16 June 2024

EQ, Leadership and Inclusive, Engaging Workplaces

Why leaders need to pay attention to EQ if they are to combat toxicity and disengagement

We work in a time where people talk about toxic workplaces, psychological safety, being heard and seen, and allowed to speak up without fear of judgment or ridicule. While feeling empowered to voice our needs is important, leaders are under pressure to listen to these voices and create a safe and inclusive environment where people thrive. But how? Pia Ault, an expert in coaching and leadership development, explains why leaders need to start with building emotional intelligence.

The ongoing talent wars have shifted the balance of power to the employee, allowing them the time to consider what they need and value in a workplace before jumping into the recruitment process. Job seekers now weigh culture against compensation: there is now more to their decision than working hours, salary, and upward mobility. Candidates want a workplace that meets their values and lifestyle and allows them to engage fully as themselves with a well-defined purpose. Toxicity simply isn’t tolerated, and with the proliferation of jobs available, it doesn’t have to be.

Meanwhile, leaders face the precarious task of balancing several equally important, yet competing tasks – responding to market forces, securing the bottom line, building shareholder value and business sustainability, leading their teams through uncertainty – with ensuring high employee engagement and morale. So, how can leaders successfully navigate change and the demands from a more aware workforce?

It’s time to focus on EQ

The research on the importance of focusing on emotional intelligence in the workplace is clear:

  • 95% of surveyed HR managers and 99% of employees believe that emotional intelligence is a must-have skill for every staff member.
  • Emotional intelligence accounts for nearly 90% of what sets high performers apart from peers with similar technical skills and knowledge.

Unfortunately, adoption of this strategy is lacking with only:

  • 42% of organizations worldwide implementing training on emotional intelligence for senior management; and
  • fewer than 20% of companies qualify as emotionally intelligent, according to the Niagara Institute.

(source: Gitnux.org 2024)

Many of us have been conditioned by our parents, teachers and society, to avoid acknowledging and expressing our emotions in the workplace. Unwelcome as they sometimes are, our emotions influence everything we think, every action we take, and everything we are. Rather than suppressing them, emotions, and our ability to safely acknowledge and regulate them, can help us successfully navigate our social interactions and make sound decisions.

An emotionally intelligent leader who can demonstrate emotional regulation, empathy, and the ability to set healthy boundaries, is ahead of the game in creating a desirable workplace that honors employee needs and reduces toxicity. These leaders also stand out, not only for their resilience, but also for their ability to guide teams through uncertain times.

The EQ gaps that lead to toxicity

Author and researcher Karla McLaren. M.Ed. is an emotions and empathy expert, whose book The Power of Emotions at Work highlights the challenges leaders and HR face when trying to create an inclusive and empathic workplace. She points out that while many workplaces have employee manuals with step-by-step instructions for every task and workflow process, very few advise us on how to deal with everyday communication dilemmas such as asking a busy person for attention, knowing whether an email or a phone call is appropriate, or admitting that you made a mistake. Most workplaces overlook commonplace social and emotional difficulties and expect workers to figure them out on their own because they are unintentional communities.

An unintentional community is a group of people who are thrown together haphazardly without dependable communication processes, emotional skills, empathy, or clear models for navigating relationships or conflict. In a work context, this creates emotionally unregulated workplaces where the culture is at risk of becoming toxic. It can also result in some people inadvertently becoming “emotion workers” – the go-to people for informal complaints and smoothing out issues that bubble under the surface. This drains their energy emotionally and physically and is an unfair (and unpaid) role to take on.

Toxic behaviors often start at the top where emotions and empathy are most likely to be shunned. A common leadership myth is that empathy is a weakness and that by showing care, a leader might be taken advantage of. This is simply not true. An article in Forbes weighs in, saying: “Empathy does not imply being overly lenient or sacrificing accountability. Instead, it means balancing compassion with the ability to make tough decisions and holding individuals accountable for their actions. True leaders understand the importance of empathy in driving success and realize that it is not a sign of weakness but a reflection of their strength and emotional intelligence.” (Forbes: Empathy in Leadership: The Powerful Balance of Strength and Compassion, Nov 2023).

Other factors leading to a toxic culture, and that ultimately come down to a lack of emotional intelligence are:

  • poor communication across all layers of the organisation;
  • failing to give employees a voice and listen to them; and
  • a lack of accountability from leaders who fail to take responsibility for their or their team’s actions, creating a culture of blame-shifting and scapegoating.

A toxic work culture has significant costs for employees: it affects their motivation, wellbeing, mental and physical health. A toxic workplace limits opportunities for growth and advancement and it kills trust, leading to high turnover and poor organisational performance.

The role of training and coaching

Fortunately, there’s hope: leaders, from the board to the C-Suite, to departmental directors and line managers with a high EQ have the power to shift the culture. The more that healthy emotional expression and empathy are welcomed and spoken about in the workplace, the less conflict and toxicity can flourish.

Furthermore, being able to set healthy boundaries (without drama and shame) is crucial to a balanced workplace. Boundaries are limits, or indications of what we are willing to do and accept. They protect our energy and also provide our intent, certainty, and clarity to others.

EQ training can certainly help develop these vital skillsets. There are several excellent programs available, along with personal assessments, that provide a deep insight into a person’s EQ level. Providers like Multiple Health Systems (MHS) offer the Bar-On EQ-i 2.0 assessment, and other models include RocheMartin, MSCEIT and the 360 EQ.

Finally, there is immense value in having a large, nuanced, granular emotional vocabulary. The more able leaders and employees feel to accurately name what they feel, the better the understanding and social interaction will be between colleagues. One of my favorite books, and one I use with many clients in coaching and training, is Karla McLaren’s “The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You” (revised and updated 2023). McLaren holds that all emotions are necessary, and they are neither negative nor positive. She devotes a chapter to each of the 17 emotions she has identified through her 40 years of research. It’s a must have on your shelf for any leader, HR professional and employee who wants to embrace a less toxic and more inclusive empathic workplace.

Emotionally healthy workplaces with engaged and motivated people rely on emotionally capable leaders who have exemplary emotional regulation and communication skills, empathy, strength of character. Fortunately, leaders and HR teams have a crucial role to play influencing the development of these skills by ensuring leaders, managers and employees have access to the right training and coaching.


Written by Pia Ault

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