How — and Why — to Cultivate Emotional Intelligence as a Change Leader

by Shannon Houde

Emotional intelligence (EQ) can be the difference between a good leader and a great one.

Simply put, those with a high EQ can manage and control their emotions and  even more critically  effectively manage the emotions of those they work alongside. They can listen to others, take on board feedback and ideas, motivate their team, identify conflict before it causes a problem, and create a workplace where they and all those around them feel flexible, supported, and encouraged to bring their ‘A game.’

Don’t be fooled either. This isn’t some fuzzy concept of ‘team spirit’  leaders with high EQ levels deliver material, quantifiable benefits to their organization’s bottom line. According to one study done by Lyle Spencer for the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations, “for every 1% improvement in the service climate, there is a 2% increase in revenue.” Another study found that 63% of employees have wasted time to avoid a low EQ leader, 75% of employees said it had led to waning commitment, and 12% actually quit their job because of it.

For leaders in the impact sector, this arguably matters even more too. The ability to communicate, spark passion, and generate innovative ideas is critical to your success as a change leader and delivering real change as an organization.


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Now you might be one of the lucky ones and naturally possess a high level of emotional intelligence. It’s thought that genetics account for about 10% of a person’s empathy (or lack thereof), with how you were raised another big contributor. But even if that isn’t the case, the good news is that it’s a skill. That means it can be learned and improved upon throughout your working life, even if it doesn’t feel natural at first.

Here are four great ways to get started:

1. Practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a great way to start developing EQ as it teaches ways to better connect with your own thoughts and emotions and manage them too. It’s no wonder progressive organizations like Google at one point hired their own’ head of mindfulness’ with a job description that included KPIs such as ‘enlighten minds, open hearts and create world peace.’ With the practice gaining global attention for all of its (scientifically backed) benefits, the great news is you don’t need to rely on your organization delivering its own mindfulness program for employees as Google did either. Try out one of these online mindfulness meditation courses for beginners, or download an app like Headspace or Calm  both of which offer a great mix of guided meditations and mindfulness courses.

2. Focus on communication.

One of the biggest hallmarks of a leader with high EQ levels is their ability to communicate  to motivate, explain, give constructive feedback, and articulate what they need from each member of their team. These communication skills are a great practical way to start putting emotional intelligence into action. Be mindful of your vocabulary in each interaction, try to build in empathetic statements, such as “I know you must feel frustrated right now,” adopt open body language (some great tips here) and, last but by no means least, practice active listening  for more information on exactly what that entails, read this.

3. Learn to take feedback.

The ability to hear feedback and take it on board without becoming defensive is one of the core skills of an emotionally intelligent leader. That’s because resorting to defensiveness when faced with criticism blocks your communication channel with your team, damages trust, creates frustration, and harms your reputation as a leader. So, the next time a team member delivers feedback you don’t like, consciously take a different approach — first, pause. Taking just 10 seconds before you speak can allow that initial impulse to pass. Next, thank them for their feedback. Finally, clarify what they’ve said by reflecting on their comment and adopting a collaborative approach to working out the next steps.

4. Invest in unconscious bias training.

Many of the skills associated with emotional intelligence, such as self-awareness, also mitigate the impact of our own unconscious biases. We all have these ‘brain blind spots’  unconscious shortcuts our minds take when making decisions based on information absorbed during our lifetime. But these biases can lead to prejudiced decisions affecting everything from people management to the ideas we’re receptive to. It’s thought unconscious bias may cost workplaces in the US around $14 billion each year. So, it’s more than worth investing in unconscious bias training for both yourself and your team  with the bonus that you’ll cultivate your EQ at the same time.


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