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Getting Started with Emotional Intelligence in Project Management

Why is Emotional Intelligence Important?

emotional-intelligenceBefore we look at what Emotional Intelligence (EI) is, let’s first consider the reasons why it’s important.

Several studies show that Emotional Intelligence is the single biggest predictor of personal and professional success. What this means is that people with high levels of EI outperform those with low levels of EI. In fact Emotional Intelligence is the strongest driver of leadership and explains 58% of success in all types of jobs.

Whenever I speak about the differences between management and leadership I always emphasize that the differentiating factor isn’t the level of cognitive ability or technical skills that someone has – it’s their level of Emotional Intelligence. Managers are often described as logical, rational and skilled at doing things right. They may have a high level of cognitive intelligence or IQ, but not necessarily EQ. They may be good at implementing effective management systems, but they aren’t necessarily good at communicating change or bringing people with them.

Leaders on the other hand are good at understanding, motivating and influencing people. They keep their emotions in check and set a great example or others to follow. Because they value others, and are able to understand what a situation looks like from other people’s point of view, their approach is often described as transformational rather than transactional. These leaders are able to build strong relationships with others, whereas people with low EI may be socially out of touch and create more problems working in teams due to their individual behaviors.

It’s very difficult to imagine anyone being a great leader without having a high level of Emotional Intelligence. Think back to some of the great leaders or role models you have worked with. Would you agree that they have something over and above cognitive intelligence?


What exactly is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional Intelligence can be defined as “the capacity to be aware of, control and express one’s emotions and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.” What this means is that people with a high level of EI are able to accurately identify and understand their own emotions and those of others.

Let’s also establish that Emotional Intelligence is not about being nice or never feeling sad, angry or frustrated. Emotional intelligence isn’t about pushing aside our emotions, nor is it about letting our emotions dominate everything that we do. Instead, it’s about noticing how we feel and consciously making a choice about how much emotion we want to express. At the same time we notice what is going on for other people at an emotional level. Is the other person feeling sad of fearful right now? How does that make me feel and how would I like to respond so that I achieve the best outcome for both of us?


What are the 5 competencies of Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional Intelligence BookIt’s hard to talk about Emotional Intelligence without also mentioning Daniel Goleman . Goleman brought EI into mainstream awareness with his 1995 book “Emotional Intelligence – why it can matter more than IQ”.  In researching his book Goleman found that over 60% of the abilities that are essential for performance were emotional competencies and when it came to leadership that number rose to 90%. He showed that as a person moves up in the organizational hierarchy, more EI capabilities showed up as the reason for that person’s effectiveness.

In his book, Daniel Goleman split the EI competencies into five main areas: Self-awareness; Self-regulation; Motivation; Empathy; and Social Skill. Let’s look at each of them in turn:


  1. Self-awareness: This competency is about knowing our emotions and recognizing a feeling as it happen. When we are able to recognize and understand our moods, emotions and drives, it’s a sign that we are self-aware. In that state we are not trying to suppress our emotions by lying to ourselves about how we feel. On the contrary. When we feel sad, we acknowledge it. And when we feel angry we acknowledge that too.


  1. Self-regulation: This competency is about managing our emotions and handling our feelings so that they are appropriate. With high levels of self-awareness comes a choice of how much emotion we want to show. Just because we feel angry on the inside, doesn’t mean that we have to show that anger to other people. Being able to self-regulate is about controlling or redirecting disruptive impulses and moods by thinking before we act and by suspending judgment.


  1. Motivation: The third competency is about your ability to motivate ourselves and to direct our emotions in the service of a goal. If we want to achieve something – privately or at work – we have to be able to delay gratification and suppress our impulses. Great leaders are proactive and focus on the vision ahead. That takes self-control and the ability to put aside short-term desires in exchange for long-term achievements.


  1. Empathy: The next competency – empathy – is about our ability to recognize how other people are feeling. When we empathize it means that we are able to walk in someone else’s shoes and that we can feel and see the situation from the other person’s point of view. We understand them and we are able to read them. If someone feels upset we notice it. If they feel nervous or uneasy, we notice that too.


  1. Social Skill: The last EI competency according to Goleman, is about managing emotions in others and using emotions to build relationships. When we have a high level of social skill we easily find common ground with people and build rapport. We also find it easier to influence and persuade others and to inspire them to contribute to a common goal – something, which is essential to good leadership.


emotional-intelligence-brainHow can I build my Emotional Intelligence?

If you find that you either unintentionally upset people, don’t read them very well, get overly emotional or not emotional at all, it’s likely to be a sign that you need to strengthen your Emotional Intelligence muscle. If this rings true for you, the good news is that in contrast to IQ, your EQ is never set. Emotional Intelligence is a flexible skill set that can be learned and improved upon at any age.

To build your EI you will need to strengthen your self-knowledge. One of the best ways to learn about yourself is to solicit honest feedback—ideally a 360-degree review—from your coworkers. Ask people who you trust and admire how they perceive you. You might even want to use Goleman’s five EI categories as a starting point.

You can also build your self-knowledge by keeping a daily journal. Before you end your day, review how it went and reflect on how you felt. How did you manage your emotions, what did you notice about other people’s emotions and how did you respond to each other? Also reflect on how you reacted to stressful situations. Did you become upset because of a delay or did you get angry because something didn’t happen the way you wanted? When you observe yourself, you become aware of your patterns, which is the most important step in order to do something about them.



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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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