C-Suite Lifestyle

Qualities of The Emotionally Intelligent Leader

Emotion is information. Emotion contains important data that are tied to our thoughts, attitudes, beliefs and actions. It’s why every decision, strategy, product, team and customer is affected by emotional intelligence, or an organization’s lack of it. It’s why investing in emotional intelligence training consistently yields great returns, as high as 1000%. And, it’s why being able to read emotions, your own and others, will make you a more effective leader.

What is emotional intelligence or EQ? Coined by author and science journalist, Daniel Goleman, EQ can be likened to traditional intelligence or IQ. However, EQ refers to how smart we are with human connection. It marks how effectively we manage ourselves and our relationships. Studies show that EQ is more than twice as predictive of performance than IQ and it accounts for 80-90% of the competencies that differentiate top performers from the rest.

As a leader, there are three levels of responsibility for developing emotional intelligence.

You need to cultivate your own emotional intelligence. It is also your role to develop this skill in others, especially those that report to you. EQ accounts In addition, as a leader, you have a responsibility to help your organization become more emotionally intelligent as well.

To get a foundation for how to do this, let’s first look at the brain science of EQ.

The Science of Emotions

Between its core and perimeter, the brain has three layers of increasing sophistication. The central and most base level is the reptilian brain. Its function is tied to our survival. The reptilian brain is constantly reading our environment for signs of danger and when it senses any, the amygdala kicks off the “fight or flight” response. This literally shuts down the other portions of our brain function, including the limbic or emotional brain and the neocortex or executive center, which handles logical analysis and effective decision making. It also sets off many other physical changes, to prepare the body for battle.

This would be fine if the amygdala only fired off when we were truly in danger, like during a car accident or a robbery. The problem is that our own personal history shapes our amygdala and what it sees as “danger.”

For example, I was attacked by a dog in my 20s. For a few years, my amygdala would kick off every time I saw a dog, even dogs I knew and loved. The fight or flight response was beyond my control and frankly, problematic at times.

People can also set off our amygdalas. If your colleague reminds you of someone who harmed you, your amygdala could be going off every day. A more subtle response from the amygdala can send a consistent high alert signal. You might feel this as a knot in your stomach or a clenched jaw. It’s called the “amygdala hijack” and it literally makes us incapable of any kind of intelligent action, emotional or otherwise for a short period of time until our full brain comes back online.

How does this relate to leading with emotional intelligence? The amygdala hijack actually lowers both the EQ and IQ, making us engage in behaviors we later regret.  For example, a normally professional colleague gets heated and yells at the team—the fight reaction. Or a usually confident colleague becomes withdrawn during a meeting—the flight reaction.

The neurobiology of our emotions is at the heart of so many challenging situations like miscommunication, conflict, poor decision making, and disengagement.  Being able to recognize the hijack, both in yourself and others, will help you manage and diffuse potential problems before they create a long-term impact.

Raise your Emotional Intelligence

The good news is that with the right information and practices you can increase your EQ, and that of your team, which will make you a more effective leader.

Four main components comprise EQ, in the areas of personal and relational competence. They are self awareness, self control, awareness of others, and building relationships. Within these components are 20 competencies, such as accurate self-assessment, appreciating diversity, adaptability, and building influence.

Focusing on the competencies (Figure 1), you can increase the proficiency and frequency of EQ in your organization every day. Try these seven strategies to daily build EQ:

Role model emotional intelligence.

A leader’s actions have much more impact than words so be committed to role modeling emotional intelligence. This will naturally happen if you stay focused on the competencies as you increase your proficiency and frequency.

Make EQ part of your organization’s core values.

This can look a lot of different ways and you may not explicitly use the words “emotional intelligence” but you want to show you value the essence of it. For instance, LinkedIn has six core values, one of which is “relationships matter.” This is all about building rapport and trust with members, colleagues and partners. When leaders weave EQ into their organization’s values, they clearly elevate the importance of it for everyone.

Intentionally create an environment that boosts everyone’s EQ.

This starts with offering learning programs on EQ to your employees as well as making it an integral part of manager training and leadership development programs. If you want to see examples, check out programs I’ve built at BrittAndreatta.com/Training.com

Measure and track EQ skills while teaching them.

When people can see their progress, it spurs buy-in while increasing EQ throughout the system. Many elements of employee engagement and exit surveys correspond to EQ so you likely already have some valuable data to analyze.

Hold your people and organization accountable.

If emotional intelligence is lacking, you need to look at why and fix it. This may mean providing more training and coaching to help people grow. It also means clearly communicating expectations and holding people accountable for meeting them. There should be consequences when people don’t meet minimum standards for self-control and engaging with others. For example, if bullying and harassment occur in your organization, you must address it.

Recognize and reward emotional intelligence.

This is the best way to validate your words with concrete actions. Shine the light on people who are exhibiting high EQ. Feature their stories at meetings, create awards, and make it part of your decisions about promotions.

Collaborate with others.

These strategies will be easier and more fun to implement if you engage with others to form a team. Identify high EQ people in your organization and partner with them to raise awareness and do the work. Together, you will be able to influence your organization in powerful ways.

Never A Better Time for EQ

As individuals and businesses and are navigating rapid changes brought on by a pandemic, and new consciousness broken open by a new civil rights wave, understanding the brain science of emotions can help support your organization.

The limbic brain, which wraps the perimeter of the reptilian brain, is also known as our emotional brain. Our survival is tied to this portion, as well, because we are a tribal species and need to be able to connect with others, care for our young, and navigate complex social groups. While the reptilian brain sorts for broad emotional categories like happiness, sadness, love, and disgust, the limbic brain houses an expanded and more nuanced emotional palette.

The outer portion of the brain is the neocortex, which is our thinking brain, also known as the executive center, where we carry on logical analysis and effective decision making. Our emotional palette further expands and more importantly, it allows us to have thoughts about emotions and to tune in to more subtle indicators than the other layers can read. Both our IQ and EQ live here.

Consider the isolation many single employees now face while working from home. While employees with families face the stress of this newly pressurized environment of working from home with partners, while simultaneously supervising remote learning for kids, all under the same roof, 24/7. And everyone is feeling the sadness and fatigue at the loss of social connections and even loved ones as the death toll for both COVID and suicide climbs.

In what ways can you notice those in need of extra attention and support? How can you increase the feeling of belonging in your organization at this time when everyone feels separated?

Mindfulness Over Unconscious Bias

Moreover, as a leader helping to develop EQ, you will be continually assessing your teams, and teaching them to assess themselves and others. In these moments, it’s crucial to do the work of deepening your own emotional intelligence in the arena of implicit bias.

According to the Kirwani Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University, “The implicit associations we harbor in our subconscious cause us to have feelings and attitudes about other people based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age, and appearance. These associations develop over the course of a lifetime beginning at a very early age through exposure to direct and indirect messages.” This is known as implicit bias, and has a subconscious effect on our perceptions of others’ performance and attitudes. It’s a natural occurrence, but unchecked, its harm is pervasive.

Consider: while we have come a long way as a society, it was only a few years ago that our society was filled with overt and enforced messages about the following negative stereotypes:

  • Women as weak and emotional
  • African Americans as criminals
  • Latinos as lazy
  • Jews as miserly
  • Gay, lesbian and transgender people as depraved
  • Asians as inscrutable
  • Pacific Islanders as shifty
  • Hippies as dirty
  • Millennials as fragile

These views were widely held, and many would argue still are, although perhaps more covertly. They have been endlessly amplified and replicated in our TV shows, textbooks, policies, and laws. While many people have realized these stereotypes are erroneous, it takes time and intentional effort to unlearn and dismantle them, both on an individual level as well as in our society. These elements shape us more dramatically than we might imagine and impact how we see others.

As you practice developing emotional intelligence in yourself and your organization, through assessment of competencies, consider deepening a reading practice to broaden your awareness about anti-racism, personal growth and compassionate mindfulness. This is a great way to expand the brain’s emotional palette to recognize subtle indicators at play—indicators that have a direct effect on the individuals who make up your organization’s environment and culture.

Emotional intelligence can drive improvements in key areas across the whole organization. Especially at a time in global history when organizations and individuals are feeling vulnerable, even exposed, emotional triggers are high and behavior change is inevitable. Take the opportunity to up your organization’s EQ game. The integrity it adds to your leadership, and the growth it fosters, will not only be appreciated but will support the success of your organization for decades to come.


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Dr. Britt Andreatta
Dr. Britt Andreatta is an internationally recognized thought leader who creates brain-science based solutions for today’s challenges. The former CLO for Lynda.com (now LinkedIn Learning), Britt has 10 million+ views of her online courses. She regularly consults with organizations on leadership development and learning strategy. Named a Top 20 Influencer in 2020, Britt has authored several books and trademarked models. Dr. Britt Andreatta is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow her on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.