Emotional Intelligence for Entrepreneurs

SUMMARY: The article below is in depth. for those of you wanting the Cliff Notes version, here it is:

Emotional Intelligence is the #1 indicator of success, and most entrepreneurs (especially technical ones) have it in short supply.

To improve your EQ do the following at a minimum:

  1. Become more self aware by meditating regularly, developing a larger emotional vocabulary, and regularly stopping to check in with yourself.
  2. Manage your emotions better by knowing what your habitual emotional reactions are (we all have our “go to” responses to stress) and develop strategies to come back to the moment by pre- and post-stress check-ins.
  3. Develop greater empathy by developing greater presence and curiosity about what is really going on for people, and asking yourself how you would feel in their shoes.
  4. Manage your relationships better by taking steps to remain curious about the underlying motivations of others and being communicative about both your emotional state and what you perceive to be the emotional states of other.


Brian hung up the phone slowly.

“So, what did he say?” inquired Scott, while Brian stared blankly at the floor.

Scott and Brian were co-founders, best friends and roommates. They’d started a company together in 2012, and were in the process of raising more money to hire the staff to manage their exponential growth. They were growing so fast that things, including their relationships with investors and each other, were starting to break.

“He said I need to fire you,” Brian finally responded.

Scott had gotten in an argument with their lead investor and said a few things in the heat of the moment he wished he hadn’t. In spite of their amazing early success as a founding team, Scott’s lack of emotional intelligence was starting to tear the company apart.

Scott called the investor to apologize, but apologies weren’t enough. His investor told him, “Look, I’ll consider continuing the relationship under one condition: You need to talk to a coach to work on your emotional intelligence.”

Emotional Intelligence is the #1 Indicator of Success

According to numerous studies over the last 30 years, Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is the #1 indicator of success. It’s more highly correlated with high performance at work than either IQ or personality type. And considering so many of us are lacking EQ, it’s also luckily the most malleable part of our core wiring.

IQ, or our ability to learn, is essentially fixed by adolescence. Personality types are basically fixed for most, although some people migrate to a different personality type at different stages in life. For example, introverts can learn to be more extroverted. Feelers and learn to be better thinkers, etc.

Our baseline emotional intelligence, however, is something we start to develop early in life, but then most of us hit a plateau based on various factors including the EQ of our parents, mentors, teachers, and friends.

And because we’ve “always been this way,” it feels like our EQ is a permanent part of our personality. And then as we get older, we often choose careers that fit our emotional intelligence levels, thus reinforcing these old, engrained habits.

And that’s all well and good until life begins to ask more of us — like when we start a company (or a family, or get promoted from doer to manager, etc.) It’s only then that we begin to learn that different roles require completely different emotional skill sets.

The good news is that Emotional Intelligence can be learned. At its core, EQ is simply a set of skills and habits, and is thus 100% trainable and learnable. The trouble is we identify with our emotional intelligence as if it’s part of who we are.

But it’s not.

Emotional Intelligence isn’t so much about who you are, but how you choose to be. And if you choose to have a growth mindset and believe in your ability to learn new things, you can improve your emotional intelligence.

The Four Competencies of Emotional Intelligence

Before we get into how to improve your emotional intelligence, let’s break it down into component parts.

It’s widely agreed that emotional intelligence is comprised of four main competencies — two personal competencies and two social competencies.

Your Personal Competencies include your self-awareness and self-management skills:

  • Self Awareness is your ability to perceive your own emotions accurately and remain aware of them as events unfold.
  • Self Management is your ability to build upon your awareness of your own emotions to stay positive and productive in spite of events.

Do you sometimes find yourself being “carried away” by your emotions? Maybe you get angry in traffic. Or you fall head over heels in love really quickly only to realize later you were “blinded” by infatuation. Or maybe you get offended at work when your boss assigns work that’s in your wheelhouse to someone else. Sounds like you could work on your Personal EQ Competencies.

Your Social Competencies include your social awareness and relationship management skills:

  • Social Awareness is your ability to empathize — to read emotions in other people and understand what’s really going on inside them.
  • Relationship Management is your ability to use your awareness of your emotions and those of others to achieve your goals.

Have you ever been surprised to learn someone you worked with was unhappy at work? Or have you ever left an interview or date thinking it went really well only to learn later the other person thought it was a dud? Or perhaps you just have a hard time meeting new people and making worthwhile connections. Maybe you could work on your Social EQ Competencies.

Improving Your Emotional Intelligence

Now that we’ve broken down Emotional Intelligence into component parts, let’s discuss how to elevate each component:

1. Self Awareness — In the context of emotional intelligence, self awareness is different from “knowing yourself.” Many articles on self awareness actually suggest strategies for getting to know yourself: journaling, doing self-assessments, asking your friends what they think of you.

These all miss the mark.

Self Awareness is not simply knowing ones strengths and weaknesses. Its much more about knowing what you are really feeling in a given situation. Most of us have emotional responses to situations that we are completely unaware of. When asked what we are feeling, we often respond with a baseline answer: happy, sad, angry, fearful, or some variation.

The key to being more self aware is putting your attention more squarely on your emotional state at regular intervals throughout the day, so you can sense the more subtle variations in (and what is having influences on) your emotional state.

This is especially important when confronted with new information, a change in environment, or an interaction with someone. Emotions are contagious, and new inputs into the system can change our emotions without us knowing.

Keys to developing more self-awareness include:

  • Meditation — Developing greater mindfulness helps you remain present and in your body, where emotions present themselves.
  • Reminders to Check in with Yourself — Simply developing a habit of checking in with yourself before a meeting or a conversation can put you in a state of self awareness that can supercharge your effectiveness.
  • Improve Your Emotional Vocabulary — Just like there’s a big difference between the color Red and the color Burgundy, there is a world of difference between being sad and being devastated. The more vibrance and depth you add to your own emotional vocabulary, the more able you are to be aware of what you are really feeling.

2. Self Management — Once you are more aware of what you are really feeling in a given moment, you’ll be in a better place to manage your emotions effectively.

Self Management is the art of being fully aware of your emotions and having the wherewithal to choose your response to a given input or change in circumstances. Do you flip out at a marketing manager who sent out an email to all your customers with a typo in the subject line? Or do you develop an awareness that you are irritated, and then choose to be compassionate and accept that mistakes happen?

It’s also important to note that self management and self containment are not the same thing. We all know that person who walks around saying everything is “Fine” with a wincing grin. There is nothing self-aware or self-managed about living in denial.

Keys to developing greater self management include:

  • Work on Acceptance — While we can change our emotional response to certain inputs and changes in our environment over time, we most often can’t turn off emotions once we are feeling them. Accepting what you are feeling and not simply bottling it up will help you develop an appropriate response to the situation.
  • Know Your Go To Reactions — Do you flip into “blame mode” when things go wrong? Who did this? How could you do this to us? Or are you more of a placater? I’m so sorry we’re reached an impasse. What can we do to make you happy? Knowing that you have a pattern response can help you improve your awareness and choose a different path in the future.
  • Develop Habits to Bring You Back into the Moment — We often say that we get “carried away” by our emotions. This metaphor is extremely accurate. When we lose control of our emotions, it’s almost like we leave our bodies can go to a place of emotional escape. Breathing exercises and paying attention to changes in the sensations in your body can bring you back into the moment and clear some of the intense emotionality.

3. Social Awareness — Most people call social awareness “empathy,” which is defined by Brené Brown as How well can you understand and share the feelings of others?

Thanks to Brown and others, empathy has gained recognition in recent years as a “power skill” that helps us connect with others. As I laid out previously,to be more empathetic, we need two ingredients: 1) We need to be fully present to those around us so we can sense and anticipate changes in their emotions; and 2) We need to be more vulnerable and aware of ourselves so we can actually identify with the full spectrum of emotions someone else is having.

  • Greater Presence —Improve your presence through meditation and mindfulness exercises, and by paying close attention to changes in the sensations in the body. As you develop more mindfulness and presence, you will begin to find you are acutely aware of sounds, temperatures, tastes, and changes in the emotional state of people around you.
  • Greater Vulnerability— It is surprising to most people that increasing your own vulnerability and self awareness would improve your ability to empathize. But think of it like a language: You can’t understand what someone is saying if you don’t speak the language yourself.
  • Just Ask People — This seems a little simplistic, but how else will you know if the emotions you are observing in people are correct if you don’t just ask them what they are feeling to confirm your assumptions? Keep in mind that many people aren’t all that self-aware, or even if they are they might be guarded, so take what they say with a grain of salt.

4. Relationship Management — Once you have mastered being aware of and managing yourself, as well as empathizing with others, you are ready to manage your relationships in a masterful way.

Developing fruitful relationships comes down to three core skills: remaining curious about people’s motivations and situations, assuming most everyone has the best intentions, and openly communicating about emotions, curiosities, and assumptions.

  • Remain Curious — Just because you are developing your emotional intelligence doesn’t mean other people are. When having a challenging interaction with someone, remain curious to cues from their behavior or situation that will indicate how self-aware and emotionally regulated they are.
  • Assume the Best — If you are always assume the worst, you will get the worst. In my experience 99% of people have great intentions and aren’t trying to screw you. And those that are trying to screw you are most likely just trying to feed themselves, their families, or their damaged egos. Being the bigger person is often the best path, no matter what.
  • Communicate About Emotions — Talking about emotions with your staff seems completely counter-intuitive. After all, most of us were raised to be emotionally detached at school and the office. But studies have found that appropriate levels of openness and vulnerability in the work place can more deeply engender greater loyalty among your direct reports and peers.

Just having an awareness that you can enhance your emotional intelligenceis an incredibly important first step. Practice the suggestions contained in this article, and you’ll be well on your way to having less friction and more reliable outcomes from all of your relationships, both in the office and at home.