5 Ways to Develop Emotionally Intelligent Behavior

Effective leaders are emotionally intelligent. They have the skills to manage and use their emotions. And, like all leadership skills, emotional skills – the attitude and abilities with which someone approaches life and work – can be learned and developed. Brain science shows ushow that learning occurs.

My colleague Richard Boyatzis drew upon three streams of research to design a five-step process for developing emotional skills. Emotional skills are partly inborn, but experience plays a major role in how the genes are expressed. Research suggests that our range of emotional skills is relatively set by our mid-20s and that our accompanying behaviors are, by that time, deep-seated habits. The more we act a certain way – be it happy, depressed, or cranky – the more the behavior becomes ingrained in our brain circuitry, and the more we will continue to feel and act that way.

An emotionally intelligent leader can monitor his or her moods through self-awareness, change them for the better through self-management, understand their impact through empathy, and act in ways that boost others’ moods through relationship management.

The following five-part process is designed to rewire the brain toward more emotionally intelligent behaviors. The process includes:

It concludes with creating a community of colleagues, friends and family – call them change enforcers – to keep the process alive. Let’s look at the steps in more detail.


Erica, a senior manager at a global telecommunications company, communicated poorly when she felt stressed. For example, she often took over a teammate’s work so the job would be done right. After many complaints, her supervisors encouraged her to attend leadership seminars, read management books, and work with mentors. Nothing worked. She couldn’t shake her bad habits.

As a last resort, Erica started working with a coach. She was asked to imagine herself five years from now as an effective leader. She was urged to consider her deepest values and loftiest dreams and to explain how those ideals had become a part of her everyday life.

Erica pictured herself leading her own tight-knit company staffed by 10 colleagues. She saw herself as a positive force to her colleagues, family and friends.

Erica had a low level of self-awareness. She was rarely able to pinpoint why she was struggling at work and at home. All she could say was, “Nothing is working right.” This exercise opened her eyes to the missing elements in her emotional style. She was able to see the impact she had on people in her life.


Leaders can become self-aware by seeing themselves through the eyes of those around them. Hearing the truth about yourself can be uncomfortable. But self-delusion can derail even the most talented professional.

Seek the truth about yourself. Keep an extremely open attitude toward critiques. Seek out negative feedback, even cultivating a colleague or two to play devil’s advocate. Gather feedback from as many people as possible – including bosses, peers, and co-workers.

Such 360-degree feedback will reveal how people experience you. How people rate yourlistening skills really shows how well they think you hear them. Similarly, ratings about coaching effectiveness show whether or not people feel you understand and care about them. Low scores on openness to new ideas mean people experience you as inaccessible or unapproachable or both.

While identifying areas of weakness is crucial, focusing only on weaknesses can be dispiriting. You must also understand your strengths. Knowing where your real self overlaps with your ideal self leads to the next step – bridging the gaps.


Brain research shows that mentally preparing for a task activates the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that moves us into action. More mental preparation translates into doing better at the task. And, the prefrontal cortex is particularly active when someone prepares to overcome a habitual response. Without that brain arousal, a person will reenact tried-and-true but undesirable routines. Learning agendas literally give us the brainpower to change.

John, a marketing executive of a major energy company, was charged with opening and managing a satellite office – a job that would require him to be a coach and a visionary and to have an encouraging, optimistic outlook.

Yet 360-degree feedback revealed that John was seen as intimidating and internally focused. Identifying this gap showed that he needed to hone his empathy. He realized that to help his teammates reach their goals, he needed to get to know them better. He made plans with each employee to meet outside of work in a more casual setting, where they might be more comfortable revealing their feelings and ideas.

John’s efforts to overcome ingrained behaviors are examples of brain science at work. He didn’t realize that his behavior had taken hold over time. He used daily interactions to help him become more aware of his demeanor and practice new responses.


Making change means rewiring our brains by doing and redoing new behaviors, over and over, to break old neural habits and make a new behavior automatic. Even just envisioning new behaviors will help.

Tom, an executive, used such visioning to help bridge the gap between his real self (perceived as cold and hard driving) and his ideal self (a visionary and a coach). On his way to a breakfast meeting with an employee, Tom imagined asking questions and listening to be sure he fully understood the situation before trying to solve the employee’s problem. He anticipated feeling impatient, and he rehearsed how he would handle these feelings.

Brain research shows that imagining something in vivid detail can fire the same brain cells actually involved in doing that activity. Mental rehearsal and experimenting with new behaviors make the neural connections needed for genuine change, but they aren’t enough to make lasting change. For that, we need help from others.


Improving our emotional intelligence or changing leadership style can’t happen in a vacuum. We need to practice new skills with other people and in a safe environment. We need to get feedback about how our actions affect others and to assess our progress on our learning agenda.

Many professionals use learning groups to support their development. The most powerful groups are ones in which the members develop trust through sharing their goals and discussing their work and personal lives. People we trust let us try out new leadership skills without risk.

Learning to be a more effective leader may be a self-directed process, but our relationships with others help us articulate and refine our ideal self, compare it with reality, assess our progress, and understand the usefulness of what we’re learning.


Leadership: A Master Class Training Guide offers more than nine hours of research findings, case studies and valuable industry expertise through in-depth interviews with respected leaders in executive management, leadership development, organizational research, workplace psychology, innovation, negotiation and senior hiring. Each module in the training guide offers individual and group exercises, self-assessments, discussion guides, review of major points, and key actionable takeaway plans. The materials allow for instructor-led or self-study opportunities.