Female boss smiling with colleagues

How emotional intelligence affects leadership

Managing your emotions to help relationships thrive

Written by Emma Mason AIMM
6 minute read
Female boss smiling with colleagues

Traditionally, an effective leader was characterised by displaying authoritarian attributes and a top-down approach.

However, with the evolving nature of organisational structures and the modern workplace, becoming a successful leader requires a new perspective.

Initially developed by researchers Peter Salovey and John Mayer, the term emotional intelligence (EI or EQ for emotional quotient) has garnered widespread attention thanks to psychologist Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book Emotional Intelligence.

This growing awareness has highlighted the critical role emotions play in the workplace, linking emotional intelligence to organisational success.

But is emotional intelligence fundamental for today’s leaders? AIM WA CEO and social affairs and workplace expert, Professor Gary Martin FAIM shares insights into how emotional intelligence affects leadership.

What is emotional intelligence in the workplace and how does it play a part in leadership effectiveness?

Emotional intelligence is commonly defined as the ability to recognise, understand and manage emotions while also recognising and influencing the emotions of others.

This is often paired with understanding how emotions impact communication through self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management.

Professor Martin believes that emotional intelligence is one of the most difficult soft (non-technical) skills to develop, as those who often require this skill set the most, often fail to recognise they need it the least.

Research conducted by Harvard Business Review reinforces this, revealing that 95 per cent of people think they’re self-aware, but it is only 10 to 15 per cent that are.

“[Leaders] may look at others and think, ‘Why is that person so irritable?’ but it might have been their own words or actions that were the cause,” Professor Martin explained.

He added that while people can often describe what emotional intelligence isn’t, they often face difficulty defining what it actually is. This makes it a seamless, almost intangible quality for emotionally intelligent leaders.

“There's nothing to pinpoint, it just works,” he said.

While technical skills are benchmarks for getting hired for a job role, they will only get you so far if you cannot effectively communicate or collaborate with your team.

Professor Martin noted how traditionally, intelligence quotient (IQ) measured a leader's capability. Yet while these leaders may be smart intellectually, they often fall short due to limited emotional intelligence.

“These days, you do need IQ and EQ. And arguably, there's a whole range of other Q’s such as adaptability quotient (AQ) that leaders also require,” he said.

“If you've just got IQ and EQ, you'll be left behind still because you always must be moving with the times.”

He acknowledged that while adaptability (AQ) has evolved as a crucial skill, emotional intelligence is central for being an effective leader.

“... There's no question that if you are the type of person that puts people offside daily through your interactions, then you can't be a successful leader,” Professor Martin stated.

Should leaders hide their emotions or is there a benefit to showing their human side?

For Professor Martin, showing your human side is an integral part of leadership. He said that when leaders choose to conceal their emotions to appear in control, this can have the opposite effect and come across as insincere or fake.

When a leader shows their emotions, it demonstrates that they care about fostering relationships, rather than just giving directions for tasks.

“People also expect their leaders to show emotion particularly when they're dealing with sensitive issues. And sometimes leaders use emotion to gather support and have others rally around them,” Professor Martin added. 

AIM WA Chief Executive Officer, Professor Gary Martin FAIM

However, he cautioned that there must be a balance, as being too emotional in the workplace can be detrimental, as employees look to model the behaviour of their leaders.

“In a crisis, if your leaders are in a panic or are upset, that’s going to spread throughout the workplace,” he said.

Professor Martin advised that the level of emotion you show should depend on the situation. He also advocated for all team members to have the freedom to express their emotions to alleviate toxic positivity.

“Everyone should be able to express their true feelings and not have negativity suppressed all the time. It’s a balanced approach,” he said.

How has emotional intelligence positively influenced your own leadership style?

Reflecting on his own leadership journey, Professor Martin said that active listening and remaining non-reactive have helped employees feel comfortable approaching him for issues.

“A key part of emotional intelligence is being able to listen to what people say … and taking the time to consider what they've actually said.”

Managing your emotions is an important part of leadership, as it provides the ability to guide and help people, while also developing trust and rapport with teams.

In turn, when employees feel heard, they are likely to feel more engaged, innovative and motivated.

“… If you react negatively straight up to something an employee shares with you, they will never be honest with you again,” Professor Martin emphasised.

“Yet when you take the time to stop and reflect, you can start to say, ‘I understand that, or I need more information’.”

“It’s about knowing how to monitor and use your emotions when you want to and when in a way that's going to enhance a relationship rather than detract from it.”

During challenging times, how can emotional intelligence help leaders make the right decisions and maintain a strong bond with their teams?

At times, any workplace environment is filled with levels of uncertainty and stress. For leaders navigating high-pressure situations, having emotional intelligence is vital for critical decision-making, resolving conflicts and helping employees adapt to rapid changes.

Referring to the COVID-19 pandemic, Professor Martin discussed how this led to high levels of uncertainty for people who became at risk of losing their jobs and being subject to salary cuts seemingly overnight.

For such difficult conversations, he said that remaining transparent and empathetic was essential, as this helps others understand and accept your rationale.

“During these conversations, you must remain empathetic and understanding, while remaining transparent and not trying to dress things up,” Professor Martin said.

“If you've got emotional intelligence, you do it in a way that helps people understand from your point of view.”

It’s also crucial to be self-aware to identify what triggers personal negative reactions, particularly during challenging times.

“For example, if someone abused you when they got made redundant, if you abuse them back, then that escalates,” Professor Martin shared.

“But if you know that you don't react well to those circumstances, just knowing that and not letting it trigger you into an adverse reaction is really important.

“Knowing your triggers helps you to manage your emotions and salvage difficult situations. Yet a lot of people take a long time to learn what their triggers are.”

He also highlighted that emotional intelligence doesn’t necessarily equate to being nice.

“It's not about letting people walk over you … it's about considering your emotions and other's emotions in day-to-day interactions,” Professor Martin said.

“... Nice is different to an understanding or empathetic person, there are differences.”

What advice would you give to leaders on developing and enhancing their emotional intelligence to achieve leadership success?

Professor Martin advises leaders to gain a fresh perspective on past interactions by engaging with others. He further recommended utilising self-assessment tools, books and courses tailored for enhancing your emotional intelligence skills.

“The only way to properly find out your level of emotional intelligence is to have someone who can advise you on how your daily interactions came across and if you showed an understanding of what a person was going through,” he said.

“Having a trusted confidant who can tell you that leads to an enormous amount of success.”

Emotional intelligence is a cornerstone of modern leadership, as it provides leaders insight into understanding and managing their emotions while remaining self-aware of others.

In turn, this leads to enhanced communication, conflict resolution and improved relationships within teams that feel heard, respected and understood. These elements play an integral part in navigating today’s dynamic landscape.

However, self-reflection is critical, as leaders cannot improve emotional intelligence if they cannot see what needs to be changed.

“A big part of emotional intelligence is taking the time to reflect on the day-to-day context that you have,” Professor Martin shared.

“Because if you don't stop, reflect and think through those interactions, you're not going to be able to improve or enhance your ability.”