Take a moment to think of a leader or direct manager you’ve enjoyed working with. What qualities made them an effective leader or a positive person to work with? Perhaps words and phrases like “empathetic,” “good listener,” and “powerful communicator” come to mind. 

These descriptions are often used to describe strong, positive leaders in the workplace, and it’s no coincidence they’re also signs of a leader with strong emotional intelligence, says Dr. Daniel Goleman, a psychologist, frequent Harvard Business Review contributor, and author of Emotional Intelligence, a book that popularized the idea that emotional intelligence (EQ) is just as critical to success as IQ in the workforce, especially for leaders. This article will examine the role of EQ in the workplace and why it’s a crucial piece of development for leaders in order to transform organizational strategy to execution and success.

Connecting emotional intelligence to performance

“You need technical skills specific to your role to get in the game, but they won’t make you an outstanding leader, team player, or performer,” says Dr. Goleman. Udemy Business instructor and executive coach Leila Bulling Towne echoes this sentiment, saying, “Emotional intelligence (EQ) is the secret ingredient for the vast majority of top performers in the workplace.”

Emotional intelligence refers to someone’s ability to understand their emotions and those of the people around them. More specifically, Dr. Goleman identifies the five elements of emotional intelligence as:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self-regulation
  3. Motivation
  4. Empathy
  5. Social skills 

These traits coupled together create the outstanding performer Dr. Goleman mentions above. In fact, according to Dr. Goleman’s research, 66% of surveyed people say emotional intelligence distinguishes top performers in the workplace. This is opposed to qualifiers like IQ or technical skills, which only 33% of surveyed people say distinguishes top performers from their peers. 

The number is even higher when people consider leaders: 85% of respondents find leader effectiveness relates to emotional intelligence. “The higher you go in the organization, the more emotional intelligence matters for effectiveness,” Dr. Goleman said at a recent HR industry event, Greenhouse Open

Leaders may need some degree of technical skill to come up with a strategy, but people-focused power skills like persuasion, communication, and collaboration are what will ultimately bring a strategy to life.

How EQ helps leaders motivate their teams

“One of the most exciting aspects of EQ is that — unlike IQ, which remains relatively consistent throughout a person’s life — it can be increased,” says Udemy Business instructor Leila Bulling Towne. As an executive coach, Leila works with leaders to help them raise their emotional intelligence. “Many of these leaders are proactively developing their ability to recognize, understand, and manage their emotions,” says Leila. 

Lead with empathy

Learn more about how managers can become more empathetic in the Manager Essentials workbook Leading with Empathy.

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It’s especially important for leaders to develop these skills because of a concept called the social brain. When we’re around others, we tend to mirror how they feel and behave. Dr. Goleman explains, “Emotions are contagious, and most contagious from the most powerful person in the room outward.” The concept follows that when leaders exhibit positivity and enthusiasm, their team will mirror those traits, and performance will likely increase. The opposite is then also true. Teams will pick up on a leader’s stress or poor communication skills and mirror those traits, and we might see performance or motivation suffer as a result.

This example of contagious moods showcases how EQ traits such as self-awareness and empathy can make a leader a positive motivator for a team. “Without empathy, you’re the kind of boss nobody wants to work for,” says Dr. Goleman. When a leader recognizes how their words, actions, and emotions affect employees and actively fosters a sense of psychological safety for the group, they are more likely to help their teams succeed.

Help your leaders develop their emotional intelligence 

High emotional intelligence in leaders makes work more enjoyable for their teams, but the benefits extend beyond that to greater job satisfaction and commitment, lower turnover, and better physical and mental health. While CEOs and executives are often hired for their business expertise, they’re often fired for a deficit in emotional intelligence, says Dr. Goleman.

The good news is emotional intelligence is a teachable skill. To help your company’s leaders build EQ skills, check out our collection of leadership development cohort learning courses, including Developing Your Emotional Intelligence Skills.