One might view leadership as a shiny beacon at the top of a sunny mountain. For others, it can be a windy, rocky climb when a leader has to create the vision for a company, build and inspire a team to help deliver on that vision, and manage all other visions after that.
Whether you’re financially, creatively, or technically intelligent, adding emotional intelligence to your toolkit will help you ascend into the elite circles of leadership and provide you with the skills to manage every relationship along the terrain. You can check all the boxes on the technical competencies, but authentic leadership is relational and can only happen through countless interactions with real-life subject matter.
Before you jump to “I’m not warm and fuzzy” or “I don’t have time to coddle everyone’s feelings,” this is not that. Exercising some practice and discipline in the seven areas below will train your brain to focus on new areas of intelligence so that you can lead your team to the summit.
We checked in with Sarah Kivel, a leadership and performance coach with Kivel Executive Coaching, and Tanya Robertson, Human Resource Manager at Pacific Crest Group, to weigh in on the importance of emotional intelligence in leading teams.
In every interaction, you choose how you are showing up by placing awareness on how you feel or by staying on autopilot. Start taking notice of how you’re showing up. Are you nervous? If so, where do you feel it in your body? Why do you feel it? Are you angry? Are you distracted? Pay attention to your habits in one-on-one meetings and internal and external meetings. Where do you feel you do a good job? Where do you feel you come up short? Kivel states, “When we don’t allow ourselves to feel or recognize a wide range of emotions, we miss out on crucial data. Pausing to notice and name your emotions can create space for you to decide how you want to show up. With practice, this can happen in an instant.”
Once you have a bit of self-awareness, you can decide how you want to behave. Kivel shares, “If I’m angry, it may not be OK for me to show up that way. Learning the practice of simply pausing is flexing emotional self-regulation. Then reflect on what you want your next best reaction/action to be.” Modeling that behavior for others can help the team as well. How do you and your team bounce back from a missed deadline, a tough sales call, the loss of a client? When you develop the habit of pausing, you increase your ability to adapt to changing emotions and external changes.
Empathy is how you genuinely build trust within a team. There are three main types of empathy: I understand (cognitively), I feel what you feel (seeing a child get hurt), and compassion in action (I understand, and I’m going to do something about it.) Empathy is a tool to “read the room.” Kivel notes, “Getting to know your people is invaluable. When someone feels seen and cared for as a whole person, not just an accountant or for their singular task at work, it can go a long way.”
Leaders often fall to the desire to fill the space in a conversation. Listening and looking people in the eye without jumping in can further a team member’s trust and deepen the conversation. Robertson remarks, “Time and again, we hear the qualities that make a good leader are trustworthiness, being a good listener, and an honest, open communicator.” Practice listening with your friends and family or at meetings, set a timer for each speaker, and then go around the room and ask each person to repeat back, “what did you hear?” This lets team members know that you welcome their ideas and feedback, empowering them to make contributions. Robertson adds, “A good leader recognizes a job well done. They will also coach an employee to the next level, addressing performance, productivity, and skillset gaps. The key is to stay out of blame and accusation and focus on their potential.”
This tool benefits both the giver and the receiver. In today’s age of remote work, expressing phrases such as, “You did a great job, you’ve been working hard, your energy in meetings is so beneficial to the team” can help establish trust and connection. Celebrating small wins can help you and your employees set realistic goals for future accomplishments.
Adaptability, flexibility, and tolerating imperfection are crucial mindsets of a successful leader. Robertson shares, “If there is anything 2020 taught us, it is to expect the unexpected. Have the flexibility to try something new; to competently handle unexpected changes with ease, creativity, and acceptance; and be willing to revise strategies or plans as needed.”
A growth mindset is a willingness and an openness to learn. You’re not born with it, and it can be cultivated. Allow yourself to say the word “yet” more often at the end of a sentence, “This isn’t my area of expertise…yet.” And again, set the example. Data shows that the person with the most power in the room is the person who is the center of attention – their emotions are the most contagious. Who do you want to be in that moment, and how do you want your team to react?
Most importantly, release the pressure to hit all seven stops on this map. You wouldn’t walk into REI and buy ALL the gear for a climb when a good pair of shoes and a suitable coat will do for now. It’s a path and a process, one step at a time. These seven subtle shifts in how you show up will pay dividends on the way to your peak performance.
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