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4 Essential Habits To Becoming a More Emotionally Intelligent Leader

In a previous post – Getting Started with Emotional Intelligence in Project Management – about Emotional Intelligence (EI) we said that EI is being able to identify and understand your emotions and those of others. We also said that one of the first steps in building EI is to gain self-knowledge – for instance by asking for feedback about your behaviors and by keeping a daily journal. But what else can you do to get better at understanding your emotions and at using them to lead your team? Below, we take a look at 4 essential habits that will propel you to the next level of leadership.

1. Respond rather than react to situations

Respond rather than react to situations

This first habit is one of the most central and difficult ones to master because it requires that you take an objective look at your behaviors and because it’s likely to challenge your core beliefs. Essentially, the habit is about responding to situations rather than reacting to them. There’s a subtle but important difference between the two. Reacting is an unconscious process where you experience and react to an emotional trigger without thinking twice about it. This could happen, for instance, if you always get angry when a team member delivers their work late – or if you panic whenever your client asks you to incorporate a new change request.

Responding, on the other hand, is a conscious process that involves noticing how you feel and then deciding how you want to behave. You may not choose the emotions that you feel, but you do have a choice regarding what you do with them. So instead of showing your anger to a team member because you feel irritated, count to 10 and choose the most appropriate response so that you don’t default to your automatic reaction. You could for instance explain to the person how you feel and what the impact is when work is delivered late. You can then work with the team member to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

As an emotionally intelligent leader you have to take responsibility for your emotions and the impact they have on your surroundings. When you mange your impulses and consciously choose your responses, not only do you set a good example, you also create a safe environment for your team to freely communicate and express their views.


2. Notice what is going on for other people

A big part of being an emotionally intelligent leader is to notice what is going on for other people. If you don’t notice how your stakeholders and team members are feeling, you can easily ‘lose’ them or miscommunicate a message because you aren’t able to truly see the situation from their point of view.

Emotional IntelligenceI often coach people who would like to become better communicators and who think that there is some kind of technique that they are missing out on. But communication isn’t just about what we say and how we say it. It is first and foremost about relating to another person and understanding what is going on for that person right now. Otherwise, how can we know that what we are about to say is relevant and appropriate to share?  So instead of focusing on what you want to say, really notice what the other person is saying and what he is not saying. What is he feeling and why might that be?

In order to master this habit you will need to slow down and take a genuine interest in people who work with you. On any project there is a myriad of things to do and tasks that need to get completed which can push you to become overly task-oriented. Just consider a situation where you are sitting at your desk writing something and a team member approaches you with a question. Do you give that team member your full attention or do you continue to write your email whilst giving him a half-hearted answer? Unless you are in the middle of a crisis situation, seek to be fully present and pay attention to the team member.


3. Actively listen to people when they speak

Active ListeningThe previous habit leads into the third habit, which is to fully listen to people when they speak. This is one of the essential keys to empathizing and understanding other people. There are three levels at which you can listen.

Level I listening is when you are listening to someone else, but at the same time you are hearing your own internal dialogue. So if you’re sitting in a meeting listening to a presentation, you might at the same time think about all the things you need to get done after the meeting finishes. Most people listen at level I most of the time. It means that they are not really focused on the person who is saying something.

Level II listening is when you are fully present and focused on the person who is speaking. You are engaged and take onboard what they are saying. This is likely to happen when you have a one-to-one conversation with your boss or when your friend is telling you a really engaging story. Unfortunately we don’t always listen to our team members at this level and the problem is that it’s easily detected. It’s obvious when someone isn’t listening. It makes us feel unimportant and creates distance rather than trust and camaraderie.

But there is an even higher level of listening, and that’s level III. When you listen at level III, not only do you use your ears and are fully focused on the person in front of you, you also use your other senses to pick up what is really going on. This is the level at which coaches are taught to listen to their clients. At level III it’s possible to pick up if the words that are being used are congruent to what the rest of the person’s body is telling you. When you open up and use all of your senses to connect with a team member it will be much easier to relate to them, to read them and to understand what really makes them tick.


4. Embrace crucial conversations

Crucial ConversationsThe last habit we will focus on, that will make you a more emotionally intelligent leader, is to have an open mind towards difficult or crucial conversations. High stakes, opposing opinions and strong emotion on one or both sides, characterizes a crucial conversation. Because the emotions are high you can easily lose your cool and say something that you will later regret.

On a project there are a number of situations that you might find difficult as a project manager, such as giving feedback on poor performance or giving bad news to a client about a delay or a cost overrun. It can also be challenging to work and communicate with others when you disagree on how the project should be run or what the best solution to the client’s problem is. Unfortunately most people aren’t trained to have these crucial conversations and therefore tend to avoid them. But avoiding them of course doesn’t make the issue go away. In fact, it often makes it worse.

To prepare for a crucial conversion, seek to answer the following questions in advance: What is the problem? How do I feel about it? What would my counterpart say the problem is? What is my preferred outcome? What is my preferred working relationship with my counterpart? You can even go a step further and ask the other person to prepare the same questions.

As you begin the conversation, take a deep breath and relax your body. The more relaxed you are and the more oxygen you have flowing through your body, the more likely it is that you will be able to stay calm and positively manage your emotions. Remember that managing your emotions doesn’t mean suppressing them. Emotionally intelligent leaders can absolutely feel anger or fear, but they don’t let the emotion run away with them or define them.


In summary, emotionally intelligent leaders are fully aware of what they feel about a situation and can absolutely have strong emotions, but instead of reacting out of fear or anger, they take a deep breath and slow down their response. As they do so, they create time to consider what the right response is in order that trust, collaboration and motivation can flourish on their project. Emotionally intelligent leaders aren’t just focused on themselves. They are accustomed to giving other people their full attention and to show them that they matter. Not only do they listen with their ears, they also use their intuition to understand what is really going on for the other person.




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About Susanne Madsen

Susanne Madsen
Susanne Madsen is an internationally recognised project leadership coach, trainer and consultant. She is the author of The Project Management Coaching Workbook and The Power of Project Leadership (Jan 2015).

Prior to setting up her own business, she worked for 17 years in the corporate sector leading large change programmes of up to $30 million for organisations such as Standard Bank, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. She is a fully qualified Corporate and Executive coach and a member of the Association for Project Management (APM).

Susanne specialises in helping managers improve their leadership skills so that they can gain control of their projects and fast-track their career. She does this through a combination of training, coaching, mentoring and consulting.

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