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Why emotional intelligence is the most important tool in your virtual leadership toolbox in 2021 (and beyond)

Written by Kristin Bower on 15 Aug 2021

I think we can all agree that the past year and a half have been hard in many ways. While navigating the fear and uncertainty of a global pandemic, we also had to learn to work in new ways. Work moved from offices to homes; instead of working face-to-face, we now work in virtual teams with virtual leaders.

This has been a big change. And change is hard.

If you are a manager, chances are that you have felt challenged by this. People management isn’t easy at the best of times; managing virtual (and hybrid) teams in a pandemic is a whole new ballgame!

You likely set up a regular schedule of virtual team meetings by Zoom, MS Teams or some other video conferencing technology or HR software. But what about the informal opportunities to connect with your employees one to one?

Employees value emotional intelligence in their leaders

You have probably already figured this one out: without those informal “water cooler moments” or popping by an employee’s cubicle to chat after a meeting, connecting with your team members on a personal level isn’t what it once was. Your relationships with your employees might even be suffering.

If you are feeling it, they are, too.

In employee focus groups for my clients over the past year I have heard from many employees in organizations across sectors, both locally and globally, big and small, that employees are feeling the impact of fewer connections with their managers. Here’s something that one employee who works in a global company said late last year…

“I appreciate the bonus that our company is giving us for making it through 2020 but what I really want is to have more time with my manager and to hear that I am valued personally. I really miss the informal human connections.”

Inclusive organizations are those that foster a real sense of belonging; they are places where employees feel seen, heard and valued for who they are, what they bring to their work, the team and the organization. They are also places that prioritize emotional intelligence in their leaders. Because…

Virtual teams and flexible work are the new normal

With  research showing that many employees want to work in a flexible work environment – a mix of work from home and in the office – and remaining uncertainty about the pandemic, chances are good that virtual teams are here to stay.

So how do we take the things that worked over the past 18 months – flexible, remote work – and remove what hasn’t – fewer opportunities for face-to-face interaction – and create a better, “new normal”?

Your virtual leadership superpower: Emotional intelligence

I am going to let you in on a secret: emotional intelligence is the difference between being a fine leader and an exceptional leader.

OK, it’s not really a secret. There is a whole body of research that shows this. The late human and organizational researcher David McClelland found in a 1996 study of a global food and beverage company that senior managers with high emotional intelligence managed divisions that outperformed earnings by 20%.*

It also helps you navigate the ups and downs in your workplace and with your team better and helps to build psychological safety.

Alright, but what is it?

Emotional intelligence is about being aware of, in control of, and able to express your emotions. It’s also about having strong social skills.

In the context of virtual leadership, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you know your employees and have positive interpersonal relationships with them?
  • Can you read between the lines with what they say to you (and what they don’t say)? Can you read their body language and non-verbal cues?
  • And do you know yourself well enough to adjust your style as needed in order to bring out the best in them and support them? Can you respond to a variety of situations effectively?

RELATED: How to measure leadership skills (3 easy methods)

The five components of emotional intelligence at work

The concept was first introduced in the early 1990s, but it was psychologist Daniel Goleman and his research that brought the topic of emotional intelligence to greater awareness.

In his book, Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More than IQ Goleman describes five components of emotional intelligence at work:

  1. Self-awareness: The ability to recognize and understand your moods, emotions, and drives, as well as their effect on others.
  2. Self-regulation: The ability to control or redirect disruptive impulses and moods. The ability to suspend judgment – to think before acting.
  3. Motivation: A passion to work for reasons that go beyond money or status. Pursuing goals with energy and persistence.
  4. Empathy: The ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people. Skill in treating people according to their emotional reactions.
  5. Social skills: Proficiency in managing relationships and building networks. An ability to find common ground and build rapport.

What this all comes down to is mindfulness: paying attention to yourself and others. Applying some intentionality about your relationships with your employees will go a long way in building healthy virtual teams. When you build and model emotional intelligence skills you will become a better leader and your team will become better, too!

[*Source: HBR’s 10 Must Reads: On Emotional Intelligence (book – published 2015)]


intelliHR is a people management platform helping HR, leaders and managers enhance performance, culture, engagement and retention. With built-in HRIS and powerful real-time analytics, see how the platform works today.

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