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Why We Need to Become More Emotionally Intelligent In An AI World This "soft skill" has emerged as a particularly critical one for our increasingly remote-work and AI-influenced environment: How to make it an engine of progress for your company.

By Ben Richmond Edited by Maria Bailey

Key Takeaways

  • Emotional intelligent leaders guide improved conflict resolution, decision-making, adaptability, and team-building, and is a quality more coveted in the hiring process than ever.
  • Active listening, a willingness to be honest about their own workplace feelings, building ever-renewing lines of employee communication, modeling good behavior and enthusiasm for training and other forms of fostering EI are pivotal for leaders to create a psychologically safe workplace.
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Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

If the hope is to ensure individual and organizational success in today's dynamic work environment, emotional intelligence (EI) stands out as a critical employee management skill. And that term extends beyond just merely having strong social abilities; at the right levels, it directs the employee experience towards improved conflict resolution, decision-making, adaptability and team-building through an understanding of how to manage emotions effectively. It's also invaluable when addressing challenges concerning evolving market conditions and economic volatility, and facilitates more meaningful relationships. Lastly, it builds trust by contributing to a more positive and open environment, even during tough times.

While technical skills are vital in order to succeed at most jobs, it's imperative for leaders to recognize the importance of the above-mentioned soft skills. In fact, according to Harvard Business School, EI is now one of the most desired interpersonal characteristics in the workplace, with a remarkable 71% of employers reporting valuing it more than technical capabilities when evaluating candidates. Data also reveals that 90% of top performers have above-average EI, and that individuals who work with leaders who have higher levels of that quality feel 50% more inspired than those who work with a leader notably lacking in it.

Related: How to Leverage Emotional Intelligence and Empathy for Maximum Success

Throughout my career, I've had the opportunity to lead teams of various sizes, backgrounds and experience levels, which has afforded me a multidimensional understanding of how varying personal experiences and levels of emotion impact both individual and team dynamics. I've strived to create a workplace that prioritizes empathy and understanding — recognize that triggers, for example, are different for every person and, in turn, influence their behaviors and emotional reactions.

Also, as a proud member of the LGBTQ+ community, candor about my personal experiences — including coming out and navigating the child conception journey with my husband — has added an essential layer to both my EI and overall approach to leadership. By being straightforward and honest, I'm better able to build trust, reliability and more open lines of communication.

Related: 6 Ways to Support LGBTQIA+ Employees' Mental Health as a Business Leader

Why emotional intelligence is more vital than ever

Emotional intelligence in the context of today's dynamic work environment takes on heightened significance due to recent external factors that often add pressure or stress to individuals' personal lives. Part of developing it well is an ongoing effort to understand and manage not only your own emotions but to adeptly read others'. Given the current climate — including volatile markets, labor concerns broadly and political unrest — a new level of empathy is required.

Fostering an environment where diversity of outlook is both respected and encouraged is also vital to strengthening psychological safety — creating an environment in which individuals feel comfortable voicing information about personal challenges, triggers or other workplace concerns. According to McKinsey, 89% of employees believe psychological safety is essential, and workers who feel their identity and perspectives are valued by leadership feel more inclined to contribute to team effectiveness, achieve higher levels of learning, perform better overall and remain in their positions longer.

In my experience, psychological safety also makes individuals more comfortable taking risks, which can help them readily admit to and learn from mistakes.

Related: Psychological Safety in the Workplace is More Than Being Nice

How to foster emotional intelligence

As readers likely know, the integration of generative AI into workflows is reshaping the job landscape, yet there remains an ongoing need for the human touch. A 2023 study found that employers expect to increasingly value soft skills that foster rich, people-centric company cultures, and 92% of companies report valuing these capabilities at least as much as hard skills. It follows, then, that focusing on their development is a pivotal step in forming better leaders. Here are various qualities/abilities that contribute to that:

• Demonstrating social awareness through communication and empathy: Clear and concise communication is a critical aspect of fostering a team that values trust, understanding and active engagement. In order to be an effective leader, it's crucial to find a balance of both self-awareness and social awareness. The former is recognizing how your words or actions may emotionally impact other team members, while the latter describes an ability to recognize their unique emotions and perspectives. Because what might be a challenge or distraction for one teammate may not hold the same value or level of consideration for another.

Related: How to Create Socially Aware Video Content Without Coming Across as Fake

Data points to the success of an empathetic leadership approach, as the majority (86%) of employees believe it boosts morale and 87% say it's an essential component to fostering a positive and productive environment.

To become a more empathetic team lead, focus on practicing empathy in your everyday interactions. Take the time to slow down, and be deliberate in your own actions and motivations—always questioning whether there are alternative ways of approaching situations that could enhance the well-being of everyone involved. And this is especially important when problem-solving: Proactively think about how situations could impact individuals (either positively or negatively) to help avoid surprises or negative reactions.

Another key consideration: When proposing approaches to problem-solving, assess whether a collaborative effort involving viewpoints from diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise would be more effective. This approach also fosters a sense of belonging and empowerment and encourages innovative thinking and risk-taking. Lastly, demonstrating empathy can inspire others to lead with the same intention, which helps to create a more collaborative and happy workplace.

To get a sense of where you fall as a leader, try practicing active listening. For example, I initiate regular check-ins with team members to discuss their concerns, challenges, passions and anything else they'd like to impart. When meeting with subordinates, I ask if they have worries or concerns about current or future projects, allow them to propose solutions, then offer support wherever possible. I've also found that being vulnerable about my own experiences with colleagues, both personally and professionally, encourages open dialogue, trust and collaboration.

When it comes to more complex topics, it's helpful to establish ground rules for respectful conversations in both individual and group settings and provide educational resources if you think they will be of assistance.

Related: Why You Shouldn't Wait Have the Hard Conversations With Your Employees

• Leading by example: I've found that one of the key ways to foster a healthy work environment is to model the behavior I want to see from others. A workplace that prioritizes organizational success and employee well-being doesn't just have open lines of communication: it demands consistent actions by leaders.

Doing this can be as simple as avoiding multitasking (including checking emails during team meetings), or making a point of attending workshops alongside team members to learn new skills. You can also recognize achievements, both large and small, among staff members. Another area in which I attempt to lead by example is taking time off from work for mental resets, and not disguising it. This is invaluable in improving well-being, enhancing creativity and increasing productivity. When I make a point of doing that, employees then feel more comfortable doing so, which helps draw healthy boundaries between work and personal lives.

• Fostering free expression and risk-taking: I also try to set standards for a positive culture where employees feel empowered to take risks, express themselves freely and advocate for what they believe in. A few years ago, for example, I was involved in the establishment of the first Employee Resource Group (ERG) for women at Xero in an effort to improve the company's overall inclusivity. This was aimed at breaking down barriers for women in various roles and allowed me to demonstrate an approach to leadership that supports diversity.

Related: How to Leverage Employee and Business Resource Groups to Create a More Diverse and Inclusive Workplace

That ERG's continued success has, happily, earned me greater trust from colleagues. Its initiatives broadened my perspective and equipped me with skills to better understand and address the challenges or biases other team members may experience.

Another way to ensure your leadership style and approach are developing is to solicit regular feedback from colleagues. In acknowledging that empathy and EI are skills that can be learned and strengthened, leaders will more likely regard feedback and challenges as opportunities for growth. Additionally, seek out external content such as books and podcasts, or work with an executive coach (I do all three). These can offer valuable insights into both better leadership and personal growth overall.

Ben Richmond

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

U.S. Country Manager, Xero

Ben Richmond is a chartered accountant and U.S. country manager at Xero, where he is responsible for driving Xero’s growth in the region. Ben has been recognized by CPA Practice Advisor as a “20 Under 40 Influencer” and was named Accounting Today’s “Top 100 Most Influential People in Accounting.”

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