Cultivate emotional intelligence to enhance your leadership skills

Cultivate emotional intelligence to enhance your leadership skills

By Bob CunninghamLife & Work Connections
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Bob Cunningham
Bob Cunningham

There's a popular quote, often attributed to Franklin D. Roosevelt, that says, "A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor."

Thinking of rough seas figuratively, we've certainly seen challenges at the University of Arizona in recent months, thanks to COVID-19. What skills does a supervisor need to navigate their role in leadership in the midst of these choppy waters?

The most effective managers harness a keen ability to think through problems to arrive at creative solutions. But is cognitive intelligence, commonly measured as IQ, enough? In the book "Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ," author and psychologist Daniel Goleman suggests that leaders can benefit from cultivating emotional intelligence, or EQ, in addition to cognitive abilities.

Some people may step into management with a high EQ. For the rest, the good news is that emotional intelligence can be nurtured at any stage of your career.

Even if you are not a supervisor, increasing your emotional intelligence can lead to less conflict, better communication and more effective collaboration, at work and at home.

Here are some ways to develop your EQ as you continue your leadership journey amid the difficulties of the coronavirus pandemic – and beyond.

Raise self-awareness

Self-awareness, from an EQ perspective, refers primarily to emotional awareness. That means you know what your feelings are, and you have insight as to what's driving them. Research has shown that increasing self-awareness can decrease the intensity of emotions. When you're aware of your feelings, you are less likely to react poorly or irrationally to them.

To practice raising your emotional self-awareness, consider implementing a brief mindfulness technique, like the three-minute breathing space, into your day. This is an excellent way to get better acquainted with how you are feeling emotionally, and it's also a great stress reduction tool that you can use just about anywhere.

Self-aware leaders are also tuned in to their strengths and weaknesses and have a good idea of when to rely on the expertise of others.

Improve self-management

Emotions can be a powerful force, and leaders with well-developed EQ demonstrate an ability to manage and control their emotions, particularly during a crisis. Employees under your supervision watch how you react to certain situations. Your responses help to set an emotional tone, either for them to feel safe (like you can handle whatever comes your way without freaking out), or to raise their anxiety levels and decrease their sense of psychological safety.

To help improve self-management, consider starting an end-of-day journal to reflect on how you handled things. You don't need to write a book here – just take 5 to 10 minutes to evaluate your day. This can be particularly helpful in identifying areas for improvement. If something went wrong with an employee, for example, a journaling prompt might be, "What might I have done differently?" Another prompt is, "What did I do that worked well, and how can I continue that approach?" You can also use your journal to describe how you feel about what happened, enhancing your self-awareness.

Remember: Even just identifying feelings can help lower their intensity. And when you gain awareness of what you are feeling, you are less likely to let your emotions dictate your behavior.

Focus on empathy

There's a lot happening in our society right now, all at once. The battle against COVID-19, social unrest, and political, economic and occupational uncertainty have many people on edge. Employees under your watch may also be dealing with health-related issues personally or within their families. It's not hard to see that people may be stressed and struggling emotionally.

Even if you are a person who stays cool as a cucumber, those you supervise may not be. Try to imagine yourself in your employees' shoes. When speaking with them, pay full attention to what they are saying and how they are feeling. Listening, and being fully present, can be a wonderful way of validating their feelings and helping to communicate that you care.

Don't go it alone

Leadership can be a lonely business, and sometimes it may feel like a heavy burden. If you have a supervisor or mentor you trust, see if they will meet with you from time to time to help you process what you are going through as a manager.

If you need help interpreting a policy or working through a human resource issue, consider speaking with the HR organizational consultant assigned to your college, department or office.

And if you think you need emotional support or brief counseling focused on problem-solving, please reach out to the employee assistance counselors at Life & Work Connections.

There is little doubt that 2020 will be remembered as one of the most challenging years of our time. Cultivating your EQ can lead to decreased emotional reactivity, greater knowledge of your own strengths, and hopefully less stress during a very stressful period. And, perhaps most importantly, you will likely notice a better connection with the employees you serve, as you grow as a caring, empathetic leader and human being.


Bob Cunningham, an employee assistance counselor at Life & Work Connections, is a licensed professional counselor with a master's degree in marriage and family therapy and more than 17 years of experience in medical and higher education environments. His areas of expertise include career development, mindfulness and burnout prevention. On Oct. 7, he will lead "Cultivating Hope," a workshop to help employees develop a positive mindset despite adverse circumstances.

To stay up to date with opportunities to improve wellness, please subscribe to the Life & Work Connections email list.

A version of this article appeared on the Life & Work Connections website.

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