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Project Management |

Conflict-Free Leadership: Emotional Intelligence [Part 3]

Emotional intelligence is a necessary leadership skill. Discover how it helps you understand and control your emotions while empathizing with others.

Travis Draper

Travis Draper

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Clearly defining the roles, goals, and expectations for a project is an important step in becoming a trusted workplace leader. A clear vision of the project and the steps you and your team will take to get there are invaluable. But it’s only one side of the proverbial coin.

The other is emotional intelligence. Understanding emotion is crucial to building and scaling successful projects. When you cultivate emotional intelligence in yourself and your team, you will move past conflict more quickly (or avoid it altogether).

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

The phrase emotional intelligence was popularized in the 90s by psychologist Daniel Goleman. He explained the importance of a leader’s ability to recognize the emotional needs of their employees and to manage their own. Goleman emphasized that while technical skills are a prerequisite for leaders, high levels of emotional intelligence are a strong predictor of long-term performance.

In Harvard Business School’s article “Why Emotional Intelligence Is Important In Leadership,” they outline the four main components of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. The piece goes on to say, “Employees with high emotional intelligence are more likely to stay calm under pressure, resolve conflict effectively, and respond to co-workers with empathy.”

Today, there’s a growing number of respected business schools, including Harvard, Cornell, and Wharton, that have chosen to include courses on emotional intelligence in their graduation requirements. Playing a key role in nurturing a new generation of leaders with the technical skills and emotional intelligence to pave the way for healthier work environments. Thus, equipping emerging leaders with the empathy required to retain quality employees and cultivate a culture of honesty and exuberance.

Why Is Emotional Intelligence a Necessary Leadership Skill?

Think about the best place you’ve ever worked and the worst. More than likely, you came into both jobs with the same mindset: to produce good work. But at one job, you felt empowered to ask questions, advocate for the tools you needed, take a long weekend, and spend time with family.


At your worst job, you felt like you were there to check boxes, doing what you could with what you had without making waves. In the former scenario, you were set up for long-term success. In the latter, you were bored and counting down the moments until you could clock out.

Good leaders understand the vision and get after it. Great leaders understand how to empower their teams and communicate with the client to set a trajectory for attainable success. Great leaders also anticipate that on the road to success, there will be obstacles, sticking points, and conflicts, and they’re prepared to handle them with emotional intelligence.

Using Emotional Intelligence to Approach Conflict

Setting up a meeting with the client prior to the start of a new project and mapping out the project framework discussed throughout this series is the best way to mitigate potential rough spots. But it can’t prevent them all. We should look at roles, goals, and expectations as a foundational framework, which forms a web of communication and trust, but a leader must also be equipped with the skills to resolve issues when they do surface.

Approach Conflict With Empathy

Emotional intelligence has two key components. The first is empathy for others. In a workplace, we’re surrounded by people from all walks of life, dealing with personal issues, cultural differences, and even minor language barriers.

Standout leaders know their teams, understand their strengths, and know where they need support. It’s not about offering more vacation days or showering everyone with compliments (although everyone likes those things too). It’s about assigning projects and roles within each team member’s zone of genius—setting them up to feel excited, clear on expectations, and energized to create great work.

For example, let’s say you have a team member who is frequently late to stand up. Before starting the blame and shame cycle, put yourself in their shoes for a moment. Ask yourself—what timezone are they in? Do they have something going on at home? Have the expectations been adequately communicated to them?

When you approach this conflict with empathy, you’ll likely find the reason for the issue. That’s not to say you should excuse undesirable behaviors. However, employing empathy as the first step in resolving conflicts will set your team up for long-term success.

Managing Your Own Emotions

The second component of emotional intelligence is understanding and controlling our own emotions. When was the last time you wanted to roll your eyes in a meeting? Did you blame your long-winded colleague, or did you take a moment to ask yourself what else was going on that day?

Chances are, on a good day, you like that long-winded colleague just fine, but on a day when you have back-to-back meetings and a dentist appointment, you’re more likely to let small things impact your mood. Emotional intelligence does not mean you’re always in a good mood. It also does not mean you’re never short with a colleague or late to a meeting. Reality dictates even the best leaders will make mistakes or lose their cool. But emotional intelligence will equip us with tactics to either prevent or handle these situations.

Having a high level of emotional intelligence goes hand in hand with proper organization and project management. Think about that first meeting you’ll have with the client team. Avoid scheduling it on the same day as other large meetings. Avoid scheduling it on a day when your child has a half-day of school or your partner needs a ride to an appointment. Within the confines of business hours and other people’s needs, find a time and day when you know you’ll be able to devote yourself fully to that meeting.

Leaders with high levels of emotional intelligence know when to admit fault. It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to express disappointment and frustration. What will set you apart is the ability to learn and grow from those stressful moments.

If a project starts to derail, who will you become? Equipped with an understanding of emotional intelligence and a willingness to lead with it, you can foster a work environment where mistakes become lessons and conflicts become important conversations.

Putting Emotional Intelligence to Work

While having clear roles, goals, and expectations is essential, emotional intelligence is a necessary leadership skill that leads to long-term success. By cultivating emotional intelligence in yourself and your team, you can move past conflicts more quickly and avoid them altogether. When you have empathy for others and the ability to manage your own emotions, you can lead your team by example.

In the next post, we will discuss how retrospectives, as a necessary step in a project, can help leaders practice emotional intelligence and improve their team's performance.