How To Improve Emotional Intelligence in Business

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Bailey Maybray
Bailey Maybray



When you think of a successful entrepreneur, what comes to mind? Smashing competitors? Never taking no for an answer? Ready to drop any employee who flails under their watch?

Emotional Intelligence: A woman has hearts and a rainbow flying out of her head.

Movies, television shows, and social media often show a one-sided view about entrepreneurs. Accordingly, the best of the best have an insatiable appetite for growth, money, and power. But research paints a different picture: emotional intelligence — not ruthlessness or Devil-Wears-Prada-ness — makes entrepreneurs successful.

Studies show that emotional intelligence matters more than cognitive ability for entrepreneurial success. Business owners who lead with self-awareness and empathy can weather economic storms, build better relationships, and remain motivated — while lifting up their employees. 

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize, manage, and evaluate your emotions. It’s taking criticism from your employees like a champ. It’s growing and moving on from strategic blunders. It’s what entrepreneurs, according to a survey of over 65k founders, need in order to succeed.

“In a nutshell, emotional intelligence is simply having a built-in self-awareness — and then having the capacity to be aware of others,” says Nicole Kirby, a certified coach in emotional intelligence for leaders. 

Kirby tells her clients emotional intelligence revolves around listening, empathy, and awareness. “It ultimately starts with the self, how you interact with others, and the capacity for skills like empathy.”

Five components developed by American psychologist Daniel Goleman make up emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills.

Emotional Intelligence graph showing its five components: Self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills.

1. Self-Awareness

The ability to recognize your emotions and how they influence your actions makes you self-aware. You might feel cranky in the morning before you’ve had a cup of coffee, which might cause you to speak passive-aggressively to your co-workers. If you can identify patterns in your feelings and actions, you have a solid sense of self-awareness.

2. Self-Regulation

If you find yourself making rash, emotionally driven decisions, you may need to work on self-regulation. Regulating your feelings means maintaining your composure — even when faced with difficult situations — and not reacting impulsively. 

For example, entrepreneurs who self-regulate remain calm when an employee decides to leave their company, or when a supplier misses a deadline. 

3. Motivation

What drives you to keep moving forward? Emotional intelligence includes self-motivation — which involves creating an environment where you feel compelled to reach milestones. Setting manageable goals, telling colleagues about your work, and celebrating small victories can help entrepreneurs build self-motivation. And motivated entrepreneurs often produce higher-quality work.

4. Empathy

Empathy can feel like an overused buzzword, but it is crucial in business. Founders have to put themselves in the shoes of their customers, suppliers, employees, and even competitors. Entrepreneurs who lead with heart receive more respect and dedication from their workers.

5. Social Skills

Business owners with social skills keep open ears and an open mind. They want to hear what their employees have to say — and they make an effort to listen. Strong social skills also help business owners manage conflict within their teams, and negotiate fair deals with external sources.

How To Improve Emotional Intelligence in Leadership

Leaders — whether they’re founding their own startup or running a multinational enterprise — need emotional intelligence. Since they set the tone for the rest of the organization, emotionally intelligent leaders influence their workers to act the same.

Inspire: Develop a vision that motivates others. Take this a step further and nurture relationships with your employees. Make them feel hopeful and compassionate about your business by creating relevant missions and goals, whether it be serving your customers better or starting a volunteer program. 

Influence: Communicate with your employees in a well-intentioned, clear way. Gather your thoughts before sending company-wide emails, and model behaviors you’d like to see. Understand the why behind your messaging — influencing others revolves around meaningful persuasion, not brute force.

Develop: Provide useful, constructive feedback to employees. Tell them what they’re doing great at — and let them know where they can improve. Have regular check-ins to track their progress, and offer opportunities to upskill, such as company workshops, mentorship programs, or tuition reimbursements.  

Self-confidence: You know what you excel at, but you also know what you need to work on. Build up confidence by recognizing your value in the organization, and accept that others in your company will sometimes know more than you.

Transparency: Self-awareness means recognizing your emotions. Transparency means sharing them with others. Keep your employees informed about your goals and progress, what you’re working on, and what you’re striving toward. Be candid — it’s OK if you find the company in a rut or need help to solve a problem.

Optimism: Nobody likes a Debbie Downer — unless you’re in a Saturday Night Live skit. Remind yourself to keep a positive outlook for the future. Start with positive affirmations before the workday, and encourage your workers to focus on the upside. 

How To Improve Emotional Intelligence Among Teams

As a founder, you likely work with a few teams. Influencing team members to foster emotional intelligence will improve their performance and coordination. As Kirby puts it, “Once you have self-awareness, you can start to observe emotional intelligence in others.”

Conflict management: Make an effort to identify conflicts on your team. When they happen, don’t jump to conclusions and evaluate the behaviors of those involved. Sit them down and facilitate an effective, useful conversation. 

If you spot toxic conduct — such as gaslighting or favoritism — immediately deal with the aggressor and offer support to the victim. Train your managers to be in tune with their direct reports and resolve issues peacefully.   

Collaboration: Create and foster networks within your organization. Ask employees on your team about their hobbies, families, and other non-work topics — collaboration starts with mutual respect. Set up company events that encourage different teams to mix, and emphasize team achievements rather than personal achievements. 

Self-assessment: Write down and define your goals and how to get there — having an accurate sense of self means having a personal mission statement. Encourage team members to do the same, and ask them to be open about where they are in the process and what they need to improve on to reach their goals. You can also improve self-assessment by taking online courses, such as this one on critical thinking created by HubSpot Academy.

Initiative: Grow your organization by building an all-hands-on-deck culture. Help others with major projects and volunteer for tasks. Start working on distant goals. Employees will mirror your actions.

How To Improve Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace

While a leader may only work with a defined set of teams, the workplace includes everyone in your organization. Developing emotional intelligence is key to a healthy work environment and could act as a backbone to your company’s culture. 

Organizational awareness: Make a list of everyone in your organization and define their roles. What are they good at? How do they help your business grow? If you’re not sure, talk with them to learn more.

Social awareness: When people talk, strive to listen. Instead of waiting for someone to finish speaking to say something, think about your colleague’s remarks for a moment before replying. Communicate with the organization about creating space for colleagues to share their thoughts, especially in the context of diversity, equity, and belonging.

Emotional self-awareness: Kirby recommends founders keep a journal and write down how they feel. When you put your feelings on paper, you can better understand how they impact you. Encourage self-reflection and self-evaluation among your managers and employees. 

Emotional self-control: As a business owner, you set the tone for the workplace. Controlling your emotions means thinking before acting. For example, instead of berating an employee who has bad news, take a step back and evaluate the situation rationally. 

Adaptability: Remain resilient and receptive to change and criticism. Consider implementing self check-ins throughout your day to ensure you remain on point. Foster a spirit of can-do attitude in your organization, and emphasize the ability to roll with the punches among your workers.  

Emotional Intelligence vs. Cognitive Intelligence

As a business owner, sometimes street smarts beat book smarts. 

Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business found that emotional intelligence matters more for entrepreneurs than their IQ. Because of the “high uncertainty and ambiguity” that comes with entrepreneurship, emotional intelligence enables founders to handle constant unpredictability with ease.

Emotional intelligence heightens the ability to foster collaborative relationships, manage stress, make solid decisions, and cope with change — all crucial skills for steering a budding startup. 

While improving your emotional intelligence reaps business benefits, a higher level of self-awareness and empathy also shines outside of the workplace.

“Improved emotional intelligence can make for better marriages, parenting, and other non-work relationships. When we are happier in our non-work life, we are happier at work,” says Kirby.

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