In a rapidly evolving socio-economic landscape punctuated by significant disruptions such as the global pandemic, the concept of emotional intelligence, specifically empathy, has become increasingly relevant within professional environments. Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, is now viewed as a key leadership trait and an essential component of effective team dynamics.
Data from a series of international surveys conducted in recent years (Meechan et al., 2022 ; Holt, 2022) underscored the importance of empathy in the workplace. An overwhelming majority of respondents endorsed the idea that increasing empathy would contribute positively to societal improvement (EY, 2021). This perspective resonated with a significant segment of the European workforce, where empathy was deemed critical for employee satisfaction and retention (Chrousos, 2021). A UK study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD, 2021) showed a rising trend in companies investing in empathy and interpersonal skills development.
Impact of empathy
Empathetic individuals play an instrumental role in an organisation, fostering effective communication, nurturing relationships, and enhancing social cohesion. By gaining an understanding of their colleagues’ lives, they create an environment where people feel confident to share their ideas, leading to increased teamwork and innovation. Empathetic leaders can respond more effectively to individual communication styles, thus motivating productive contributions.
Implementation of empathy
However, the implementation of empathy within organisations has its challenges. Creating an organisational culture of empathy requires more than just superficial changes. It involves a shift in mindset at all levels of the organisation and a commitment to aligning company policies, structures, and procedures with empathetic values. Additionally, empathy is often wrongly perceived as a sign of weakness, which can be an impediment to its acceptance in the workplace. Overcoming such misconceptions and creating a supportive environment where empathy is valued and practised is crucial.
Empathy and gender
Research has shown a correlation between empathy and gender, with some studies suggesting that women might inherently possess more empathetic traits than men (Baron-Cohen & Wheelwright, 2004). This does not imply that empathy is exclusive to women but rather that empathetic leadership styles could be more prevalent among women leaders. This observation can be used to encourage greater gender diversity in leadership roles, thus fostering a more empathetic organisational culture.
From an employee perspective, empathy in leadership is highly valued. Employees tend to feel more engaged and committed when they believe their leaders understand and care about their feelings and perspectives. This can increase job satisfaction, improve morale, and reduce employee turnover.
However, there is a fine line between empathy and over-involvement. Excessive empathy can lead to emotional exhaustion and blurred boundaries between professional and personal life (O’Connor, 2021). Thus, it is essential for organisations to strike a balance between fostering empathy and maintaining professional boundaries. The sustainability of empathy over time has also proved difficult in some sectors and needs to be managed accordingly (Yu, et al., 202).
Performance impact of empathy
The impact of empathy on performance is also worth examining. While empathy can improve interpersonal relationships and communication within a team, its direct impact on performance metrics may be more complex. An overemphasis on empathy could distract from performance-oriented goals if not carefully managed.
In conclusion, empathy is far from being merely a “woke” concept, as some critics portray it. It holds significant potential for enhancing the workplace environment, promoting effective communication, and improving job satisfaction and retention. However, a balanced approach is necessary. Organisations should encourage and cultivate empathy but must also be aware of its potential pitfalls and educate their employees accordingly. As with any other organisational strategy, the key to successful implementation lies in the delicate balance between empathy and performance.
Baron-Cohen, S., & Wheelwright, S. (2004). The empathy quotient: An investigation of adults with Asperger syndrome or high functioning autism, and normal sex differences. Journal of Autism
Holt, S. (2022). Nurturing empathy. Innovative Leadership in Times of Compelling Changes: Strategies, Reflections and Tools, 117-131.
Meechan, F., McCann, L., & Cooper, C. (2022). The importance of empathy and compassion in organizations: why there is so little, and why we need more. In Research Handbook on the Sociology of Organizations (pp. 145-163). Edward Elgar Publishing.
Yu, Chou Chuen, Laurence Tan, Mai Khanh Le, Bernard Tang, Sok Ying Liaw, Tanya Tierney, Yun Ying Ho et al. “The development of empathy in the healthcare setting: a qualitative approach.” BMC Medical Education 22, no. 1 (2022): 1-13.
What if we approached mental fitness the way we approach physical fitness? That is to say, conceiving it as necessary and making it a priority. What would that regime entail if it were a daily act, and what might be gained as a result? What if we resituated emotionality in our profession as a catalytic force, not a disruptive one? Thus, shifting the workplace from a rational environment to a place of outward feeling and engagement. The answer to all these questions is related to the development and implementation of emotional intelligence.
The science of social dynamics
Emotional intelligence is ‘the ability to understand and manage emotions’ (Cavaness et al., 2020). Crucially, within this definition, knowledge and application are linked by awareness. Being self-aware and aware of others’ emotions are similar, albeit different skills. Both are equally valuable, and today’s leaders should use each to their advantage to manage the people they are in charge of and the projects they are tasked with completing.
Research affirms that emotional intelligence and personality are critical factors for achieving organisational goals and adapting to an ever-changing professional landscape (Eby et al., 2000). This outlook is self-explanatory as well as scientific. Emotional intelligence, or emotional quotient (EQ), has been a source of theory since the 1920s. However, it was only in the 1990s that we came to have a broader awareness of it through the work of psychologists John Mayer and Peter Salovey, who first coined the term. Notably, Daniel Goleman (1995) established a framework for its analysis and posited that EQ is, in fact, a better predictor of success than IQ, which had been the dominant metric of excellence. In truth, standardised tests cannot accurately measure any form of intelligence; therefore, EQ or IQ scores are arbitrary.
Nevertheless, the significance of Goleman’s postulation is that we need emotional intelligence to succeed. He is certainly not alone in reaching this conclusion. For instance, Forbes magazine has written about the topic no less than twenty-seven times since 2019 and deduces, again and again, ‘emotional intelligence has become a prized trait in leadership’ (Santilli, 2022). Seeking marginal gains from every angle, many companies now enlist psychologists to create ‘competency models’ to identify, train and promote employees.
Conducting later research for the Harvard Business Review, Goleman studied two hundred large global companies to decipher the role of emotional intelligence in the workplace. His data suggested that those traits traditionally associated with leadership—e.g., mental intelligence, determination, fortitude, and vision—were insufficient diagnostics of success. He concluded, ‘To be sure, intellect was a driver of outstanding performance. Cognitive skills such as big-picture thinking and long-term vision were particularly important. But when I calculated the ratio of technical skills, IQ, and emotional intelligence as ingredients of excellent performance, emotional intelligence proved to be twice as important as the others for jobs at all levels’ (Goleman, 2004).
Signs of emotional intelligence
Granting that emotional intelligence is ostensibly incalculable or more substantive than measurable. Some tests can give us a baseline for where we stand. The Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT) is one example and can be taken online by answering prompts for around 30–40 minutes. For some, this may be a useful starting point.
More fundamentally, a point of sincere reflection is the primary means to begin. The commitment to do so, and follow through with filling your gaps, will positively impact your professional and personal life. Some characteristics that may reiterate one’s emotional intelligence include (but are not limited to):
- Knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses and being able to identify and express emotions.
- The ability to regulate and utilise a full spectrum of emotions.
- Self-motivation to achieve goals while filtering out negative self-talk.
- Having empathy for and comprehending other peoples’ emotions.
- Effective communication skills.
- Being curious about the feelings of others.
- Managing relationships and responding appropriately to conflicts.
Goleman’s framework for evaluating emotional intelligence lists the first five bullet points as core metrics that reveal a truer EQ. The last two are subsidiary qualities. It can be argued that the others constitute investment and follow-through and gesture to a sense of emotional credibility that is indispensable.
Maybe the most surprising finding in Goleman’s research is the value of emotional intelligence at the highest leadership levels. In a subset of the data, he compared star performers against average ones within senior leadership positions. The numbers revealed that almost 90% of the differences between those who stood out and those who did not trace back to deficiencies in emotional intelligence and not cognitive abilities. Hence, not only is emotional intelligence relevant to performance at all levels of the corporate sphere—it is one of the most significant ways that strong leaders distinguish themselves.
Social awareness and authenticity
Embedded into any serious discussion of emotional intelligence is a secondary conversation regarding social awareness, which is ‘your ability to accurately pick up on emotions in other people and understand what is really going on with them’ (Bradberry et al., 2009). In practice, it is the ability to read people around you and respond with empathy. Accordingly, it combines components of Goleman’s framework but emphasises the relationship of the self to others; and, critically, deprioritises the first and prioritises the latter.
Some industry leaders profess social awareness is the most significant facet of emotional intelligence (Golis, 2012). It is invaluable insofar as it is instrumental toward the ability to positively effect change in the emotional drives of others, leading to improved performance. Others avow that social awareness contributes to authentic leadership and is communicated through:
- Intonation allows us to reconcile the grey spaces that exist in digital communication. Through tone, we leave little room for interpretation and can project confidence in and consideration for others.
- Checking in may seem like inconsequential small talk, but connecting with your team displays concern, if not empathy, and potentially builds trust in cooperative situations.
- Active listening means pausing the monologue in your head to listen to others with your body and brain. If your mind is preoccupied with constructing your reply, you cannot hear what is being said. Nor are you able to pick up minor verbal signals or diction that may reveal concerns, doubts, or any emotions beneath the surface.
These skills may seem basic, and they are, yet many of us fail to realise how we may appear or come across to those around us. In this regard, empathy is not performative. Paying greater attention to these granular social details provides the foundation for communicating genuine concern for others.
At the top, social awareness relative to emotional intelligence equates to efficacy. That is a statistical and intuitive fact. Those with social awareness are likely to have the other fundamental skills that make up a strong EQ and will be more able to execute essential leadership tasks such as dissecting groups and interpreting how individual personalities work (or do not work) together, delivering feedback and conveying personal investment to those who play a part in determining whether you succeed as a leader. Remember, their success is your own. In this regard, social awareness is ultimately relationship management.
The importance of emotional intelligence in the workplace—and especially in leadership circles—cannot be overemphasised. It is vital. Without it, the power of cognitive intelligence risks dilution if you are less able to communicate your ideas and coordinate their execution. In daily social situations, it is everything. ‘A high IQ, coupled with high EQ, is an optimum combination for individuals to excel in meeting organisational objectives’ (Cavaness et al., 2020).
Transformational leaders are credited with high emotional intelligence, while those who do not display it perform worse on evaluative metrics. Although EQ’s impact on personality and leadership is widely accepted, it is less certain whether emotional intelligence can be learned or is innate. Scientific research points to a genetic component involved; be that as it may, psychological development research contends that nurture is a factor. Ergo, emotional intelligence is indeed something that can be acquired with time and effort. What is more, it may even increase with age.
As an intangible, emotional intelligence encompasses communication skills, conflict resolution, and successful collaboration. As a tool, it provides a range of methods through which we can better manage our behaviour and the behaviour of others. It should inform our words and decisions and help us to bridge across disparate personalities to foster a collective social climate. The benefits are readily apparent, and relatedly, harmonious workplaces notably have fewer conflicts and decreased absenteeism (ibid).
Building relationships across an organisation is intrinsic to success, but knowing how to do this is increasingly difficult within a corporate landscape that is continually changing due to globalisation, diversity, generational shits, innovation and evolution. Against this backdrop, the interpersonal skills associated with emotional intelligence are not new age. They are a necessity.
Reflecting on his observations, Goleman (2004) surmises that ‘to enhance emotional intelligence, organisations must […] help people break old behavioural habits and establish new ones. That not only takes much more time than conventional training programs, it also requires an individualised approach.’ EQ cannot be learned or boosted in seminars or training courses alone. It is experiential and requires a personal commitment. The power, then, is well and truly within us.
Bradberry, T., Greaves, J., & Lencioni, P. M. (2009). Emotional Intelligence 2.0 (31565th edition). TalentSmart.
Cavaness, Keith, et al. “Linking Emotional Intelligence to Successful Health Care Leadership: The Five of Personality.” Clinics in Colon and Rectal Surgery, vol. 33, no. 4, July 2020, pp. 195–203, https://doi.org/10.1055/s-0040-1709435.
Eby, Lillian T., et al. “Perceptions of Organizational Readiness for Change: Factors Related to Employees’ Reactions to the Implementation of Team-Based Selling.” Human Relations, vol. 53, no. 3, Mar. 2000, pp. 419–42, https://doi.org/10.1177/0018726700533006.
Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. 10th Anniversary edition, Random House Publishing Group, 1995.
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Golis, Christopher. (n.d.). Emotional Intelligence For Managers.
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Santilli, M. (2022, March 24). What Is Emotional Intelligence? Forbes Health. https://www.forbes.com/health/mind/what-is-emotional-intelligence/
Ugwu, L. I. (2011). Emotional and general intelligence: Characteristics, meeting points and missing links. Asian Social Science, 7(7), 137-140.
There is more to leadership than being the smartest or most charismatic individual in a room. Leaders influence and inspire through action. They determine the company culture from the top-down. But what truly makes a leader great? And why is great leadership so important?
According to the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer, 1 in 3 employees don’t trust their leaders. This lack of trust in leadership has a direct impact on retention, job satisfaction, and overall performance, which influences the company’s success. In fact, 79% of employees quit their jobs due to a lack of appreciation from leaders. It is no doubt a great leader directly impacts the business, for better or for worse.
What are the traits of a good leader?
- Emotional Intelligence: This includes self-awareness, empathy, communication skills, and the ability to be vulnerable and ask for help when needed. Emotional intelligence means recognizing that different people require different styles of management and adjusting based on the individual.
- Competence: Leaders must know what they are doing and be able to do it well. You cannot get a promotion or get to the top of a company without having the skills to do the job itself. Competence is an essential leadership trait.
- Charisma: It’s not always what you say that matters; it’s how you say it. Charisma on its own is not enough for great leadership, but a great leader does need the skills to inspire others. Martin Luther King Jr. is an example of a great leader because of his ability to move people in an authentic way.
- Vision: A great leader needs to be able to see the big picture. Vision enables the leader to make strategic, long-term decisions, especially in the heat of the moment. Having a clear vision keeps a leader motivated and helps them stay true to their mission.
- Integrity: Integrity is essential to great leadership. This requires honesty, openness, and trust. It means a leader acts in ways that align with their values and has a strong moral compass.
- Decisiveness: Often, leaders will have to make the decisions that others don’t want to make. Great leaders are also not afraid to ask for input to ensure they have all the information necessary before finalizing a decision.
- Innovative: It’s important for great leaders to be innovative and to inspire innovation in their employees. It may be comfortable to follow the status quo, but greatness doesn’t come from comfort. Innovation is also profitable. According to a Booz & Co. report, innovation organizations saw 11% more revenue and 22% more growth than their counterparts.
- Risk-Taking: Innovation also requires taking risks. Risk-taking does not mean reckless decision-making, however. It means having the ability to make an informed and calculated risk, assessing whether the cost outweighs the benefit. Further, research shows that leaders who take risks are better liked by their employees, regardless of the outcome of their decision.
- Invest in People: To lead people is to invest in them. All great leaders value their employees and their continuous growth as well as their own. The people are the company’s greatest asset, and great leaders know this.
- Holistic Health: A burnt-out leader is an absent leader. Those who care about their overall well-being such as their diet, exercise, sleep, and work-life balance are not only helping their own performance but are setting a better example for their employees. Moreover, research shows that self-care improves performance and productivity.
These ten traits are some of the core values of great leadership. All of these are important to inspire loyalty, trust, and retention in the workplace.
Lastly, what’s most essential is a leader who cares, whether that’s about their people, the business, or their overarching mission. Passion is contagious, and that is what true leadership inspires.