Know Thyself: The Key to Develop Your EI

Be sure to check out Part 1 of our Emotional Intelligence series.

Entering a conference room, armed with presentation materials, a team readies themselves for another meeting. They exchange glances of silent camaraderie as laptops open and meeting chairs nervously squeak. Their boss will soon join them. A seasoned leader with 15 years of experience, he’s known for his business smarts and meeting his numbers. And yet, his team considers him a professionally dressed Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: brilliant but clueless. Throughout the meeting, despite team members’ preparations, he lobs litanies of impassioned interruptions—often mid-sentence—as they attempt to address their talking points. “Why does he keep interrupting me?” wonders a team member. When he’s asked a question, he offers a curt response, almost as if he’d planned to sidestep any questions. To end the meeting, he bluntly assigns a series of action items then leaves without expressing an iota of gratitude for or interest in his team. After the tension followed him out of the conference room, a team member remarks, “We had an entire meeting, and none of my questions were answered.” “I couldn’t get a word in if I’d used an airhorn,” quips another. And the most alarming aspect of the entire meeting is that everyone anticipated this—except for their boss. As laptops close in defeat and chairs are pushed from the table in frustration, the team collectively wonders how this talented individual could be so clueless. At the same time down the hall, the team’s boss smiles and wonders, “What would they do without me?”

How could such a gap exist between this leader’s understanding of himself and his team’s perception of him? Answer: A lack of emotional self-awareness.

Similar scenarios fill numerous conference rooms and company hallways. Smart leaders, possessing tremendous technical and business know-how (IQ), fail to see how their lack of “human know-how” (EI) affects their performance, others’ perceptions of them, and others’ performance. Great leaders, however, possess both IQ and EI, understanding their industry as well as their behaviors and the emotions that drive them. These leaders enjoy deeper job satisfaction and develop more agile, profitable teams.1 Great leaders have high emotional self-awareness, the first competency of emotional intelligence.

Emotional Self-Awareness: The Keystone of EI

Regarded as the foundation of emotional intelligence, emotional self-awareness is a leader’s capacity to understand his or her emotions, the behaviors that emerge from them, how they affect one’s performance, and how others’ perceive them as a result. Daniel Goleman states that emotional self-awareness is the “keystone” of emotional intelligence, enabling leaders to traverse the gap between their emotions and behaviors in order to produce greater business impact. Without emotional self-awareness, leaders who desire to develop their EI will find it as productive as learning to swim in the deep end of a pool before they can tread water.

Emotional self-awareness exists at the intersection of a leader’s “internal self-awareness” and “external self-awareness,”2 both of which are necessary to harness EI competencies such as emotional self-control, adaptability, empathy, and conflict management. Emotional self-awareness provides leaders with a unique set of lenses to view themselves through their own vantage points as well as seeing themselves as their employees see them. Understanding, recognizing, and vocalizing one’s emotions accurately sets a leader up to understand and manage how others perceive and respond to them. In many ways, leaders can draw a straight line from being emotionally self-aware to positive outcomes personally and professionally.

A study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, leveraging the Emotional and Social Competency Inventory (ESCI) model from Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis, linked emotional self-awareness to many indicators of effective leadership, including:

  • 100 percent of participants reporting significant improvement in workplace effectiveness.

  • 79 percent mentioning more effective workplace relationships.

  • 81 percent linked improved emotional self-awareness to a reduction in stress.3

These indicators, resulting from emotional self-awareness, are no fluke. And as leaders develop their EI, many may find themselves in new, perhaps intimidating, territory. Many brilliant leaders know how to navigate the world outside of them, but they haven’t been equipped to do the same with the world inside of them. Understand one’s emotions can still be regarded as a misnomer within the world of business and leadership. As one PROMARK coach shared: 

I believe there is a concern that feelings have no place in business. But we are humans, and humans absolutely have feelings. When we pretend we can turn those off and we ignore them, there are likely unintended consequences. Our behaviors are still being driven by associated feelings, whether we consciously think about them or not. Understanding how they play a part in our behaviors is the first step to being able to be more intentional in the behaviors we choose.”

And change is hard. Leaders navigate a difficult territory where they’re bombarded daily by hundreds of needs, requests, and pressures. Learning to understand one’s emotions can feel like a poor allocation of time, but it’s a necessity for leaders who want to thrive and lead agile, competitive teams and businesses. As a PROMARK coach shared:

Anytime we put ourselves in a growth opportunity situation, there can be fear of failure, the unknown and discomfort. When we believe the cost of not discovering is less than the cost of discovery–meaning we have a compelling reason to move forward–that can give the person a reason to commit to the discomfort. When they have a coach alongside them that support allows them to know they are not in it alone.”


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When leaders recognize and understand the emotions they experience, how their emotions are linked to their behaviors, and how others perceive them as a result, they can begin to recognize and manage their behaviors and others’ perceptions. And armed with a growth mindset, leaders can begin developing their emotional self-awareness today. Here are three important ways to begin developing emotional self-awareness.

  1. Keep a Journal: A leader’s day moves at breakneck speed, and learning to recognize and understand one’s emotions requires time and intentionality. One of the best ways to practice that is keeping a journal. It seems ironic, but in order to develop deep self-awareness, leaders must “get outside” their own heads. Following any number of interactions—phone calls, emails, meetings, etc.—documenting how one feels and why develops an awareness of any emotions, potential triggers, the behaviors that resulted, and begins to establish a vocabulary that helps leaders put words to their emotions. Leaders can then ask themselves what gaps exist between their intentions, what actually occurred, what behaviors and patterns they observed, and what impact their behaviors may have on their own perception of others and others’ perceptions of them?

  2.  Seek Regular Feedback: A leader’s experience provides valuable insight, but it doesn’t always root out misinformed assumptions about oneself and others along the way. And the more experience someone has, the less willing he or she is to pursue input elsewhere, leading to an inflated view of oneself4. One of the best solutions for challenging and confirming one’s assumptions is through the pursuit of feedback. Inviting feedback from your direct reports, peers, and customers demonstrates a humility and curiosity in what’s working and not working on a day-to-day basis, and what a leader can do to close the gap between the two. As a PROMARK coach shared, “By asking those you work with what they appreciate about your work style and what areas you can improve, you will see themes develop quite quickly. People truly appreciate the ‘openness,’ transparency, and vulnerability of emotionally self-aware leaders.”

  3.  Coexist with Your Emotions: Once a leader understands their emotional and behavioral patterns and how others perceive them, they can begin to recognize those patterns. Leaders need to give themselves permission to have emotions. Learning to understand and coexist with one’s emotions provides the foundation for managing one’s behaviors. Perhaps a leader identifies a pattern of “stuffing” her emotions that causes stress to haphazardly influence her interactions. Over time, that leader learns to recognize that pattern, and she begins to recognize and articulate her emotions, rather than ignore them, before the start of a meeting when she knows she’s stressed. This produces transparency and trust with her co-workers. Perhaps a newer leader who compensates for a lack of confidence by angrily defending himself or herself when disagreed with learns to invite diversity of thought into discussions and extend verbal appreciation for another’s viewpoint.

Effective leaders learn to recognize, understand, and own their feelings. And leaders don’t have to go it alone. Bringing in a coach into this process is a second-to-none way for leaders to optimize the impact of these emotional self-awareness practices.

Leaders attuned to their emotions and how they influence their behaviors with team members become more authentic and more proficient with the other competencies of emotional intelligence, ensuring greater business success.

Join us next month for part 3 as we look at another key competency of emotional intelligence: emotional self-management.


For leaders ready to begin the conversation about developing their emotional intelligence, we’re ready to help. Contact us today.


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