EI and Leadership


As a leader, you set the emotional tone that others follow. Our brains are hardwired to cue into others’ emotional states (both consciously and unconsciously). This is particularly true for leaders. People want to know how a leader feels and their emotions will synchronize with authorities they trust.

The emotional tone that permeates your organization starts with you as a leader, and depends entirely on your emotional intelligence, or EI. When employees feel upbeat, they’ll go the extra mile to please customers. There’s a predictable business result of this: For every 1% improvement in the service climate, there’s a 2% increase in revenue. Not a bad return!

The table that follows, provided by TalentSmart’s Dr. Travis Bradbury, contrasts the behaviors of high-EI vs. low-EI leaders:

Leaders with Low EILeaders with High EI
Sound off even when it won’t helpOnly speak out when doing so helps the situation
Brushoff people when botheredKeep lines of communication open,even when frustrated
Deny that emotions impact their thinkingRecognize when other people are affecting their emotional state
Get defensive when challengedAre open to feedback
Focus only on tasks and ignore the personShow others they care about them
Are oblivious to unspoken tensionAccurately pick up on the room’s mood

CEOs Score Low EI

Measures of EI in half a million senior executives, managers, and employees across industries and six continents, reveals some interesting data. EI scores climb with job titles, from the bottom of the ladder upward toward middle management, where EI peaks. Mid-managers have the highest EI scores in the workforce. After that, EI scores plummet.

You might think that because leaders achieve organizational goals through others, that they have the best people skills. Wrong! CEOs, on average, have the lowest workplace EI scores.

Too many leaders are promoted for their technical knowledge, discrete achievements, and seniority, rather than for their skills in managing and influencing others. Once they reach the top, they actually spend less time interacting with staff.

But achieving goals — and high performance — is only part of the formula for leadership success. Great leaders excel at relationship management, influencing people because they’re skilled in forming alliances and persuading others.

EI has a direct bearing on corporate reputation. Boards of directors now recognize how it affects stock prices, media coverage, public opinion, and a leader’s viability. Look at any corporate disaster or scandal. If leaders cannot genuinely express empathy, it’s that much harder for them to regain trust and support.

A 2001 study by Dr. Fabio Sala (www.eiconsortium.org) demonstrates that senior-level employees are more likely to have inflated views of their EI competencies and less alignment with the perceptions of others.

Sala proposes two explanations for these findings:

  1. It’s lonely at the top. Senior executives have fewer opportunities for feedback.
  2. People are less inclined to give constructive feedback to more senior colleagues.

Nonetheless, EI’s effect on business performance and senior employees’ grandiosity highlight the need for well-executed performance management systems that measure emotional competencies.

One way to improve EI in executives is through leadership coaching. A trusted coach provides necessary feedback which can improve someone’s ability to handle emotional situations. Let me know if you need help in choosing the right coach!