5 Emotional Intelligence Hacks That Can Immediately Improve Your Leadership

emotional intelligence

How would you rate your emotional intelligence lately?

It’s a relevant question for a few reasons. First, as the research Daniel Goleman brought forward two decades ago demonstrated, EQ (emotional intelligence) is a far greater predictor of leadership effectiveness than IQ.

Second—and this is the fun part—emotional intelligence can be learned. It’s not genetic, and pretty much anyone can get better at it.

Your emotional intelligence (or lack thereof) is already affecting far more than you think at work and at home. It explains why:

You have conflict and when you have conflict.

People like working with you or don’t.

You never seem to get the promotion you’re hoping for—or why you do.

There’s so much drama in your life, or why things actually go quite smoothly.

So how emotionally savvy are you?

I personally had a lot of growing to do in emotional intelligence over the years in leadership, and I’m still working on it.

Here are 5 EI hacks that can immediately improve your leadership. They’ve certainly helped improve mine.

1. Become a student of how you impact others

Ever wonder what happens when you walk into a room?

It’s a strange question in some respects because you’ve never been in a room that you’re not in.

You impact the climate of every room you’re in. In fact, as a leader, you almost always change the climate. But is it for the better or worse?

Do people tense up when you walk in? Do they clam up? Are they glad to see you? Afraid of you? Thrilled that you’re there?

Is your spouse glad to see you, or does he or she worry you’ll just have one more thing to complain about when you get home?

Many people have no idea how to honestly answer that question.

What makes it even more complicated is the fact that insecure leaders are usually too afraid to get answers to that question. And if you’re an angry or defensive leader, I promise you your team is afraid to give you an answer to that question.

If you want to grow in emotional intelligence, though, you absolutely need to know what happens when you walk into the room. You need to become a student of how you impact others.

So here’s the hack. Ask people what it’s like to be on the other side of you. Do it openly, and honestly. Don’t be defensive. Just listen. (I got that question from Jeff Henderson, who preached an incredible series on your impact on others called Climate Change.)

You’ll be surprised at what you learn.

Want to know what I learned? When I started asking my team about my impact on them a decade ago, one of my direct reports said, “You’re Bamm Bamm.”

Bamm Bamm Rubble was a Flintstones cartoon character who, as a toddler, didn’t know how strong he was.

Apparently, I have a very strong personality. Again, for years I was unaware of that because I had only ever been, well, me. But as I asked about my impact on others, my team would tell me that when I walked into a room, eyes would focus on me and I would offer my opinion and basically sway the room. It shut down real discussion.

So I gave the team permission to call me out on it. And for years, in meetings (or after them) staff would come up and say “You’re being Bamm Bamm again.” Then I’d apologize and stop.

I made it a point to be a lot more intentional and a lot more frequent in understanding what I was doing. I would ask people before and after meetings what role I should be playing, and solicit feedback about whether my level of input was too high or too low. It really helped.

Even at home, I regularly ask the question “What’s it like to be on the other side of me?” The dialogue that ensues always makes home life better… if you’re willing to change.

2. Protect your team from your moods

There’s you on a good day. And then there’s you on your not-so-good days.

Too many leaders make their team pay when they’re having a bad day. No one wants to work for someone like that for a long time, especially if they have a lot of bad days.

Maybe you can’t stop yourself from feeling bad, but you can stop yourself from taking it out on the people around you.

Self-awareness is a big key to emotional intelligence. And so is self-regulation.

Self-regulating leaders realize that just because they’re upset, they don’t need to take it out on the people around them—at work or at home.

I know what you’re thinking: well, how will I process my frustration? Here’s my guess. You’ll pray a lot more.

By the way, this book by Andy Stanley really helped me get to the root of my emotions. It got to the root of four things we all struggle with as people and as leaders: guilt, anger, fear and jealousy.

3. Stop blaming others

Emotionally intelligent people are not just self-regulated, they’re self-motivated. This means they’re willing to do things like take responsibility for their actions.

If you want to become more responsible, stop blaming others. Blame is the opposite of responsibility.

So what do you do when things go wrong? When someone lets you down? Or when something beyond your control halts progress?

Well, that’s when you assume responsibility. Even if it’s not your fault (which is exactly why you’re ‘assuming’ it).

When things go wrong, say this: “I’m the leader. I’m responsible.” (My team has heard me say it 1,000 times.)

Often I may not even have caused the problem. But that isn’t the point. I’m the senior leader. I’m responsible. I need to get our team together to figure out how to push past the problem. Often I say it out loud to remind myself that blame is not an option.

So take responsibility and move forward.

It’s amazing how freeing that can be. And it has the side benefit of both rallying your team and having someone who may have been responsible come forward and assume responsibility for a dropped ball.

Why? Because nobody blamed them. Good people will often own up rather than run and hide.

4. Drop the excuses

Emotionally intelligent leaders take responsibility for everything they did that didn’t work out.

Late for a meeting? Traffic didn’t make you late. You made you late. (You should have left earlier).

Didn’t get that report done? Don’t say your kid got sick or that you couldn’t sleep. All of that may be true, but how does it help? You just didn’t get it done.

Poor leaders make excuses. Good leaders make progress.  Because (as we’ve often said around here), you can make excuses, or you can make progress, but you can’t make both.

If you stop making excuses, it will do something more than change your standing in the eyes of your colleagues, it will make you come to terms with you. You will get so honest with yourself that you’ll be uncomfortable, which is where real progress comes from.

The added benefit? Leaders who own their mistakes eventually make fewer mistakes.

5. Don’t sink to the lowest common denominator

Another hallmark of emotionally intelligent leaders is their refusal to take shots—cheap or otherwise. When the dialogue sinks to a low level, they take the high road.

It can be hard not to refute all your critics or descend to the level to which others sometimes go.

There’s a simple quote that reminds me again and again why there’s no payoff in taking the low road:

Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig liked it.

That’s just true on about a thousand levels.

The high road isn’t the easy road, but it’s always the best road.

What Helps You?

Those are 5 emotional intelligence hacks that have helped me. What’s helped you?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

5 Emotional Intelligence Hacks That Can Immediately Improve Your Leadership


  1. Daryl DeKlerk on September 1, 2021 at 1:57 pm

    Spot on, thanks. I like what Ian Morgan Cron said in your podcast (241) on his Enneagram book that I listened to recently: “The goal is self-understanding and real-time regulation of your effect on others.”

  2. […] Carey Nieuwhof’s blog post 5 Emotional Intelligence Hacks That Can Immediately Improve Your Le… […]

  3. Rose A Poag on May 15, 2018 at 4:24 pm

    Excellent advice. Will work on these to improve. Thank you!

  4. Ruben on May 13, 2018 at 9:15 am

    Can we expect an audiobook of your new book? I still relisten to Lasting Impact every now and then.

  5. Jeannie Miller-Clarkson on May 12, 2018 at 12:59 pm

    Great practical tips! I especially love Hack #1 Become a student of how you impact others. This is critical and yet often overlooked. It also requires a good dose of humility for both the leader and team. If Some people hesitate to give such direct feedback, asking them to first identify what they appreciate about your leadership style, then what could be changed or tweaked may help them give the needed feedback. Thanks Carrey!

  6. Randy Robinson on May 12, 2018 at 8:28 am

    Carey, thank you for this. Very helpful. I’d like to add just a bit to #3, Stop Blaming Others. I’ve found that the question to my team, “What can we learn from this?” is always helpful at the time someone has dropped the ball. The focus is upon our learning together as a team what might have been done differently, and how in the future we can all handle a situation with greater confidence, competence and effectiveness. You’re right, the one who was responsible, but not blamed, often comes forward to assume responsibility, but as team we can all learn (together!) how to improve.

  7. […] Article: Carey Nieuwhof – 5 Emotional Intelligence Hacks That Can Immediately Improve Your Leadership […]

  8. […] This is where emotional intelligence can be a leader’s best friend. And the good news is, emotional intelligence can be learned (here, for example, are 5 EI hacks that can help you grow as a leader). […]

  9. Phil Herrington on June 10, 2017 at 1:20 pm

    Pig wrestling. So tempting. #justsayno

  10. Kim Sandwiches on October 28, 2016 at 5:38 am

    I saved this link a few days ago, because as a new principal I am always looking for ways to become a better leader. Imagine my surprise when I realize it was written by someone I actually know! I know it is been a few years… You won’t recognize my FB name, but my actual surname is Hacker.
    Thanks for sharing this… it makes me realize I have some Bam Bam in me too (thanks to Fred! ????).
    Wishing you all the best.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 28, 2016 at 6:56 am

      Kim…this is amazing. So good to connect again! Bam Bam isn’t all bad…but we have to be careful. I have a lot of good in me thanks to Fred too! Congrats on the appointment. 🙂 Exciting!

  11. dealish on October 22, 2016 at 6:31 pm

    wow!! I clicked on this link to take a read and this was encouraging. I am looking for ways to grow and keep in mind how I approach, accomplish, and assess things… this helped me to take a quick inventory…I plan to take a bigger inventory tonight. Thanks Carey.

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  13. Alex Nance on October 22, 2016 at 7:02 am

    Thanks Carey. I have been in a leadership funk for nearly a year now, struggling to find a balance between wall flower and, as you say, “Bamm Bamm”. I will definitely be getting staff and spouse feedback. Thanks again!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 28, 2016 at 6:56 am

      It’s always good to do that Alex. For me too.

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  16. Fred Mok on October 20, 2016 at 11:10 pm

    Great post. If you can continually do all 5 things, you won’t just improve immediately, you will continually improve over your lifetime. The challenge is there are all kinds of obstacles that keep us from doing that – as you mentioned – guilt, anger, fear, and jealousy.

  17. Brian Lane on October 20, 2016 at 3:24 pm

    I have weekly individual meetings with my staff and once a month I ask them these questions: What am I not seeing in me that you or others see? How do I come across to you or others in all venues? Am I doing anything that is undercutting your leadership? And how am I being perceived by others both in my physical body as well as emotionally? I think I got the questions from a Ron Edmondson blog. Thankfully I get honest feedback (I thank them for it when they give it to me) and it has been so beneficial to me.

  18. Lawrence W. Wilson on October 20, 2016 at 7:26 am

    Love this, Carey. Esp. #4. Ownership = power to change.

  19. Jon Pyle on October 20, 2016 at 7:03 am

    I definitely need to work on all 5 of these.

    One tip that has helped me is to find “lightning rods”: People with whom you can process things in an unfiltered way. Sometimes talking to our teams about a problem too transparently isn’t good for anyone. Finding a few safe people gives me an outlet for emotions without burdening my team unnecessarily.

    • Alan Youngblood on October 22, 2016 at 7:37 am

      There are no safe people.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 28, 2016 at 6:57 am

      I agree. And there are safe people.

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