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How To Be An Emotionally Intelligent Leader

Yellow balls with faces displaying different emotions

When you see a job advert, how often do you notice recruiters looking for emotional intelligence in successful candidates?

Despite this omission, emotional intelligence – also known as EQ - is increasingly viewed as a must-have leadership skill.

A high level of emotional intelligence sets a leader apart from their peers, helping them coach their teams, manage stress, deliver feedback and collaborate.

“Emotional intelligence is on every leadership and management course we deliver because every time we deal with people, we need to apply emotional intelligence to get the best out of them,” Dan Boniface, our head of training, said.

“There is lots of intelligence that suggests emotional intelligence is as important as intellect and is a strong indicator of how successful you will be in business and life.”

But what exactly is it? How do you know if you have good emotional intelligence? And can you be too emotionally intelligent?

What is emotional intelligence?

Let’s be honest, emotional intelligence has become a buzzword.

It is arguably the most spoken-about topic in leadership and management.

But do we know what it means?

“Emotional intelligence is two things,” Dan said.

“It is understanding our emotions and regulating them. And it is understanding other people’s emotions and helping them regulate them.

“We can control our emotions. We cannot control those of someone else.”

How can you develop emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is not one of those things you are born with or without.

Some people are naturally better at it than others.

But it is a leadership and management skill that can be developed.

And it starts with a better understanding of how we think.

“Neuroscience research suggests when we have an emotion, it lasts for 90 seconds,” Dan said.

“So, if you picture the scenario where someone has sent an email that has made you frustrated or annoyed, that emotion should last for 90 seconds and then drift off.

“But we can allow that emotion to carry on. We get to about 80 seconds and say to ourselves ‘That’s still annoying me’, and we get another 90 seconds of feeling annoyed and frustrated. And this can continue for a long time.

“If we let that emotion drift off, we can deal with the email in a calm, collected, adult way.”

Dan believes understanding your triggers is crucial to getting out of this loop sooner.

He said: “Imagine you have a bucket of water in front of you and that every time you get annoyed or frustrated, you pour a glass of water into it. The bucket will fill and, at some point, overflow and that is when you become overwhelmed.

“What we need at the bottom of the bucket is a tap we can turn every so often and release some water, and the pressure is reduced.

“The tap in real life might be going for a run, playing sport, speaking to friends, meditating – whatever gives you that release.”

Understanding the other person’s emotions

While it is crucial to better understand your emotions and feelings, emotionally intelligent leaders recognise how others feel.

It is about considering the perspectives, experiences and emotions of others and being able to empathise with them.

Dan said: “We should always lead with empathy. Empathy is not sympathy – it is understanding.

“And then everything that we can do for ourselves about managing emotions, we can talk others through.

“And we can then help move people out of a negative state of mind.

“The key with empathy is that if you don’t understand, don’t say that you do because that is damaging to a relationship.

“Tell them that you don’t understand – ‘I’ve not been in that situation myself, could you tell me more about it?’. ‘What is the impact it is having on you?’.

“Those sorts of questions will help us to understand. And then we can use our social skills to motivate them and move them forward.”

The role of reframing

One way emotionally intelligent leaders help their team is by helping them change their perception of problems and difficulties so they become possibilities.

“This is where you take a negative and turn it into a positive,” Dan said.

“For example, on our train the trainer courses, delegates have to do a presentation on the first morning and second afternoon.

“If I pitch that as ‘Unfortunately, you have to do a presentation in front of people you’ve not spoken to before’, you will feel nervous, and it is not likely to motivate.

“If I reframe that and say, ‘You have a great opportunity to present with no judgement, it doesn’t matter if it goes wrong, and you get expert feedback after,’ it sounds much better.

“So, just changing how we speak can change the energy”.

How emotional intelligence helps leaders deal with different personalities

For many leaders, the biggest challenge is managing people.

Different personalities bring different challenges.

Dan says there are four main personality types:

Fiery red: Strong-willed, ambitious, decisive. They want to get on with their tasks.

Sunshine yellow: Enthusiastic, persuasive and sociable. Often the centre of attention.

Earth green: Patient, stable, consistent and a good listener. Potentially more introverted. But always there to support when someone needs it.

Cool blue: Detailed, careful, meticulous. They often enjoy data analysis and critical thinking.

“It is vital to understand we are never 100 per cent one of the colours and none of the others,” Dan said.

“But if we understand our traits and why we do things a certain way, then we can see that in others in the way they speak, their actions and body language. We can pick up their type of character.

“And we can adapt our communication style to meet their different needs.

“For example, if I’m talking to a cool blue, they like lots of detail, and I need to speak in a way that provides lots of information. If I’m talking to a fiery red, they want only a little bit of the detail so they can move on quickly. A sunshine yellow will want to talk things through, so they are the ones you will probably need to give more time to. The greens are the ones who are likely to tell you everything is ok, and you need to coach information out of them.

“Typically, blues and reds put the task first and people second. Greens and yellows believe that if you put people first, the task will take care of itself. Reds and yellows are external thinkers – they want to talk things through. Blues and greens are more reflective and will take longer to give you an answer. If they are quiet in a meeting, it doesn’t mean they are not engaged. It means they want to process the information before they put their ideas forward.”

Dan says developing his emotional intelligence helped him to flick between personality colours for different situations, including managing a challenging personality in a previous role.

“I managed a guy who was predominantly a fiery red,” he said. “He would build things up until he got to a point where he would come to me and explode.

“So, I worked out I needed to sit with him almost every day and give him time to vent and get his frustrations out.

“At the start of any one-to-one, I would just let him go for the first five minutes so he could get it all off his chest. And then we could get on with the meeting.

“At the other end of the spectrum, you might have an earth-green personality who is telling you everything is ok when you know it is not, perhaps because performance has dropped off or motivation has fallen. You need to ask coaching questions to get the best out of them.”

How do you know if you have good emotional intelligence?

One of the key questions for me is how people know they have good emotional intelligence rather than say they have it because it is an in-demand skill.

Dan believes self-awareness and being able to better recognise your emotions and control them is crucial.

He said: “Becoming more aware of how we are feeling and being able to regulate those emotions is a good indicator.

“Before you act, do you have a checkpoint for yourself?

“If you feel angry or frustrated, do you know how to get yourself out of it?

“If you are not self-aware, you will not score highly on emotional intelligence.”


Plenty has been said about the benefits of emotional intelligence.

But is there a downside?

Could too much emotional intelligence make leaders risk-averse, struggle to give constructive feedback and reluctant to ruffle feathers?

Dan said: “The beauty of this theory is you can adapt your approach over time. I made a conscious decision years ago that, as I scored quite low as a fiery red, to become a little bit more like that in work.

“And now I score quite balanced between a red and a yellow. I made that decision because I found it hard to make difficult decisions and deal with conflict. And sometimes, in business, you need to be able to say it as it is.

The BCF Group has been helping organisations develop their talent, inspire their people and overcome obstacles and challenges for the past 25 years.

We deliver training that makes a difference. Find out more about our business coaching, management training and interpersonal skills options.

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