Leading with Feeling: Helping Leaders Use Their Emotional Intelligence

9 strategies that can help all leaders to be more successful.

Tom was a young engineer at one of the country’s largest steel companies. He had just become the leader of a team responsible for producing steel for a major automobile company. After just a week on the job, Tom and his team met with representatives from the company. It was a rude awakening: “I sat in a room with maybe 20 or 25 of their engineers for the annual quality evaluation of suppliers. And I learned that we were lousy at everything. We had lousy quality, we had lousy invoicing, we had lousy on-time delivery.”

So how did Tom respond? “I thought, ‘Oh, my God, what the hell am I going to do?’ Also, I thought about how my guys had been in the business for a while, and I thought, ‘What the hell have you been doing?’ And I was thinking, ‘I’m going to clean house!’”

But Tom was able to control his emotions. He listened attentively as the auto company engineers presented their complaints. When they finally finished, he stood up and said, “I wouldn’t blame you if you fired us as a supplier. But if you give us a chance to fix these problems, I guarantee you that we will not have this kind of meeting next year.” When Tom met with his team the next morning to discuss the situation, the team members initially reacted defensively. But rather than argue with them, Tom listened. His focus was “not on beating anyone up but rather, what can we do to fix this?”The team responded positively to Tom’s approach. The next year, representatives of the auto company told Tom that they “never saw any business turn around that quickly in one year.” As a result, they began giving Tom’s company more business, and Tom went on to a distinguished career, eventually becoming one of his company’s top executives.

9 Strategies

Tom was part of a study of how outstanding leaders use Emotional Intelligence (EI)—the ability to accurately identify, use, understand, and manage one’s emotions.

Past research has examined how to measure EI and its importance for high performance. So we thought it would be useful to learn how the leaders used their Emotional Intelligence to deal with challenging situations.

So we asked the leaders to describe some incidents in which they had managed or used emotion to deal with a problem or achieve a goal. As we studied the interview transcripts, we identified nine strategies that can help all leaders to be more successful.

Strategy 1: Monitor the Emotional Climate

As soon as the leaders entered a room or started a conversation, they assessed how others seemed to be feeling. Doing so helped them discover potential problems—and also opportunities.

Strategy 2: Express Your Feelings to Motivate Others

a large engineering company had to lay off several staff due to a slow-down in the market, the CEO met with all of the employees to explain why it was necessary and to reassure them about the future. But she began the meeting by expressing her own feelings about the situation, which were very much like those of her employees. Doing so didn’t make the anxiety and sorrow go away, but it did help them to move forward as a group.

Strategy 3: Consider How Your Own Behavior Influences Others’ Emotions

An award-winning elementary school principal understood that when she walked into her school building in the morning, her mood affected many of the staff and children. So she made sure her mood was upbeat every day before she walked in.

Strategy 4: Put Yourself in Others’ Shoes

When Tom told the engineers from the auto company, “If I were you, I’d fire us as a supplier,” he demonstrated that he had heard them and appreciated how upset they were about the situation.

Strategy 5: Decipher the Underlying Emotional Dynamics of the Situation

The head of another company realized there was something about a major supplier that always set him off. As a result, he ended up negotiating deals that were far from optimal for his company. So the next time they had to sit down and negotiate a new contract, he sent one of his associates to do it instead. The result was a much better arrangement.

Strategy 6: Reframe How You Think about the Situation

When we asked Tom how he managed to control his emotions, he said it had to do with his attitude about problems in general and the way he thought about challenging situations. “Businesses are never perfect. It is too simple to think all the problems are due to one person screwing up, or that his screwing up is simply caused by incompetence or negligence.”

Strategy 7: Create Optimal Boundaries

A nursery school director put into place Robert’s Rules of Order to help manage the disruptive emotions stirred up at meetings of the parent advisory committee. Creating boundaries around what people talked about in this way helped them manage their emotions.

Strategy 8: Seek out others for help in managing emotions

outstanding leaders with years of experience seek out help from others when faced with challenging emotional situations. As one leader said, doing so is not a sign of emotional weakness; it’s the emotionally intelligent thing to do.

Strategy 9: Help Others Develop Their EI abilities

Many of these outstanding leaders were emotional coaches, helping others to develop and use their Emotional Intelligence.

So what are the implications for training? Although it is possible to increase our Emotional Intelligence over time, many leaders already have enough EI to lead well. Trainers and coaches can help them leverage that EI and become better leaders by teaching them how to use these strategies.

Cary Cherniss, Ph.D., is director and co-chair of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations and professor of Applied Psychology Emeritus at Rutgers University. He has published more than 70 scholarly articles and book chapters, as well as seven books, including “Leading with Feeling: Nine Strategies of Emotionally Intelligent Leadership” with co-author Cornelia Roche published by Oxford University Press in 2020.