How to Use Emotional Intelligence to Lead Change

Have you considered the role that Emotional Intelligence plays in your change effort? Emotional Intelligence, according to Professor and Executive Coach, Dr. Laura Belsten is “the ability to be aware of our own emotions and those of others, in the moment, and to use that information to manage ourselves and manage our relationships.” According to my colleague Joe Baker when your leaders have high Emotional Intelligence, you have:

  • Less leadership derailment – Fatal flaws for executives include mostly interpersonal and communication skills. (Ed DiZazzo, building on Center for Creative Leadership research)
  • Higher employee engagement and retention – Employees join companies and leave managers [with low emotional intelligence.] (First Break All the Rules, Buckingham and Coffman.) US Air Force reduced recruiter turnover from 35% to 5% annually be selecting candidates high in emotional intelligence.
  • Higher productivity – In an industry-wide study including AT&T, managers at all levels with high emotional intelligence accounted for 20% more productivity than low EQ leaders.
  • Higher sales and profits – Senior Partners in a multinational consulting firm with high EQ earned $1.2 million more profit annually than their peers. (Talent Smart Business Case for Emotional Intelligence, page 4.)

How do you harness the power of your EQ (Emotional Intelligence) to drive a transformational change effort? Harvard Business Review recently published a great article that addresses how to increase your personal Emotional Intelligence. This particularly resonated with similar advice I give clients when they’re seeking to drive big changes:

  • Identify the source of your resistance. Gather honest feedback and really listen to the resistance that you’re hearing from your organization. So many of my clients move quickly through this step because they don’t want to hear what they perceive as “complaining”, but there is great wisdom to be gained by gathering this feedback and seeking to understand it. I recently worked with a client going through a major acquisition where leaders assumed that the pushback/ resistance from employees was about job security, leadership changes, etc. These leaders were worried that, since they didn’t have all the answers, they would be creating a bigger issue by opening up a broader discussion with leaders. Instead of acting on those assumptions, though, they gathered their top leaders together in a forum with open Q&A (a great example of brave and courageous leadership). They opened the floor for confidential feedback and allowed employees to name their issues, concerns and questions. It turned out that employees were most concerned about immediate changes that may be necessary to their own working environment & processes as part of the broader acquisition picture. If they hadn’t listened to employee feedback, these Execs would have communicated the wrong things to employees, leading to further shared frustration all around. As communications that targeted the actual questions increased, employee resistance to the broader effort decreased.
  • Change the Story. According to this HBR article, our emotional reactions to change often reflect our interpretations – or “stories” – that we convince ourselves are true. Think about how that plays out on a broad organizational scale; employees have their own “stories” of how things work today. To convince them to adopt big changes, you have to do two things: 1) tell a new story that’s emotionally compelling and hooks them into the “why” from the beginning. 2) Explain what this means to them personally so they can see the end state and know how their own stories will change.
  • Create Ownership. Chances are that early on in your change effort it’s you and the Executive Team/ Steering Committee or sponsors that are owning the change effort. That’s ok at the beginning…but it’s critical that this changes over time. Your leaders, managers, and employees need to have a stake in the change and own it too over time in order for real adoption to take place. Engaging employees early and upfront is key; so is creating a broader network of people who serve as influencers.

Sheri Browning is a Partner at PeopleResults. You can reach her at or on Twitter @sbPResults.