How Leading with Emotional Intelligence Drives Engagement

June 4, 2020

Verity Creedy and Scott Wolf

Leading with emotional intelligence after a crisis requires leaders to work through three stages: Stabilize, Recognize, and Mobilize.

Illustration of a man leading without emotional intelligence

The stress has been intense lately. The pandemic has affected nearly every worker in some way. They may have experienced layoffs, reduced pay, work from home, or taking on more work. Or worse, workers may have loved ones who are sick or passed away. As emotions run high, leaders often want their teams to discard their feelings at the door, and focus on the work at hand. But leading with emotional intelligence will have a better payoff than trying to create a feelings-free workplace. Both in the short-term, and the long-term.

The problem is rarely that leaders are just cold-hearted. Rather, leaders are feeling the pressure themselves. They’re trying to control their own stress. And they’re faced with monumental tasks to pivot the company and their teams. They feel the weight on their shoulder to “brave face” for their team and keep the cogs turning. And it may seem counter-productive to focus on feelings when there’s so much work to be done.

Ignoring their team’s emotions can lead to disengagement. Employees may struggle to put in the bare minimum effort. And high-performing employees, often those who retained their jobs, become at risk for burnout. Not only do business results suffer, but it can take a deep physical and mental toll on employee health.

That’s why leading with emotional intelligence is so important.

Infographic on employee burnout

What is leading with emotional intelligence?

The first part of leading with emotional intelligence is understanding what it is. Years ago, we partnered with leading expert Adele Lynn to create a course on emotional intelligence. In it, we share Adele’s definition of emotional intelligence:

“Emotional intelligence is the ability to manage yourself and your relationships with others so that you truly live your intentions.”

In other words, it goes back to that concept that leaders don’t intend to be compassionless. Usually, they end up focusing only on what practically needs to be done, while forgetting about others’ personal needs. This is when the disconnect begins. And without emotional engagement, it’s tough to drive sustained, high quality team performance. As a result, leaders end up frustrated and confused why they aren’t getting the result they intended.

We’re hearing that sentiment echoed a lot from leaders recently. We’ve heard lots of questions about leading with emotional intelligence. Specifically:

  • What does it mean to “demonstrate empathy”?
  • What can managers do to show empathy during these disruptive times?
  • How do you get leaders to buy into empathy…and not just the bottom line?
  • How can leaders create a consistent culture of caring? Every leader has their own views on the situation, and wants different things.

While it may not always be a smooth ride, there are three steps to start your leaders down the path of leading with emotional intelligence. The result? Higher engagement. Better productivity. Less chance of team burnout. And a far better chance of reaching your overall goals.

Step 1: Stabilize

Leaders should remember the old airline advice to “put on your own oxygen mask first.” When leaders don’t have a handle on their own stress, they struggle to support others. As a result, their negative personal tendencies – or what we call derailers – start to show under stress.

Derailers are the “dark side” of our personality, and we all have them. These include things like becoming overly argumentative, controlling, or impulsive under stress. And unfortunately, we can’t change our personalities, but we can learn to manage our reaction and response under stress.

To help them manage, leaders need to:

  • Know your derailers. If you don’t know, we’re offering a temporary free 15-20 minute course to help you understand your common tendencies.
  •  Anticipate upcoming stressful situations and ask yourself, “What outcome do I really want?” Then, if in the situation you’re starting to feel stress come on, PAUSE and count to 10 (or at least 5!). Taking a moment before you respond can help you make sure you’re responding in a way that truly reflects your intentions.
  • Acknowledge, but don’t celebrate your derailers. If you overreacted to something, you can apologize. But apologies wear thin after a while. It’s not ok to use derailers as a justification, i.e. “I’m sorry, but I just had to say that…I am impulsive.”
  • Manage your physical and emotional health to try to keep yourself in the best state of mind.
  • Practice, practice, practice!

HR and leadership coaches can also help leaders manage their own emotions. They can help identify leaders who are under the most stress, and talk with them about managing their triggers. They can also help leaders pause, by asking key questions, such as “Which upcoming situations are most concerning? ” Or “What type of outcome is important to you?”

Then they can begin planning for the challenges ahead of managing their own emotions while leading with emotional intelligence.

Step 2: Recognize

Secondly, leaders need to work on recognizing emotions in others. In other words, they need to practice empathy.

However, some leaders confuse empathy with sympathy. Empathy is the ability to understand other people’s perspective. Meanwhile, sympathy is feeling pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.

Many leaders struggle to show empathy because they think it means they have to feel bad for the person or they can only respond if they have faced identical scenarios first-hand. i.e. “I’m sorry you’re feeling so stressed. I understand why you didn’t get the report done.”

But that’s not the case. Empathy does not require you to agree with the person’s opinions or actions. It’s simply the acknowledgement of how they’re feeling and why they are feeling that way.

For example, a leader can empathize by using a straight forward formula:

“It sounds like you’re_(feeling)__ because / about ___(fact)____.”  

In an actual conversation:

“From all you’ve shared, it sounds like you’re overwhelmed because there are so many competing priorities right now.”

Empathy also doesn’t require leaders to have the answers. Often, leaders will avoid a tough topic if they don’t know the answer to employees’ questions. Right now, that’s especially true, as leaders and their teams are feeling a lot of uncertainty about the future.

But acknowledging these feelings of uncertainty, stress, and pressure to perform goes a long way to making people feel understood. As a result, they end up feeling more engaged, and motivated to be part of the solution.

Step 3: Mobilize

The final step is the one that drives results. As leaders get a handle on their own emotions and the emotions of their teams, they can start to mobilize people toward what needs to be accomplished.

Leaders can start to mobilize their teams by seeking three things:

  1. Seek perspective: “What do you see as the biggest impact from the changes?”
  2. Seek help: “Which priorities seem to be competing the most?”
  3. Seek ideas: “What’s a better way I can communicate the priorities so you truly know what is a priority?”

And then comes the hard part: The leader needs to listen to and act on their team’s feedback. That doesn’t always mean that you’ll do what they suggest. But you do need to find a way to acknowledge and incorporate their comments into the final solution. Their ideas won’t work? Then build trust with the team by sharing rationale for why suggestions will not be incorporated.

Don’t get us wrong. A three-step formula isn’t going to be the magic bullet to resolve the complex challenges we’re facing today. However, we know there are a lot of well-intended leaders out there who are working tirelessly, are stressed and aren’t getting the traction they’re  hoping for. By stabilizing their knee-jerk reactions, recognizing what the team is dealing with and then involving them in the solution, leaders are a leg up in avoiding team burnout and moving forward more quickly.   

Leading with emotional intelligence is your road to recovery

While we focused a lot in this blog about how frontline leaders need to lead with emotional intelligence, these lessons apply higher up the ladder. At the senior levels, your leaders need to be guiding the organization through the five phases that will lead to your business transformation.

But it doesn’t work to just lay out a plan. Building a new future requires you to engage people hearts and minds. And when you do, the rewards will be outstanding.

To learn more about how to help managers lead with emotional intelligence, attend our on-demand webinar “How Leaders Keep Employees Engaged: Empathy and EQ Will Make the Difference.”

Verity Creedy is a Director in DDI’s Product Management team. Usually living in London, Verity has spent time working at 5 different DDI offices including our US Headquarters. When she’s not identifying future frontline leader product needs, Verity can be found sweating in spin classes, eating various types of bakery items, and telling people about her adoration for Taylor Swift. If you have any frontline leader product ideas, pastry favorites, or Swifty news, send them to

Scott Wolf is a Sr. Consulting Manager in DDI’s US Operations. He is madly passionate about helping leaders uncover their blind spots (and his own!). Most of his time is spent asking pesky, provocative questions with clients and cohorts of leaders. When he is not instigating self-insight he is obsessing with the well-being of his 11-year-old daughter as she’s all things Tik Tok. If you need help uncovering your blind spots, know of a good Tik Tok support group, or can empathize with raising children, please contact him at  

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