Why emotional leadership should be a core skill

James Dowling

James Dowling

Handyman extraordinaire. Code at work and timber at home.

What used to be referred to as “soft skills” are now rightly being branded “core skills” and are proving invaluable in life and at work. It’s palpable, the difference that makes, and I experience it almost as soon as I arrive at work.

As a consultant, I get the amazing opportunity to work with a lot of great companies, at all different stages of growth. However, without question the first factor influencing a team’s function or dysfunction is their level of emotional awareness. Psychological safety, trust, empathy, resilience and strategies for dealing with emotionally difficult situations come easily to some people, but the rest of us have to work for it. The benefits, though, are well worth the effort.

When vulnerability = support

When I observe well-functioning teams, where people are unafraid to admit if they’re failing and have the trust in their peers and management to ask for help, the clarity is like crystal. A team like that will rally around its members to give them the best support possible. When everyone feels safe to contribute to decision making processes, those processes become truly collaborative, and the decisions that evolve are both more thoughtful, and more likely to succeed. Employees who feel valued and heard take a heartfelt interest in the success of their team and the work that they do. When individuals see that their contributions are understood and appreciated, they take personal responsibility for the decisions they help bring to fruition.

But how do you get there?

Company cultures that don’t value trust and inclusion become self-reinforcing places for bad habits and dysfunctional behaviour. People feel they have no choice but to behave in defensive, self-interested ways. Tired theories of the supposed benefits of aggressive, competitive cultures have a way of resonating to deafening levels in echo chambers like these.


That little thing called trust

Breaking the paradigm in a workplace that hasn’t valued emotional security is all about establishing trust. Real trust is something that starts small, and snowballs. I’ve found that people grant a little trust up-front, and if that trust is respected, more and more trust is granted as time goes on.

People who trust you will tell you what you need to hear, when you need to hear it. The most important conversations are the ones with the most risk attached. So, when working with emotional risk, trust is required. Without trust, transparency cannot exist. It’s a lot of work, but the payoff is invaluable.

Empathetic leadership is a crucial part of this equation. Without clearly demonstrated and internalised behaviour from leaders, hard-won gains can be wiped away with clumsy displays of insensitive behaviour. It would also be a bit rich to ask others to show some trust without first showing that it’s safe to do so. So start with yourself instead. 

An introduction to empathetic leadership

Show some vulnerability. If you are having a bad day, try sharing that with your peers and team. They’ll appreciate knowing why you’re not your cheery self. If parts of your projects aren’t going as well as you’d hope, try letting people know and show them that there’s no reason to be afraid to share. In fact, you can show them that the real enemy is the personal brittleness evident in someone who just can’t be seen to be wrong. That’s the route to unreasonable behaviour and decayed relationships.

Once you’ve established a little trust, it’s time to start realising the benefits. If you often find yourself in ineffective meetings, this is a great place to start. I recommend establishing yourself as a skilled meeting facilitator and timekeeper; a valuable role, making sure the meeting has an agenda and sticks to achieving its goals. Use your position as a facilitator to make sure all people are heard, explicitly acknowledging and addressing biases that affect people’s contributions. For instance, different people communicate in different ways, and its worth surfacing that within the group.

Asking people to establish some initial rules for a meeting will heighten empathetic awareness. You could start with some rules that everyone can agree upon, such as “please don’t speak over each other”, or “everyone’s voice is welcome”. Write them up beside your agenda, while asking for more suggestions.

If you find someone is finding it difficult to contribute, give them some dedicated time to speak; “We haven’t heard from you for a while. What do you think about this?” Or if you find someone is dominating the conversation, repeating the same points over and over, recognise that this person possibly doesn’t feel heard yet. Try repeating their points back to them in your own words, letting them know you’ve understood them, even if you don’t agree; “what I’m hearing from you is….”. The results from that interaction can be instantly refreshing for the entire group.

I could go on and on about trust, and all the other important subjects in emotional leadership ( I often do), but I could never do the subject of emotional leadership (or emotional intelligence, as it’s often unfortunately called) justice in a single blog post. 

Luckily, there are troves of articles, videos, books and courses on the subject (feel free to contact me if you’d like specific recommendations). All it takes is a small amount of dedicated time, and a willingness to question your own assumptions about yourself and others.

Of course, none of this can come about without genuine empathy and a moral basis for your actions. Take the position of trying to help others grow and have a richer work life, and your efforts will be welcomed with enthusiasm.

Taking an interest in people’s emotional inner-life, motivations and happiness is a skill that stretches well beyond your work day. You can use it anywhere, and it will enrich your life and the lives of those around you. In the workplace, it leads to a team that is resilient, inclusive and that quickly adapts to change. It also represents a journey of personal growth, the value of which should not be underestimated. I recommend it to all who will listen.



Where to go from here? I recommend doing a short course in emotional awareness or facilitation, and picking up some of the classic books on the subject. Most are available on audiobook, if you don’t get much time to read books. Cogent also does a lot of cultural uplift work, and we’d be delighted to talk to you about your business’ needs.

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