Considered a ‘soft skill’ when it was espoused by eminent psychologist Daniel Goleman more than two decades ago, emotional intelligence (EI or EQ) has become a widely acknowledged trait of successful leadership teams. Where IQ and technical skills are crucial in most professions, EI becomes the important differentiator when climbing the ladder, says Laura Wilcox, director of management at Harvard Extension School.

“Individuals are more inclined to go the extra mile when asked by an empathetic person they respect and admire. If an organisation has a cadre of emotionally intelligent leaders, such discretionary efforts multiply,” says Wilcox. EI is a dynamic process; the extent to which you can understand and manage yourself influences your ability to lead others. And the more you understand your staff, the more appropriately you can respond to, work with and lead them.

In an email to his employees at Tesla in Fremont, California, Elon Musk illustrated perfectly how to be an EI leader. As well as stating that he cared for his staff, he also promised to take action to ensure their safety was paramount – including learning their jobs on the factory floor. Here’s how you can get your EI to work better for you, your teams and your organisation. 

Motivate and inspire 

To motivate your staff, you need to engage an individual’s logical, rational reasoning side – what drives them forward might be different from what you think ought to, so ask questions. What reasons, incentives and rewards do they need in return for their time and effort? In order to inspire them, you need to engage their emotion and imagination, and you might need to engage both at the same time. 

Fast facts: According to Daniel Goleman, emotional intelligence accounts for over 90% of the difference between ineffective and effective leaders.

If people are unsure or resistant, find out about their concerns. Inspiring others means acknowledging the difficulties, but being clear that they can overcome them and succeed. Be positive and optimistic. Discuss what qualities and strengths they have that can help contribute to their own success.

Get them to visualise what success looks and feels like to them. What inspires people is feeling excited about being able to achieve in areas that are important to them. Inspiration is driven by emotions such as love, pride and anger, and values such as justice and integrity. Aim to describe your company’s vision or your specific requirements in a way that generates images that help provide a clear picture of what they want to feel and what they’re aiming for.

Use social intelligence

In difficult work situations when there’s the potential for emotions to run high, the chance of miscommunication and misunderstanding is also high. Clarifying what others say by re-stating part of what you’ve heard can be helpful. For example, ‘So, I am right in thinking, you don’t want…?’ or ‘Can I just be clear: you believe that we should…?’

You can also find out more by asking your team not just what they think about achievements or problems, but also how they feel. Ask open questions that suggest ‘feelings’ words: ‘Are you surprised? Confused? Suspicious? Frustrated?’ and ‘How do you feel about this? Pleased? Thrilled?’ This makes it clear what you’re asking for, and, however they respond, ask them to say more about what they’re feeling. It may be a revelation!

Engage your brain

At the top of the ladder, when difficult situations and challenges mount up, it can become stressful. The pressure can overwhelm your mind and prevent you from thinking clearly, which has an impact on your leadership. In these circumstances, if you focus on calming down the emotional part of the brain and engaging the rational, reasoning side, you can work out what practical steps to take control in any given situation.

As simplistic as it sounds, just 2 minutes of focusing on your breathing will help calm you down so you can collect and clarify your thoughts – and you can do it anywhere, at any time. Start by breathing in and out slowly. Pause, and then repeat, deeper and slower. Repeat a few times for a couple of minutes and you’ll feel much more able to work on your challenge.

Physically slowing down also has a powerful impact on stress. Try doing everything 20% slower. While it might feel weird, it not only gives your brain the opportunity to think and come up with ways to manage a situation, but also the mere act of slowing down makes you less stressed. 

Manage your thoughts

Stress and worry involves your mind jumping about or going over and over the same scenarios. A strong strategic plan can help get a grip of a ruminative or racing mind. Whatever it is you need to deal with, think through the steps you need to take and how you will achieve them. It’s easier to get straight onto the next step if you have already planned what and how you are going to do it. It allows you to maintain a steady pace and keep that momentum going.  

Gill Hasson’s latest book, Emotional Intelligence Pocketbook: Little Exercises for an Intuitive Life, is out now.