the first place. Remember when you were excited to go to work. Ask yourself if there are still ways you can grow and develop as a professional. Perhaps there are committees could join or new projects to interject a sense of novelty and challenge to your work. If this isn’t possible, you might consider letting your intrinsic motivations guide you on your next career steps.
  • Write down your main “why” – what gets you up in the morning and keeps you going whenever inevitable setbacks arise. It’s important to hold onto your main source of motivation when the going gets tough. For some that’s family, for others it’s a long-held dream.
  • Keep your team motivated by building a positive work culture and ensure your one-on-one meetings are meaningful.
  • If you are leading a team with low morale, explore employee engagement activities. Find ways to make each member feel valued and learn what personally motivates them. By understanding the unique motivations that drive team dynamics, you can gain insights to form a sense of shared purpose and reinvigorate the entire team.
  • Remember the value of resilience. Consider your past successes. Trace your journey for each of those wins and think back to adversity you have overcome in the past as a reminder of what you are capable of achieving now.

4. Empathy

Empathy is an essential component of emotional intelligence and describes the ability to identify and understand how another person is feeling and imagine yourself in that person’s situation. In addition, empathy entails acting on this information. For example, when you hear that a co-worker lost a beloved pet, you would think back to how you felt when you lost your childhood dog and would offer consolation based on what helped you when experiencing that situation.

Empathetic people make an effort to make someone feel better. They are open to viewpoints beyond their own and avoid making judgments.

Individuals high in empathy understand the dynamics of social situations and are skilled in navigating the nuances of workplace business relationships.

Executives who possess emotional intelligence incorporate empathy into their leadership style and do not subscribe to Machiavellian constructs that suggest employees fear their boss. Rather, empathetic leaders are secure in their role. They value their team and know that respect is earned, and people will work harder for someone they respect.

By taking time to understand their team and demonstrate concern, they learn more about them and gain insights into how everyone can work together most effectively, which will improve performance. This helps them retain their talented employees and avoid employee turnover.

What are the benefits of empathy?

  • Allows you to understand others and gain insights into what they feel and why they behave a certain way.
  • Empathy facilitates close relationships because you are taking into account the needs of another person. This will lead to better morale and a positive environment where team members can grow and feel a sense of psychological safety. This trust can foster innovative ideas and a high-performing team.
  • Encourages a genuine connection with your team and can lead to better job performance when people feel supported and respect their leader.
  • Helps managers deliver extra empathy in their constructive feedback so it doesn't put the employee on the defensive. Instead, staff members will feel that the leader is trying to help them develop as a professionaland can lead to greater job satisfaction.

Are you empathetic?

  • When you see that someone is upset, do you make an effort to console the person?
  • Do you look at a person’s facial expressions, and body language and listen to their words to try and understand how they are feeling and adjust your responses accordingly?
  • When someone is going through a difficult time, do you think of when you experienced something similar and what provided comfort to you?
a woman shows empathy to a colleague who is hunched over and feeling down

How to develop empathy?

Empathy isn't a technical skill, rather it's a soft skill that everyone can develop. Here are some exercises to help you become a more empathic leader:

  • Read more fiction. This will allow you to inhabit the inner world of the character and consider how another person experiences the world.
  • When someone on your team is going through a hard time, think of how you would feel if you were in a similar situation. What kind of support would you want in that situation? Consider the other person’s needs and act with sensitivity.
  • Don’t make assumptions about how someone is handling something. We are all unique and have our own way of experiencing the world. Just because someone is not reacting in a way you think they should, does not mean they are any less affected by their circumstances.
  • Don’t jump to conclusions. One of your co-workers or team members may be moody and you wonder if you offended them, but it may have nothing to do with you. Or they might be neutral communicators, meaning it’s harder to pick up on how they’re feeling. Simply ask them if they are okay, and don’t take it personally if they don’t feel like sharing.
  • When a person is in visible distress, even if it’s the person in front of you at the coffee shop, ask if there’s something you can do to help.
  • Be genuine in your concern. People can tell when you are merely going through the motions. Remember, you would want sincere concern if the situation was reversed.
  • Make a conscious effort to be an active listener in conversations, where you not only avoid interrupting people but also take the time to hear their message and pay attention to their body language as well. Too often, people spend so much time thinking about what they will say next, that they fail to be attentive listeners.

5. Social skills

Emotional intelligence and social skills go hand in hand. People with effective social skills excel in their communication skills and are known as team players. They thrive when cultivating relationships in their professional and personal life and are genuine in their interactions.

Individuals with great social skills make others feel valued and understand the importance of sincere connections both in business and personal interactions.

What are the benefits of social skills?

  • Socially skilled leaders focus on others and understand that building up members of their team will allow everyone to flourish and result in positive outcomes for both the individuals and the organization as a whole.
  • Managers with great social skills successfully navigate office politics and know how to advocate for their team.
  • They connect with stakeholders of all levels and know how to adjust their message to their target audience, so their message resonates with whomever they are speaking.
  • Those with social skills have a way of making people feel comfortable around them and bringing out the best in others.
  • Having strong social skills allows an individual to be flexible and handle a variety of novel situations. They may not have all the answers, but they know how to connect with people who can help them find those answers.

Are you socially skilled?

  • Are you comfortable connecting with people in groups or one-on-one?
  • Do people feel like they can get to know you easily and that you want to know them as well?
  • Do you make people feel good about themselves?
a team with social skills shows emotional intelligence

How to develop social skills

You can develop your social skills through practice, even if you tend to be shy. Intentional communication is key, as well as making an effort to connect with others.

  • Ask people open-ended questions and encourage people to talk about themselves. Really listen to their responses and ask follow-up questions to show you are engaged. Active listening is an important part of emotional intelligence, for it will help you facilitate strong relationships.
  • Give people genuine compliments. If you are a leader, provide specific examples praising your employees and recognizing their successes. When providing constructive criticism, practice empathy and think of how you would feel hearing the review and ways that your message will be effectively received.
  • Remember details about their lives (write brief notes for yourself in a spreadsheet and check it before you meet them again). You can ask about their family or the new dog they just rescued when you connect again.
  • Challenge yourself to meet new people every day. Perhaps strike up a conversation while waiting for coffee or with the person sitting next to you at a professional conference. Try to go beyond your specific department and the same people you work with all the time. Join committees within your organization to meet others and expand your social horizons.
  • Pay attention to the body language and nonverbal cues of your staff. Recognize your own body language. It’s not only the content of your message, but how you deliver that message. Are you creating a safe space for open discussion?

Develop your emotional intelligence to become a seasoned leader, take your career to the next level, and realize your true potential.

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