EQ: The Great White Whale of Leadership Development

In a new survey of 500 people managers, a solid majority of respondents (57%) said that EQ was likely to be found in the highest-performing members of a team.

Burak Koyuncu
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It is the great white whale of leadership development.

Leaders who are not only technically proficient but also mature, empathetic and trustworthy. Leaders who are decisive but also listen to their teams before reaching a conclusion. Leaders who are attuned to the emotional state of their teams and demonstrate confidence to inspire others rather than to feed their self-aggrandizement.

Put it all together and you have a leader who embodies what people managers would describe as a high degree of emotional intelligence. However, while most organizations value these qualities, new research suggests that we regularly fail at identifying or cultivating emotional intelligence, more commonly known as an Emotional Quotient (EQ).

In a recent Lee Hecht Harrison Penna survey of 500 people managers, a solid majority of respondents (57%) said that EQ was likely to be found in the highest-performing members of a team. Not surprisingly, 75% of respondents use EQ to determine promotions and salary increases.

However, the same survey revealed more than two-thirds of organizations (68%) do not have any formal tools in place to identify, develop or leverage EQ. Further, only 42% provide specific training to help employees cultivate emotional intelligence. 

A Deeper Understanding of Emotional Intelligence

To understand the impact that EQ can have on the performance of an organization, we need to take a deeper dive into the qualities most often associated with emotionally intelligent leaders and the consequences that a low EQ can have on an organization.

We asked survey respondents to identify the qualities they associate with leaders who are emotionally intelligent. For example, more than half of our respondents identified empathy as a quality demonstrated by a leader with high EQ. The responses to our survey show very clearly that what have traditionally been described as “soft leadership skills” are in fact the key ingredients for EQ.


These qualities are not only growing exponentially in importance for existing leaders, they are also being used increasingly to guide recruitment and promotion decisions.

In fact, some survey respondents identified EQ skills as more important than experience in a similar role (13%) and educational attainment (11%), which have typically been considered precursors for leadership success.

Our respondents also connected higher levels of emotional intelligence with success in a series of critical tasks and responsibilities, particularly in the area of decision making.

People with higher EQ tend to be better able to assess the impact of their decisions on both customers and employees. It allows them to arrive at more balanced decisions that take into account all perspectives. That helps build support for decisions. People with low EQ might focus on purely numerical or non-human aspects of a challenge and will almost certainly ignore competing or alternative perspectives. 

Survey respondents also believed EQ is a key ingredient to success in leading teams through times of change (44%), addressing personal issues of employees (37%), giving feedback or employee appraisals (31%) and spotting talent (25%). Someone with a high EQ is much more likely to spot others with the same mindset and capabilities; low EQ hiring managers tend to either not recognize or devalue skills related to emotional intelligence.

This shifting mindset—and the growing recognition of the importance of high leadership EQ—may have a lot to do with the increasing awareness about what happens when leaders do not possess emotional intelligence.

When there is a lack of empathy, self-awareness or trustworthiness, employees can easily become disengaged from their employer and, more importantly, their customers.

Our research showed clearly that even when an organization recognizes the value of EQ, it may still have no idea about how to develop and harness its power. There are, however, several critical steps an organization can take to improve their overall EQ.

Assess and measure existing EQ. There are several assessment tools that can help organizations successfully measure the EQ landscape in their workforce. If an assessment reveals that a majority of leaders in one department score low in “empathy,” the company can intervene to educate those individuals in the importance of considering other perspectives when executing their duties. An organization cannot intervene, however, if it doesn’t know which departments have an EQ deficit or what specific qualities are lacking.

Integrate EQ into management practices. Learning programs can help bring awareness to the importance of EQ. However, companies can also integrate EQ into their leadership culture by taking steps to build a culture of coaching, where reflection, listening and collaboration are emphasized over quick judgment or imposing solutions. 

Encourage leaders to learn from other leaders. Creating opportunities for leaders to gather and discuss their experiences can help develop EQ muscle memory. When leaders see the value of connecting with each other on a more personal or individual level, they should begin to see the value of using a similar approach with their own teams.

Create time for reflection. Sometimes, deadline and workflow demands make it hard for teams and leaders to just take a break and reflect on what they are doing and how they are doing it. It’s important to build in those pauses so that team members can discuss successes and struggles or failures. Creating those opportunities to reflect not only builds EQ, it also ensures people are not bottling up feelings of frustration or resentment. 

Build a pipeline. It is harder to cultivate EQ with existing leaders than it is to recruit new leaders who already possess high emotional intelligence. Consider incorporating EQ identifiers into recruitment tools like job descriptions and interview scoring sheets. There are also some psychometrics available in the market to identify individuals’ EQ values.

In the final analysis, EQ is about employees being more self-aware of their emotions and the emotions of the people they lead. It’s not an easy mindset to develop, but the payoff is well worth the effort. Leaders with strong EQ create an environment of trust and confidence that fosters strong teamwork and higher levels of performance.

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