Donna Strickland Blog

Leadership and Emotional Intelligence

The Most Potent Factor in the Success Equation

Star performers can be differentiated from average ones by emotional intelligence. For jobs of all kinds, emotional intelligence is twice as important as a person’s intelligence quotient and technical skills combined. Excellent performance by top-level managers adds directly to a company’s “hard” results, such as increased profitability, lower costs, and improved customer retention. Those with high emotional intelligence enhance “softer” results by contributing to increased morale and motivation, greater cooperation, and lower turnover. The author discusses the five components of emotional intelligence, its role in facilitating organizational change, and ways to increase an organization’s emotional intelligence.

Although rapid-fire change in health care continues to wreak havoc in organizations, it is now considered ordinary. In fact, the chaotic milieu in which health care organizations find themselves is no longer considered noteworthy. As health care organizations deal with change, most employees are left standing in a cloud of dust. Several months after the dust has settled, chief executive officers often wonder why productivity is slumping, morale is tumbling, budgets are off, and the infrastructure is collapsing.

Managers of ongoing operations must possess the tools and skills to lead the charge, or more organizations will find themselves with “Do Not Resuscitate” orders on their front doors. If ever there was a time when health care executives need to be made of “the right stuff,” this is it.

Although chief executive officers and senior managers have resumes punctuated with evidence of technical skills, brains, and quantifiable achievement, these are the minimum requirements, not the differentiating capabilities of a highly successful leader.’ Without what Goleman calls emotional intelligence (EI), a person with a high intelligence quotient and an abundance of technical skills will be a marginal leader–and marginal leadership can rarely create exceptional organizations. Goleman states, “when I calculated the ratio of technical skills, IQ, and emotional intelligence as ingredients of excellent performance, emotional intelligence proved to be twice as important as the others for jobs at all levels. Moreover, my analysis showed that emotional intelligence played an increasingly important role at the highest levels of the company, where differences in the technical skills are of negligible importance.”2tP94′

Components of Emotional Intelligence

According to Goleman, there are five components of emotional intelligence: self- awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill.


Self-awareness means having insight regarding one’s own emotions, drives, strengths, weaknesses, and needs. People with a high degree of self-awareness know how their feelings affect themselves, others, and their performance. Such people are honest and self-confident and have a self-deprecating sense of humor.

For instance, a nurse I know who is a vice president in a large regional hospital system was given an additional service line to manage. After struggling to integrate these responsibilities and manage the area effectively, she realized that the demands were too great. If she kept those responsibilities, financial performance was going to suffer because it was impossible to do it all. She went to her boss and told her that if the new service line were to be successful, it would require full-time dedication, and the scope of her current duties was too large for her to devote the required time. Her boss concurred, and together they designed a new strategy that would nurture success.

This executive’s self-awareness allowed her to assess and deal with the situation in a timely manner, before there was a crisis in the new service line that would compromise success. Instead, she increased the odds of success.


A second trait of EI is self-regulation, the ability to control one’s impulses and to channel one’s moods constructively. It allows an individual to withhold judgment until enough information is gathered. We’ve all experienced the reactive boss who rushes to judgment when a project fails, without finding out the facts. Such a situation usually leads employees to blame others for the failure, because no one wants to experience the wrath of a hothead.

A case in point is Greg, the chief executive officer of a large corporation. Despite his position, he has trouble getting back into the work routine whenever he returns from his business trips. His anxiety is perceived by his staff. His e-mails are angry and accusatory; his voice messages are curt and dictatorial. Staff members then come to Greg to get an interpretation of his messages. Greg’s inability to deal with his own anxiety about what has transpired in his absence leads him to stir things up as a way of gaining control. His inability to self-regulate his emotions wreak havoc on his staff. Tensions among the staff run high, exacerbated by the fact that no one is free to talk candidly about the tension. To survive, the staff takes a defensive posture that perpetuates the cycle of anxiety and fear.

Generally, if a boss is calm and in control, employees are more willing to talk candidly to him or her about difficulties they are experiencing with a project before it’s doomed to failure. They will seek support and solutions from a leader who is rational and creates a fair and trusting environment. People who are in control of their emotions are also more likely to suspend judgment when major changes are introduced in the organization. Such managers will thoughtfully consider the changes and then commit themselves to the success of the change program, mitigating fear and anxiety among employees.


The third trait of EI is motivation. Capable leaders have an innate drive to achieve that has nothing to do with their compensation, title, or perks. They are passionate about achievement for the pure joy of achievement. They are energetic and creative, actively seeking solutions to problems without waiting for someone else to take the lead. They seek new challenges and want to stretch their capabilities. Hence, they like to keep track of their own performance and seek better ways to measure the performance of staff members.

I recently had the privilege of working with two highly motivated women in the same organization. Both of them asked me to coach them on ways to improve staff performance and increase the cohesiveness of their groups. Kathy is the vice president of nursing and Beth is the director of surgical services. Kathy started `’mentoring groups” with staff nurses; Beth implemented a monthly meeting that runs 20 to 30 minutes. She asks the staff for feedback on three areas:

  1. What’s working well between us?
  2. What’s not working?
  3. What are the barriers between us?

Beth complements her monthly group meetings with individually tailored professional development plans that she creates along with each nurse. Once a quarter, Beth meets with each nurse to review progress and discuss hurdles to success.

Kathy and Beth are highly motivated to achieve success. They have strengthened morale and improved performance among their staffs as a direct result of their efforts. The self-motivation demonstrated by Beth and Kathy takes tenacity and drive. The intrinsic rewards are great, as is the effort required to instigate change.


Of all the components of EI, empathy is the quality that is most surprising to many. Empathy has often been the object of derision among business executives, who misinterpret empathy as weakness. Let’s be clear about what empathy is not. It is not imposing yourself into the personal lives and dilemmas of your employees. It does not involve assuming a parental role. It is not making decisions solely on the basis of how your employees will feel about a decision. In contrast, empathy is the ability to consider thoughtfully another’s feelings while making intelligent decisions. Understanding others’ emotional constitutions is the first step in creating trust and cohesion among diverse employees. It is essential to building effective teams, leading change, retaining talented employees, and engendering loyalty that transcends job descriptions.

Empathetic leaders are more successful coaches and mentors because they understand what makes others tick and customize their approach to reach each person. They know how to give feedback that will inspire, not discourage, employees. Empathetic leaders can identify with a staff member’s feelings while simultaneously tolerating their own anxiety. They hold themselves and their employees accountable, providing useful, well-timed, and meaningful feedback.

Social Skill

The final element of EI is social skill. Like empathy, social skill is the ability to manage relationships with others. Social skill is the aptitude to find “commonality” and move people forward in realizing the vision. People with a high degree of social skill can build networks, bridge differences, and develop rapport with a wide variety of constituencies. They have enviable persuasive skills, collaborate well, and are excellent conversationalists. Their ability to make those around them feel at ease allows them to cut across organizational levels and build consensus with key players.

John, the vice president of operations in a billion-dollar regional hospital system, had the formidable task of merging his division with a longtime competitor that his company acquired. Rumor and innuendo were rampant. John met with managers and workers in both organizations to discuss the consolidation. As individuals lobbied for their jobs and use of their systems and tried to showcase their strengths, John was able to instill a sense of calm and order. He talked with all levels in both organizations. He facilitated conversations between former rivals who were now on the same team but still thought of each other as the enemy. He was able to assist others in overcoming suspicion by working collaboratively with members of both organizations. His grace under fire, coupled with his ability to bring a variety of parties together, enabled him to complete a successful merger in which the employees felt valued and empowered.

Emotional Intelligence for Y2K

Healthcare organizations that wish to thrive into the next millennium cannot do so without leaders who have high EIs. Certainly, the chief executive officer must have these traits, but so too must the other senior and midlevel managers. The transformation required of employees in the workplace is so profound that it is impossible to expect it to occur of its own accord. Nurses, executives, and physicians are being asked to collaborate with people who were dreaded competitors until a merger suddenly put them on the same team. They must redefine their culture and their competition. Others find that changes in the Medicare regulations require them to overhaul their operations completely.

Still others discover that their jobs have been replaced by technology or eliminated in a merger; they now believe that they no longer possess marketable skills. They have the most difficult task of all: reinventing themselves. In actuality, these people are not alone. Most healthcare employees, from the physicians to the nursing staffs running every unit, need to reinvent themselves because changes sweeping across healthcare that we now take for granted are redefining the workplace.

Healthcare providers are banking on their employees to adapt to the changes. They are counting on their “high fliers” to shine despite the duress. They expect their vice presidents and managers to blend the cultures of two merged entities, restructure to eliminate duplication, hand out pink slips with grace and decorum, and keep morale high and the bottom line healthy. It’s a hefty responsibility. Staff members are expected to get behind the changes and be grateful for their jobs.

Employees can step up to the plate and succeed only if the leaders in the organization help them through the transition, giving them the support, information, guidance, and education it takes to stay competitive. The dilemma is that most employees who work in healthcare organizations are not inherently entrepreneurial; if they were, they would be off starting their own companies! Because there is a large labor pool that is not entrepreneurial by nature, the organization must make an unequivocal commitment to its employees to give them the tools, time, and latitude to learn, practice, fail, try again, regress, improve, and soar. It is neither a luxury nor an aside. Healthcare systems that fail to recognize that radical organizational change requires profound personal growth on the part of its employees are doomed to fail. To facilitate growth, there must be leaders who have high EI quotients that complement their technical skills and intelligence quotients.

Become Non reactive

There are numerous ways that employers can assist their employees through the transition process. If it is done with compassion and excellence, the organization will be stronger, more vital, and more cohesive than previously thought possible. The first and most important task is for the organization to become a non-reactive container in which employees may safely transform. David M. Schnarch eloquently elucidates the role of the organization using the metaphor of the crucible, “a highly non-reactive vessel in which a transfiguring reaction takes place. . . The crucible participates in the metamorphosis of the ingredients by containing the reaction so that the qualitative changes can occur.”~Pt59′

In other words, the leadership of the organization must possess a high degree of self- regulation. Top management must recognize that it is paramount for organizational leaders to allow individuals to react to the changes without absorbing those reactions. Leaders must stand firm, providing a safety net while employees are given the opportunity to deal with the feelings of loss, grief, and anxiety that may be overwhelming to some. The role of the leader is not to rush in and fix, cure, or control the myriad of responses staff members have. Poor leaders make the mistake of labeling the staff as resistant to change; they misinterpret natural grief as opposition and exacerbate the situation. Instead of being empathetic to staff concerns, they become reactive, further inflaming the situation. The leader’s job is to allow people to experience their feelings without judgment, pressure, or guilt and to provide them with the tools to ensure their success.

Factor in Losses

A leader with high EI understands that people generally do not resist change; they resist transition because of the attendant losses that may accompany it. According to Bridges,4 there are three major losses can be overwhelming to employees:

  1. They can experience a loss of identity if their job responsibilities change or the setting where the work is done is modified. This loss is particularly prominent when an organization undergoes a structural overhaul that results in new job descriptions or titles, realignment of departments, or significant changes in leadership.
  2. They can feel a loss of belonging. If work teams change and the systems and protocols are radically altered, workers may lose their equilibrium. They can feel as if they no longer belong. This feeling is exacerbated if other workers are excited about the changes: those who are not excited may feel isolated and alienated from the group.
  3. The loss of meaning is the most devastating experience. If changes leave employees feeling as if their work has lost its meaning, it can catapult individuals into a personal crisis. If the mission and vision dramatically change, some workers will be heartbroken. Failure to deal with this in an empathetic, compassionate manner will undermine the entire transition process. The leader’s job is to assist the employees in recommitting to the organization by finding meaningful ways to match an employee’s interests, skills, and talents with work that needs to be done. Some employees will be unable to recommit. In such cases, it is up to the manager to support them in making decisions about their future that may take them out of the organization.

According to Schnarch, non-reactivity is only one element of the crucible; the other requisite quality is structural integrity.3 The crucible must remain intact so that the transfiguring changes may take place without risk. If there is a leak in the Unorganizational crucible,” some aspect of the process will be lost. This compromises the completeness of the metamorphosis and harms the ultimate outcome.

Ironically, what frequently happens is that senior managers have their own feelings of guilt about some of the changes or about the anxiety it causes staff members. Such guilt can be so uncomfortable that the leaders attempt to mitigate it by ignoring the collective anxiety and rushing through the transition at a pace too fast for the staff. Likewise, managers may remove themselves from view so as not to experience the anxiety firsthand. They may disappear into an endless sea of meetings about the changes so they don’t have to deal with their employees’ feelings. Managers may lash out at the employees themselves, blaming staff for their inability to come to terms with the changes.

None of those responses by leaders is conducive to reducing the anxiety among the staff and facilitating long-term success. Leaders must be given this same opportunity as the rest of the staff. They must also feel that there is a safety net for them. They must have the opportunity to process their own responses to the changes in a safe manner or they will be ill equipped to guide their staff members through the transition. The organization is depending on its leaders-its best and brightest–to rise to the occasion.

Some of the most creative and devoted may be so overwhelmed by the magnitude of the change

  1. Find out what are your group’s “undiscussables.” If you think that there aren’t any, you probably aren’t looking hard enough.
  2. Sharpen your interpersonal and Intrapersonal skills. In a high-tech, lightening- fast business environment, effective and dynamic leadership has more to do with these skills than traditional business expertise. It’s understood that leaders are experts in their fields; the question is whether they are experts with their people.
  3. Realize that empathy and education are the keys to success. At each stage of the change and transition cycle, employees must understand what is happening and be given opportunities to express their feelings. A leader who takes the time to tell the facts repeatedly and listen empathetically will garner the trust and buy-in required to succeed.
  4. Get a 360 ̊ feedback about how others see you. Don’t assume that you know! Inevitably, you will find out at least one new perception others had about you that you didn’t realize.
  5. Ask your direct reports these questions: What’s working well between us? What’s not? What are the barriers coming between us?
  6. Be ruthlessly honest with yourself–do you blame others for difficulties?
  7. Look inside your heart and ask–are you doing what you love? Leadership is about moving people to realize a vision, to collaborate to achieve a common goal. It requires dedication, commitment, and passion to work with others to bring ideas into reality. If your heart isn’t in it, realize that choosing to exit is an honorable choice.
  8. Go slowly and bravely where few have successfully gone before. Generally, people move at a slower pace than technology. While change is hitting organizations like lightening, take the time to slow down. Meet your employees where they are emotionally. Ignoring the emotional components that influence transition will induce failure. Giving employees permission to feel their feelings allows them the opportunity to deal with them in a healthy manner. Taking the time to meet your employees’ emotional needs opens the door for stellar results.
  9. Understand that separate realities can co-exist. Every manager and staff member has his/her own experiences. There are as many realities as there are people within your organization. Learn about your staff’s varying realities, acknowledge them, and understand them so you can be a more empathetic and successful leader.
  10. Remember that there are no winners and losers. Work is not a contest to pit managers and workers against each other. Because numerous realities do co-exist, no one person is right. The goal is to induce collaboration, teamwork, trust, and dedication to the mission.
  11. Your organization should not be a well-oiled machine. Contrary to popular thought, people populate organization, not machine parts. If your organization is a well-oiled machine, then you are missing opportunities that come with change and flexibility. People respond to their work situation with all kinds of emotions. Feelings, beliefs, values, and desires are not parked at the door. People carry all this and more in their hearts every day they come to work. Your organization can benefit by harnessing all the intangibles that employees possess. Likewise, your company will suffer if people feel they are not treated properly. As soon as individuals feel that they have been treated poorly, their reactivity skyrockets.
  12. Defuse anxiety. Within your division or department, become the crucible for allowing your staff to transfigure. Maintain a non reactive environment with an aura of openness and honesty to mitigate anxiety.
  13. Get high touch. Mingle with your staff. Have coffee with people. Stop by and inquire how things are going. Remember to check in with the quiet ones who never say a word in a public forum. Their silence doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re OK.
  14. Hold town hall meetings. Regularly communicate formally with your staff and offer them opportunities to say what’s on their mind. Let them speak without the risk of judgment or ridicule. Take their concerns seriously and meet their grief and fear with compassion.

Ways healthcare leaders can increase their own emotional intelligences and those of that they think about leaving. In times of great stress, even the best and the brightest may begin to unravel. The complicated overlays of enormous organizational change can cause people to revert to a lower level of functioning. In their frustration, they may take on more managerial tasks and forsake their leadership responsibilities.

Fundamental to creating the “organizational crucible” is the availability of administrators, vice presidents, and managers to staff members. They need to show up, listen, tell the truth, and tell it over and over again. In times of great turmoil and change, people need to hear information many times before they can absorb it. For years, advertising textbooks have suggested that a person needs to hear a message at least six times to understand and retain the information. In my experience, it takes approximately eight times for people to hear a message correctly when they are anxious. Try to restate the information in different ways and communicate it in person at least half of the time. This can be tough to do because you hear yourself sounding like a broken record and want to quit repeating yourself. You have to muster the fortitude to keep giving out the information. Remember, as long as people are requesting information, they need to hear it.

Soften Up

Dramatic and permanent organizational change is a difficult journey for both healthcare leaders and employees. In a perfect world, such changes would magically lift the organization and the staff members to new heights that neither could achieve alone. However, the reality is that successfully navigating a course through transition is a grinding, roll-up-the shirtsleeves proposition that requires a very high organizational EI. In lieu of a ride on a magic carpet, there are some things that healthcare leaders can do to increase their own EIs and those of their organizations {Fig. 1).

The bottom line is that what have long been called “soft skills” are the key to achieving results. Making the grade, hitting the numbers, and leading the pack isn’t possible for an organization whose leaders possess only technical skills and a bag full of brains. Infusing your organization with people who have high emotional quotients, in addition to all the hard skills, gets top-flight results. The real question is whether organizations are willing to examine their own EIs with the same gusto as they do academic credentials and technical competencies.


  1. Goleman D. Working with Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books; 1998.
  2. Goleman D. What makes a leader? Harvard Business Review. 1998;6:93-102.
  3. Schnarch D. Constructing the Sexual Crucible. New York: WW Norton & Co; 1991.
  4. Bridges W. Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co; 1991.

You can download this article by going to my FREE RESOURCE Section at my website

This entry was posted by Donna Strickland in Articles, Emotional Intellligence, Free Resources. Bookmark the permalink. Follow comments with the RSS feed for this post. Post a comment or leave a trackback.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *