Mixed feelings

The best leaders have something even more important — and harder to cultivate — than traditional smarts and skills: emotional intelligence. Here’s how to improve your EI.

Sam was racing against the clock. He had only recently started working for a new manager at the midsized Montreal accounting firm where he’d been employed for 6 years, but he already knew the score — the deadlines were tight, the expectations were high and there would be repercussions for mistakes. He had been given a new file to handle and his boss expected results, stat. “I worked day and night to meet my deadline, but I was so scared of making mistakes that I ended up making more of them,” Sam says. “The next morning, after reviewing the file, my boss called me into his office and I was berated for an hour. He questioned my intelligence, attention to detail and my work ethic.”

For some, Sam’s boss had the right idea: high expectations and little tolerance for error certainly count as a management style. But recent research indicates there’s no place for this old- school approach in the modern workplace. Instead, managers with high emotional intelligence (EI) are the ones who have the most satisfied teams and, subsequently, produce the best results. According to a study in the journal Psychological Inquiry, “accumulating evidence indicates that EI, measured as an ability, predicts a variety of important outcomes. As EI rises, so do measures of relatedness and the ability to communicate motivating messages such as vision statements and other similar criteria.”


“Definitions vary, but EI is the ability to identify, manage and take ownership of your emotions and to appreciate the emotions of others,” says Shawn Ireland, a Vancouver-based management consultant who regularly works with CPA BC.

In management, this matters. A boss who has high EI keeps cool under pressure, doesn’t get overwhelmed by his or her emotions, evaluates difficult situations before acting and knows how to motivate. This doesn’t mean he or she is taking notes from Pollyanna or is constantly focused on team-building activities, though. “High EI means recognizing emotions and adapting accordingly,” adds Estelle Morin, an organizational behaviour professor at HEC Montreal. “People with high EI still experience negative emotions, but the way they handle it will be efficient and appropriate.”

A boss with low EI, on the other hand, can’t communicate clearly, doesn’t boost morale, avoids conflict and has difficulty dealing with his or her emotions and the emotions of the team. “People with low EI are very rigid. They react in the same ways over and over, but they don’t realize what they’re doing isn’t working,” says Morin. “They also have trouble taking responsibility; someone else is always to blame.”

This kind of behaviour can mask a manager’s good qualities. “The longer I worked for my boss, the more I realized that despite his lack of outward positive emotion, he cared greatly about his staff,” says Sam. “He’d constantly go to bat for us and was always upfront about how things were. It just never occurred to him to give the kind of positive feedback you’d like to get from your boss.”


Luckily, “even if a manager’s EI is low, he or she always has the potential to improve,” Ireland says. And it makes sense to do so. In a time when workplaces are focusing more and more on keeping employees happy (to the tune of providing lunches, wellness programs and flex time), looking at how employees are actually managed is smart — and could convince more of them to stick around. That’s all dandy, but it doesn’t actually help managers figure out whether or not they score well on the ol’ EI scale.

The key is self-reflection. “If you find you have persistent issues with employees around motivation, conflict resolution or decision-making, then you may not have high EI,” says Ireland. These are the five pillars of emotional intelligence.

Self-awareness. “Pay attention to your inner dialogue, keeping an eye out for pat- terns,” says Helen Dyrkacz, a speaker and management consultant in Winnipeg. “For example, do you always feel upset when coworkers show up late for meetings?” You may find how you think you’ll react and how you actually react are two different things. “You might think you are approachable, but staff members may not feel that way.”

Self-regulation. Once you have a sense of your own behaviour, it’s time to commit to improving. “This is all about managing your thoughts, assessing your responses and acting appropriately,” says Dyrkacz. That could mean taking a short walk when you’re upset.

Before you can encourage and inspire a team, you have to be able to galvanize yourself. Work toward specific goals, and don’t be afraid to build a network of friends, family and peers who can support you and hold you accountable.

Empathy. This is key to high EI and it’s very simple: cultivate the habit of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. This isn’t about going easy on anyone; rather, it’s about being able to understand why a person behaves the way he or she does.

Interpersonal skills. After introspective change, it’s time to revamp how you interact with others. Using assertive body language, eye contact, respecting boundaries, handling conflict and effectively communicating, you’ll yield better results from your team.


Take our quiz to find out how your emotional intelligence ranks.

1. At a department meeting, an employee raises several concerns about a project you’re leading. Others folks feel the same and share their issues. Everyone is looking to you for an explanation. You...

a) feel annoyed by the employees’ inability to see that you’re doing your best. Tell them you are aware of the problems and that you are trying to address them.
b) acknowledge their concerns and tell them you’ll look into the problems.
c) admit you hadn’t realized the problems were this far-reaching, apologize and schedule a meeting with the concerned parties as soon as you get back to your desk.

2. Linda was responsible for an error that resulted in a missed deadline. You...
a) go to her cubicle to reprimand her, getting even more annoyed when she becomes upset.
b) send her an email asking her to come to your office to discuss her poor performance.
c) set up a meeting (out of earshot of Linda’s colleagues; consider a boardroom or nearby coffee shop) to discuss. At the meeting, ask her if she’s alright, making sure to tell her you’ve noticed her work is not up to her usual standards and you’re concerned.

3. You’re assigning a long-term project to two junior members of your team. You...
a) tell them they’re lucky to be chosen for this project, explain the objective briefly and leave them to their own devices.
b) hand over the appropriate files and explain the objective in detail.
c) make sure they have what they need to do the job well, including a thorough explanation of the objective and any existing research. Schedule check-ins to stay apprised of their progress.

If you answered mostly As: dedicate some serious time to thinking about your level (or lack thereof) of emotional intelligence. When dealing with your team, make an active effort to give clear directions, learn conflict resolution strategies and learn how to take criticism constructively.

If you answered mostly Bs: you’re on the right track, but you could stand to learn a thing or two from your more empathetic employees. Consider looking at how you communicate to your colleagues and work on giving clear directives.

If you answered mostly Cs: pat yourself on the back — you’re doing a great job of motivating, communicating and getting the best from your employees. Way to go, boss!