Emotional Intelligence: An Often-Overlooked IT Leadership Skill

Strengthening your emotional intelligence can help you become a more effective and respected leader. Getting started is as easy as mastering a few key attributes.

John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author

August 29, 2023

4 Min Read
Emotional intelligence concept. A hand selects and manage face expression components.
Jess Rodríguez via Alamy Stock

Emotional intelligence is the ability to use, understand, and manage emotions in a positive way in order to communicate effectively, empathize with colleagues, surmount challenges, and defuse conflicts. EI can help any IT leader work more productively and efficiently, although relatively few managers really understand how to put it to use.

Emotional intelligence, or EI,  is a key component in managing interpersonal relationships and building a servant leader-style team, says Barry Shurkey, CIO at IT consulting firm NTT DATA Services. “It’s essentially like having a superpower that enables leaders at all levels to not only understand and feel for their team and organization, but also to communicate a vivid path to where they’re going in the future.”

In the tech field, EI means being able to discern not just which technological solution is most appropriate on a purely technical level, but also taking into account how it will be received, understood, and used by the people impacted, says Chris Daden, CTO, for employment testing services firm Criteria. “This extends to both end-users of the technology as well as the team members involved in its creation.”

Emotional Intelligence at Work

EI plays an important role in creating a successful team atmosphere. “By developing their skills in self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness, and relationship management, leaders can guide their teams, inspire them, and bring them together in a way that encourages efficient communication and strong collaboration,” Shurkey explains. He adds that having a strong EI also helps IT leaders build better employee and customer experiences.

With EI, tech leaders can not only deliver superior technical solutions, but also cultivate healthy, productive work environments that encourage collaboration, adaptability, and resilience, Daden says. “They prioritize understanding the human element and nuances that are crucial to the effective application of technology in real-world contexts.”

IT goals are frequently challenging and shifting. There needs to be an understanding across the entire team about the clear and reasonable expectations for moving forward, says Ben Askin, CIO at tax software provider Vertex. “As a leader, be clear about requirements and expectations, be unwavering about commitments, yet be pragmatic with respect to changes and pivots that positively impact the outcome,” he advises. “It’s part art and part science: The balance between both is where the best outcomes emerge.”

Effectively harnessing EI requires sincerity, Shurkey suggests. “It’s not something that one can switch on and off, or else your team members will recognize it,” he notes. “Understanding and applying EI drives loyalty and trust throughout your organization and powers individual productivity.”

Successfully completing complex IT tasks requires more than just raw talent and specific skills. “The IT space is so technical that maintaining the human element is important,” Daden says. “Managing employee stress, communicating clearly, and addressing and validating each individual’s concerns are all important when guiding a team.”

Cultivating Leadership

The key to cultivating effective leadership is having the ability to adjust to changing conditions and situations, as well as to graciously accept constructive criticism. “The remarks I receive from others during my performance reviews are the most rewarding element for me,” Shurkey says. “I want to figure out which areas I can improve upon.” He adds that to become a capable servant leader, “it’s vital to have a strong desire to boost and continuously grow your EI and to create a plan for carrying it out.”

IT leaders should carefully consider how often they’re actively listening to team members. “You’re not just hearing the words being spoken, you’re listening to the needs being communicated, the pain points being shared and understanding the little details,” Askin states.

Other characteristics of an emotionally intelligent IT leader include agility, empathy, creativity, self-awareness and the desire to constantly be self-improving, Askin says. “Interestingly, these are also attributes of world-class athletes.”

A Leadership Asset

Possessing strong EI is a powerful leadership asset. “By consistently and genuinely leveraging this superpower, it can be a catalyst for motivation and inspiration, helping your team reach objectives in a fast and effective manner,” Shurkey says.

While the IT world may seem to be a straightforward, cut-and-dried field, team members still need a leader who can motivate them, listen to their concerns, and express empathy and accountability, particularly in high-stress situations, Daden says.

Remember, however, that like any tool, an excessive or imbalanced EI focus can lead to unintended consequences, such as an overemphasis on consensus, manipulation, slow decision-making, or a replacement for data-driven decision making, Daden cautions. “In essence, EI is a powerful tool in a leader’s arsenal, and it must be used judiciously and in balance with other leadership skills and business considerations.”

What to Read Next:

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Overcoming Quiet Quitting and Motivating Your Colleagues

About the Author(s)

John Edwards

Technology Journalist & Author

John Edwards is a veteran business technology journalist. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and numerous business and technology publications, including Computerworld, CFO Magazine, IBM Data Management Magazine, RFID Journal, and Electronic Design. He has also written columns for The Economist's Business Intelligence Unit and PricewaterhouseCoopers' Communications Direct. John has authored several books on business technology topics. His work began appearing online as early as 1983. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, he wrote daily news and feature articles for both the CompuServe and Prodigy online services. His "Behind the Screens" commentaries made him the world's first known professional blogger.

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