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Leading With Empathy: How To Model Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace


Take a moment to reflect on the role models or mentors who have influenced you personally or professionally. When you think about their unique characteristics that left an impact on you, which qualities come to mind? 

Was it their intelligence, down to the exact quotient? Were you inspired by their intricate technical skills? Or did you resonate with their ability to connect with you on a human level? 

If you opted for the latter, you may place a greater emphasis on the value of emotional intelligence (EI) in personal and professional relationships.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize and manage one’s own emotions as well as the emotions of other people. Employers are increasingly seeing the value of investing in emotional intelligence as employees from all walks of life come together—virtually, in-person, or both—to work toward unified goals. 

And with research suggesting that emotional intelligence is a more reliable predictor of success and a more sustainable catalyst for employee well-being than IQ or technical skills, it’s also a valuable tool for boosting productivity and creativity, strengthening retention, and fostering a culture of empathy and equity.

The Role of Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace

While it's tempting for employers to covet high IQs or advanced technical capabilities, professionals who already possess high EI might find cause for celebration and recognition.

According to psychologist Daniel Goleman, who wrote the book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, people with high EI succeed more often in their work and personal relationships than those with low emotional intelligence and higher-than-average IQs. 

Because emotional intelligence captures how individuals manage their behavior, navigate social complexities, and make decisions that lead to positive results, individuals with average IQs have been shown to outperform individuals with high IQs given their abilities to adapt and think creatively.

And as more organizations become aware of the correlation between emotional intelligence and competent leadership, it has become a top, core skill that is in high demand for leadership.

Emotionally intelligent leaders who model empathy can instill the benefits of high EI in other employees. Leaders can then develop and facilitate a positive and productive workplace that invigorates and motivates employees to do their best and see situations from multiple points of view. 

As a result, employees who are well-equipped to handle conflicts with colleagues or adapt to unexpected organizational changes are more likely to thrive at work and at home.

The 5 Components of Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence consists of the following five key components:

  • Self-awareness: The ability to understand emotions and how they affect performance
  • Self-regulation: The ability to control or choose an appropriate response to certain impulses and moods
  • Motivation: A drive to improve and achieve goals, initiative, and optimism
  • Empathy: Recognizing and understanding the feelings of others
  • Social skills: The ability to manage relationships, communicate, and work with others

These skills—while inherent in some individuals—are not exclusively linked to genetics and can be taught through employee development programs, emotional intelligence training, and stress management courses.

IQ vs. EI

Intelligence quotients (IQs) have been used to measure a person's level of intellectual potential, including problem-solving ability and reasoning. 

However, EI may be a more valuable assessment of an employee’s potential in the modern workplace.

Whereas IQ is a measure of intellectual potential, EI is an evaluation of behavioral factors that reflect emotional depth and capacity. In the workplace, the strengths of IQ and EI show up in different ways. 

For example, an employee with a high IQ may be better able to complete challenging tasks, analyze data, and conduct research. However, an emotionally intelligent employee may be better at coming up with new solutions for challenging tasks, creating new formats and methods for analyzing data, and finding research that could promote cross-collaboration between multiple teams. 

Recognizing and Understanding the Emotions of Others

Actions and language are a huge part of EI. How leaders act and speak—and more generally, manage employees—have been shown to account for up to a 70% variance in employee engagement.

Leaders who believe that emotions have no place at work are prone to using emotionally dismissive language that minimizes employees’ problems, negates their feelings, or prescribes meaningless solutions. This lack of EI can hinder the development of an empathic, inclusive, and equitable workplace culture that puts employee well-being first.

Leading With Empathy

Leaders who prioritize emotional intelligence stand to create a trickle-down effect for the rest of their organization.

“All of the research is getting stronger to make the case that people with more developed EI tend to be physically and psychologically healthier, experience greater well-being, make more informed decisions and do better at work,” says Marc Brackett, founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. “The one thing that every CEO of every company should think about is—are the people managing the people in my organization emotionally intelligent and how do the people feel in my organization?”

For example, a leader who actively listens, is understanding, and provides constructive feedback can reduce feelings of job insecurity among employees. A solidified sense of security thereby increases employees’ feelings of value within their organization—an increasingly sought-after requirement among employees in recent years.

In action, active listening means:

  • Paying attention
  • Making eye contact
  • Deferring judgment

High emotional intelligence also enables leaders and managers to provide a greater sense of worth for employees. This, in turn, allows leadership to more effectively:

  • Form deeper connections with workforces
  • Foster personal growth for employees
  • Create a shared sense purpose within the organization

These benefits not only create a more cohesive organizational culture, but they also further business goals as well. When organizations prioritize EI, employees enjoy enhanced job satisfaction, engagement, and performance. 

A driving factor of high engagement is the employee-leader relationship, as outlined by Gallup. Companies that experience greater financial success also tend to have employees with higher levels of self-awareness, suggesting a strong correlation between the two.

Examples of Emotional Intelligence in Action

An organization with empathetic leaders who possess high EI are better positioned to:

  • Create and maintain an accepting and inclusive workplace where colleagues can express themselves without fear of being judged
  • Anticipate problems and respond appropriately
  • Advance employees by coaching them in career development and providing equitable resources to help them achieve their goals

By combining these capabilities, emotionally intelligent leaders can cultivate a culture of well-being and growth among employees.

How High Emotional Intelligence at Work Benefits Employees

Leaders with high EI already bring tremendous value to an organization, but it's how they help employees hone their own EI that brings wide-ranging dividends for companies.

Employees who possess high EI are better equipped to handle strong emotions in the workplace, which helps them become more versatile team players and navigate stressful situations more effectively.

To learn more, check out our on-demand webinars, which covers emotional intelligence, why it matters, the five foundational elements of EI, the impact on an organization's bottom line, and much more.


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