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How to Give Emotionally Intelligent Criticism

Whether you are a team leader or a member of a team, you will likely encounter situations in which you need to offer criticism or constructive feedback. While this can be difficult, giving feedback is a necessary part of leadership and being a member of a team. Teams that openly address counterproductive behavior create an environment that fosters continuous development, learning, and innovation. The ability to give effective, emotionally intelligent criticism is essential to high levels of team performance.

What Does It Mean to Offer Effective Criticism?

People who give effective criticism balance empathy and an understanding of the person they are giving feedback to with an objective and calm demeanor. They have developed trust through interpersonal understanding and compassion. They know team members’ strengths, weaknesses, and unique abilities. They know if someone would rather receive feedback one on one, or if they are fine with a group setting. They offer objective criticism and deliver it calmly, without divisive emotions.

While many of the Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competencies play a role in the ability to give effective criticism, Emotional Self-Control and Empathy are essential to giving effective criticism, particularly in relation to Teamwork.

How to Develop Emotional Self-Control

Developing Emotional Self-Control begins with recognizing your emotions as they occur. When you notice yourself experiencing a strong emotion, whether it be anger, frustration, or something else, make an effort to identify the source of the emotion.

Mindfulness meditation can help you become more aware of your emotional state, while journaling can offer a healthy way to release emotions and track your state of mind over time. In both of these practices, avoid self-judgement. Recognize your thoughts and feelings, but do not overly identify with them or give them too much power.

In addition to making you equipped to give effective criticism, Emotional Self-Control can also make you better able to receive feedback. By contextualizing feedback as information, instead of taking it as a personal criticism, you can internalize it from a context beyond yourself as an individual. As with giving criticism, this is a vital skill for both team leaders and team members. In order to cultivate a team that actively self-evaluates, everyone involved must be open to input and new ideas.

How to Develop Empathy

While Emotional Self-Control requires tuning into your own emotions, Empathy can be developed by tuning into the emotions of others. Nonverbal indicators of emotion, such as facial expressions and body language, can help us get a sense of how others are feeling. More actively, asking questions, and showing genuine interest in people’s responses, makes us better able to understand their emotions and to care more deeply for them. Active listening, which includes making eye-contact when someone is speaking, and nodding if you agree with them, demonstrates your engagement with that person’s thoughts and feelings.

Developing Empathy is also key to fostering mutual trust on a team. Team members that are compassionate toward one another, and care about each other’s abilities and preferences, create an environment of trust, in which people feel comfortable holding each other accountable.   

How to Balance Emotional-Self Control and Empathy to Cultivate an Accountable Team

In her studies of Team EI Norms, detailed in Teamwork: A Primer, Vanessa Druskat found that balanced levels of specific competencies most accurately predicted the emergence of certain Team EI Norms. In the case of the Team EI Norm “addressing counterproductive behavior,” Druskat and her team found that team leaders with strengths in Emotional Self-Control are most able to cultivate an environment in which team members hold each other accountable.

“High empathy seemed to get in the way of providing ‘tough’ feedback. The optimal leader profile was a leader who had high empathy and also a high level of self-control.”

Leaders with a balance of Emotional Self-Control and Empathy can manage their emotions and deliver difficult feedback in an impactful way, while also considering the emotions of the person they are critiquing.

An effective balance between these two competencies also strengthens the Teamwork Competency. High levels of Empathy, balanced with Emotional Self-Control, yield teams focused on relationship development and effective accountability. Compassionate teams, that care about each other and their contributions to the group, lay a solid foundation for the creation of open channels for honest feedback. In this way, effective, emotionally intelligent criticism becomes a vital aspect of the team’s process, as they hold each other accountable for their level of performance.

Recommended Resources:

Interested in coaching others in Emotional Intelligence? Our new Daniel Goleman Emotional Intelligence Coaching Certification is now accepting applications. This in-depth program, akin to a professional degree, draws upon a range of evidence-based concepts and practices, including the Emotional & Social Intelligence framework. Coaches will gain meaningful new insights to impact their personal and professional lives while elevating their expertise.




For further reading, our series of primers focuses on the 12 Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competencies, which include Emotional Self-Control, Empathy, and Teamwork.

The primers are written by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis, co-creators of the Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competency Model, along with a range of colleagues, thought-leaders, researchers, and leaders with expertise in the various competencies. Explore the full list of primers by topic, or get the complete collection!

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Research: Mindfulness May Increase Mental Performance at Work

During my study of the relationship between mindfulness and leader effectiveness, 100% of the leaders I interviewed (all having months or years of prior mindfulness training and practice) linked mindfulness to improvement in their personal and professional lives. The majority described this as being significant, often using terms such as “profound,” or “life-changing.” My previous articles on EI draw from this research, exploring the way mindfulness influences each of the 12 Emotional Intelligence competencies, based on interviews with organizational leaders from around the world.

My findings ultimately reveal the following:

Mindfulness influences changes to awareness and behavior that, in turn, play key roles in producing favorable workplace outcomes.

Improved Mental Performance and More Effective Behavior

One of these changes, improved mental performance, was described by participants as having a positive, overarching effect on functions such as decision-making, susceptibility to distractions, and attention. This is not surprising since mindfulness is sometimes defined as meta-awareness, including our ability to non-judgmentally observe where our attention is and is not focused.

This capability can become a “real-time” skill set, taking the form of simultaneous observation of our interaction with others, and our internal reactions to that activity. The leaders I interviewed described this level of awareness, reporting that it provided them with a degree of “mental clarity.” Below are the specific benefits described, and the percentage of participants who reported experiencing them:

  • Ability to identify signs of potential conflict (in time to take corrective action) – 90%
  • Capacity to more effectively navigate organizational relationships – 88%
  • Improved ability to recognize emotional reactions in themselves and others – 86%
  • Increased attentiveness and patience with others – 74%
  • More productive responses to the emotional states of others – 100%
  • Recognition of the negative influence of stress and anxiety – 88%
  • Openness to new ideas and input from others – 90%

Descriptions of these benefits were provided in the context of how mindfulness helped leaders gain new information about themselves, others, and their workplace culture. This information was then incorporated into their efforts to improve the effectiveness of their interactions with others. As the graphic below illustrates, leaders described an upward spiral of improvement. New insight about self and others fed back into additional, positive changes to beliefs and awareness, which paved the way for more effective behavior.

Real World Examples of Applying Mindfulness at Work

Many of the leaders reported that improved mental performance made them better able to identify and filter out distractions such as emotional reactivity and bias. A senior manager with one of the largest research and publishing firms in the world described this experience in the following way: ” you’re able to calm yourself down and put yourself in a better position to listen to someone… it helps me to be calm and think clearly and to focus…I find I’m able to be composed and organized and clear in my communications.”

Leaders specifically mentioned that mindfulness training helped them be more present when interacting with others. This included a greater ability to monitor what their attention was focused on or being distracted by. They also mentioned becoming better at observing whether or not they were listening carefully, asking relevant questions, and picking up on interpersonal cues and organizational context.

This type of observation, and the value it provides, was well articulated by an executive specializing in global communication and strategy: “(mindfulness) enables you to read other people better and be more sensitive to what’s driving their commentary, their presentation, their behavior…their body language. That makes the connection between the two of you much more on an equal footing basis. So you’re no longer either selling to a position of power, or talking to a position of power. You are in fact exchanging information and dealing with each other on footing that is, at least emotionally, much more equal.”

A new appreciation for the importance of empathy in the workplace was also identified by leaders as a benefit arising from improved mental performance. This resulted from developing a stronger ability to identify and manage the role their own emotional reactions played in their perceptions of others.

A leader who has held executives roles at one of the largest organizations in the world elaborated on this point in the following statement: “It definitely increases your empathy by helping you put yourself in the other person’s shoes. You slow down your responses, and when you sort of look at why that person is reacting in that manner it helps you be more compassionate because the moment you have empathy you start thinking from a very human perspective about the situation and trying to understand what the problem is. And the moment I take that approach I realize that I have solved the problem more effectively.”

What You Can Do to Cultivate Better Mental Performance

Look for opportunities to practice in the workplace, since this will help you develop exactly the type of capabilities needed for improved performance. The following suggestions come from details shared by leaders on this topic during interviews:

  • When interacting with others in-person or remotely, put your phone away, turn off your email, web browser, or even your monitor
  • Try and continuously monitor where your eyes are focused during interactions with others, as well as your facial expression and what it may be conveying
  • Take notes on what you are observing during interactions with others, specifically what they may be expressing through tone, body language, and choice of words
  • Regularly ask questions aimed at surfacing misinterpretations
  • Take time each day to identify emotional reactions that may have a negative influence on your mental performance

Improved mental performance can be developed through regular practice, not unlike athletic training. There are a variety of software tools and meditation practices available that help strengthen intensity and duration of attention, however, they may not improve your ability to actively observe and more fully understand your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. For this type of development, consider formal mindfulness training, but be sure that the instructor is thoroughly qualified, and plan to make a consistent time commitment if you want results.

Recommended Reading:

Emotional Self-Awareness: A Primer – The first in our series of primers on the Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competencies, with author voices including Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, Richard J. Davidson, and the author of this article, Matthew Lippincott. The complete collection is also available. 

Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body (audio)  New York Times-bestselling authors Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson unveil new research showing how meditation affects the brain.

The Brain and Emotional Intelligence – Daniel Goleman illuminates the state of the art on the relationship between the brain and emotional intelligence, and highlights EI’s practical applications in leadership roles, education, and creativity.

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Developing Self-Awareness, One Moment At a Time

Most of my career has involved some form of providing leadership development solutions, including coaching executives from a wide range of industries. Soon after I began coaching, however, I noticed that regardless of how consistent I was in my approach of coaching someone or how open they were to the process, lasting changes weren’t always a given. I eventually came to realize that simply understanding one’s strengths and gaps, and having a desire to improve isn’t enough to ensure the kind of long-term behavioral changes that are necessary to consistently achieve better results. What I repeatedly observed was that the clients who achieved the most successful outcomes were also the clients who worked most consistently to improve their emotional self-awareness.

How we perceive ourselves and others happens in the present.

Our perceptions are formed continuously, from moment to moment. This process is so seamless that we often think of behaviors as being static, and that changing them should be as easy as flipping a switch. This is a mistaken perception because behaviors are formed by doing something repeatedly, over and over, one moment at a time. Being self-aware allows us to be present and to choose the most skillful behaviors to navigate our complex social landscape, taking into account both our own emotional needs as well as those of others.

Self-awareness is perhaps the most important tool for gaining access to our own agency, which is what we have control over at a most basic level, so that we can choose positive behavioral responses to the various situations we encounter in our lives on a moment-to-moment basis.

What is self-awareness?

The concept of self-awareness is fundamental to a number of different disciplines, each of which uses slightly different definitions. Within the framework of Emotional and Social Intelligence, for instance, self-awareness is defined as the ability to recognize your emotions as well as how they affect your performance and your interactions with others. In the broadest sense, “Self-awareness is the capacity for introspection and the ability to recognize oneself as an individual separate from the environment and other individuals.” Functionally-speaking, self-awareness is the mind’s ability to be aware of its own contents (e.g. its own internal movements) as well as external phenomena. Neurologically, self-awareness is one’s ability to recognize what’s happening physiologically within oneself.  At the most nuanced levels, self-awareness is the capacity to be cognizant of awareness itself.

As broad as the range of these definitions of self-awareness, so too are its practical implications. Absent self-awareness, we’re unable to consistently manage our impulses, motivations, and actions, instead letting our habitual reactions get the best of us. The problem with running on autopilot is that we end up defaulting to a set of unquestioned behaviors that don’t allow us to pause long enough to consider our situation and choose a skillful response.

Self-awareness is at the heart of the other competencies in the Emotional and Social Intelligence framework. Leadership competencies require more than simply developing and mastering certain skills; rather, we must also be able to apply those skills in a manner that produces positive and consistent results, and this is a moment-to-moment endeavor that relies on engaging our own self-awareness.

Methods to practice self- awareness and recognize our feelings:

Developing self-awareness is a continual practice. The good news is that there are a number of simple ways that we can incorporate self-awareness practices into our everyday lives. Here are 3 practical methods:

  1. meditation with focus
  2. body scan practices
  3. self-reflection through introspection or journaling

To practice meditation with focus, sit comfortably, spine straight, with eyes either closed or open and angled slightly down; find and follow your breath. As your attention wanders either to thoughts, emotions, sensations, or an awareness of external phenomena, gently notice this, allowing your attention to come back to the natural cadence of your breath. The moment you notice your mind has wandered off, you’re already back. This is subtle. No need to yank your mind around. Be gentle. Eventually, this practice of gently anchoring your attention on your breath will begin to shift your experience of your relationship with your thoughts and feelings even when you’re not endeavoring to do so. You’ll begin to wake up and notice when you’re responding from a place of habit, and instead connect with a small space in which you can pause, reflect, and respond more thoughtfully and skillfully.

Body scans help you to attune yourself to your body’s physical signals, which are often indicators or precursors of your internal and emotional states. Accordingly, by training yourself to notice your physical sensations and bodily signals, you’ll also be training yourself to notice the gestures that precede changes in your emotions and mental states. You can lead yourself through your own body scan, or you can find guided meditations online.

Finally, you can use daily self-reflection through introspection or journaling to help develop greater self-awareness. You can either write, or record your insights and observations using audio or video formats. Focus your journaling by reviewing every day how well you matched your intentions to your actions. Take note of how and why your mood shifted over the course the day. Reflect on how you are showing up and being perceived by others. To what degree is there alignment between how you’re realizing your aspirations and how you are being experienced by others? If there is a lack of alignment somewhere, why do you think it’s happening?

This practice will help you to begin to see patterns in yourself and better understand any underlying dynamics. Working with a coach can be indispensable to catalyze these insights, creating the circumstances for transformational growth and momentum towards your aspirations.­

Recommended Reading:

Our new series of primers focuses on the 12 Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competencies, including Emotional Self-Awareness, Adaptability, Influence, Teamwork, and Inspirational Leadership. The primers are written by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis, co-creators of the Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competency Model, along with a range of colleagues, thought-leaders, researchers, and leaders with expertise in the various competencies – including the author of this article, Michele Nevarez. See the full list of primers by topic, or get the complete collection!

In Altered Traits, Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson unveil new research showing how meditation affects the brain. Through thoughtful analysis of countless studies, they offer the truth about what meditation can really do for us, as well as exactly how to get the most out of it.

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Inspirational Leadership Arises from a Working Understanding of ESI

Inspirational Leaders Arise from a Working Understanding of ESI

The process of becoming an inspirational leader involves the development of multiple Emotional and Social Intelligence (ESI) competencies, each contributing to new realizations about how to lead more effectively.

Emotional self-awareness and emotional self-control drive this transformation, particularly in the context of learning to apply ESI in real-time social interactions. That was revealed in part of my 2016 study on leadership, mindfulness, and emotional intelligence. The analysis included use of the ESI model developed by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis, and indicated that leaders linked strength in inspirational leadership to greater career success and satisfaction.

The Competency of Inspirational Leadership

Inspirational leadership focuses on an individual’s interest in, and capacity to lead, regardless of their formal title or position within an organization. Strength in this competency is exemplified by the ability to unify others towards a common goal, which involves other competencies such as influence and organizational awareness.

An inspirational leader will exhibit a sense of pride in his/her work, but also understand the importance of creating a sense of group ownership, and an engaging work environment. The ability to effectively present new or challenging ideas to a group is another attribute of inspirational leaders, as is the ability to lead during times of crisis.

What Inspirational Leadership Looks Like in the Workplace

The leaders I interviewed for my research spoke extensively about how they motivated and inspired their teams. However, they also revealed that these capabilities arose from development of self-awareness. This process was described as being profound, and transformational in relation to participants’ understanding of what is required to be a truly effective leader. For example, the Head of Talent Development for one of the largest hospital networks in the U.S. linked inspirational leadership to a new understanding of the way feelings influence engagement, which he summarized as “we need to really access the way we treat people, the way we treat ourselves, the way we understand emotion in the work place.” In this instance, new realizations about the role played by emotion in workplace performance significantly influenced this participant’s beliefs, and behaviors relating to inspirational leadership strategies.

Another participant, the Senior Manager for a leading global consulting firm, elaborated on the importance of inspiring employees via authentic relationships: “you develop this sort of connection with the person you’re managing…there’s this empathy that goes on when the person you’re managing respects and appreciates you for trying to understand what’s really going on.”

Other leaders shared details of how they engaged their direct reports on an emotional level. For instance, the senior legal counsel for a leading international healthcare product manufacturer talked about the importance of modeling behaviors in the context of inspirational leadership: “I’m going to try my best and do the best I can, and I think just that one little thing can be inspiring to my team.”

Participants also frequently mentioned the importance of earning trust, such as an HR leader for a major US healthcare network, who stated “I’ve always really worked to try to build trusting relationships with individuals through, not necessarily my words, but my actions.” Another participant, who has been responsible for supply chain operations at three well-known global organizations, touched on the value of demonstrating ethical behavior, saying “… if that leader is doing it with integrity, people are all in… and will join with you at the hip to do what you’re trying to do.”

Developing Yourself as an Inspirational Leader

The leaders I interviewed believed that their success depended upon their ability to effectively articulate team objectives, and actively support others in achieving them. They understood that success required them to demonstrate the behaviors needed to reach those goals on a daily basis as well. Fundamental to these realizations was an awareness that others can detect exaggerated statements, false confidence, and insincerity.

There are a number of steps you can take to develop the type of engaged and supportive workplace relationships associated with Inspirational Leadership. A good place to start is honestly assessing whether or not you are overloading yourself with tasks that could be delegated to others. This is an important step, since task-oriented workload takes away from time that can be invested in personal and team development. In addition to protecting you from burnout, properly managed delegation cultivates trust and respect between leaders and their staff as well.

Part of this assessment should also include some reflection on why you may have unrealistic expectations for yourself concerning the amount and type of work you should be able to support.

In addition, give some thought to what you believe others expect of you, and whether or not some of your workplace behavior may be motivated by trying to fulfill standards that are difficult to live up to. The objective of this activity is to begin exploration of beliefs around workplace roles with others as part of a trust-building process, contributing to the following:

  • honest dialog about performance expectations and areas for improvement
  • stronger relationships based on openness and vulnerability
  • sharing of lessons learned from failures and successes
  • opportunities to share responsibilities and recognition

Leaders told me that involving subordinates in activities such as risk assessment and decision-making also had a positive impact on team loyalty. They reported that being open about their own feelings of fear and worry relating to these and other leadership activities helped their direct reports better understand, and relate to, the difficulties of being a leader. Overall, leaders indicated that their ability to inspire performance improved as they invested more time into cultivating personal connections with others through these types of activities.

Recommended Reading:

Our new series of primers focuses on the 12 Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competencies, including Emotional Self-Awareness, Adaptability, Influence, Teamwork, and Inspirational Leadership.

The primers are written by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis, co-creators of the Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competency Model, along with a range of colleagues, thought-leaders, researchers, and leaders with expertise in the various competencies – including the author of this article, Matthew Taylor.

See the full list of primers by topic, or get the complete collection!




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Attunement: The First Step in Inspirational Leadership

Carl sits in his office in front of his computer on Sunday night, deep in thought.  Tomorrow he will introduce the strategic priority for the next year to his team, and he needs to inspire them.  He has spent more time working on this presentation than most, revising for the most compelling language and the most striking visuals. He has practiced the presentation with his partner to improve his presence and capture just the right mood.  He has and will put in many hours to prepare for this high stakes engagement.  And yet, when he arrives in the conference room, Carl will not be able to shake a nagging worry:  will this land with my team?  Will it inspire them?

While there is plenty that Carl may be doing right in this scenario, he is missing at least one key ingredient of inspiration: connection to his team.  Resonant leaders know that inspiration comes largely from connecting to what their teams care about.  It takes strong social awareness to create this kind of connection, which Daniel Goleman describes as the ability to, “breathe life into the hopes and dreams of others.” He calls this attunement—a direct connection with people’s emotional centers.1

How to Become Attuned to Others

If I were coaching Carl, our team inspiration work would have started weeks earlier, and it wouldn’t have happened in front of his computer.  Leaders who find themselves at a point of change or transition need to engage their teams early in the planning process.  Jentz and Murphy’s “Embracing Confusion,” while written for new leaders, can be an excellent resource for any leader in need of becoming more attuned to their teams in times of change or challenge.2  In this piece the authors urge leaders to “hit the ground learning.”  Jentz and Murphy lay out a process for systematically engaging stakeholders as experts in their experience of a team and a problem, forcing leaders to adopt a learner mindset and encouraging them to roll up their sleeves and engage their teams one-on-one as thought partners.   Jentz and Murphy’s process ends with leaders engaging their teams in “sense-making.”  In these conversations leaders share what they have learned and challenge their teams to grapple together with the complex, messy issues connected to their biggest challenges.

Coaching for Competencies and Attunement

Jentz and Murphy’s process is an exercise in building attunement. As Carl engages in it over time I would focus my coaching on raising his self-awareness and self-management, surfacing and managing his internal obstacles and personal strengths connected to empathic listening and collaborative problem solving.  My goals would be the following:

1) Build Carl’s appreciation for the power of connecting through listening for the needs, hopes, dreams, aspirations and values of people.

2) Build his ability to get out of his leader persona and engage his team in healthy, unfiltered collaboration as part of a strategy-building process.

As Carl listens for why his people care and engages them as partners in their collective challenge, he will be able to meet his team at a place of common belief and aspiration.  Simultaneously he will be building trust—another pre-requisite to true inspiration.

Connecting the Gaps

Engaging teams isn’t just about connecting, however.  Strong leaders also engage to diagnose gaps between their teams are currently, and where their teams need to be to reach their potential.  As Goleman writes, strong leaders “slow down to speed up” by engaging people in looking at the gaps.3   I would also be coaching Carl to explore his team’s gaps from both technical (logistics, skills and knowledge) and adaptive (relationships, emotions, and beliefs) perspectives by asking him two simple questions, over and over:

Where is your team right now, and where do they need to be to reach their potential?

Leaders are able to answer these questions accurately by adding the data that comes from person-to-person engagement to the rest of their diagnostic data.  As a result, socially aware leaders attuned to their team’s gaps are most likely to meet their team’s needs, while also reaching big picture objectives.  What is more inspiring than hearing your leader accurately name and go after your needs?

Flash forward now to Carl sitting at his desk after engaging deeply with his team. He no longer sits alone, attempting to pull his most inspiring ideas out of his head.  He now sits with the hopes, dreams, fears, and shared problem-solving of his team.  Their words surround him and inform his own hopes and dreams for the team’s new strategic priority.   He is not worried about whether his people will be inspired by what he says, because he already knows that he will be speaking the same language when he stands in front of them.  Because he is attuned, he will be able to meet the emotional needs of his team.  In fact, that work—the work of inspiring—has mostly already been done.  As he turns out the light he feels confident and calm knowing that the connection he has earned leading up to this moment is worth so much more than the very best words and sensational visuals.

Recommended Reading:

Our new series of primers focus on the 12 Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competencies, including Emotional Self-Awareness, Adaptability, Influence, Teamwork, and Inspirational Leadership.

The primers are written by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis, co-creators of the Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competency Model, along with a range of colleagues, thought-leaders, researchers, and leaders with expertise in the various competencies – including the author of this article, Matthew Taylor.

See the full list of primers by topic, or get the complete collection!





Citation #1 and #3:  Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee, (2002) Primal Leadership. (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing)

Citation #2: Barry Jentz and Jerome T. Murphy. “Starting Confused:  How Leaders Start When They Don’t Know Where to Start” (Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 86, No. 10, June 2005, pps. 736-744).


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Research: How Teamwork Powers Mindful {and Effective} Leadership

More effective teams result from a leader’s investment in their personal development of self-awareness, emotional self-management, social awareness, and relationship management.

This is one of the findings from my in-depth interviews with 42 leaders exploring the role of mindfulness in strengthening their leadership capabilities. The study also included use of the Emotional and Social Competency Indicator (ESCI) model developed by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis, and found all twelve of the leadership competencies present in the participants. Teamwork was the competency most highly referenced by the participants, who provided detailed descriptions about the value they had received from focusing on cultivating their own, and other’s capabilities to be better team members.

Teamwork is defined by cooperative rather than separate, or competitive work. It also includes working towards common objectives, and taking ownership of both positive and negative outcomes. Individuals with strength in this competency will be able to build and maintain working relationships, in addition to promoting an environment conducive to input from teammates. They will also be:

  • Supportive of other teammates or group members
  • Involved in facilitating cooperation
  • Appreciative and respectful of others’ opinions and suggestions

The leaders I interviewed linked teamwork to a variety of benefits, including greater innovation, employee autonomy, and business growth. They also reported that their improved ability to develop effective teams resulted in stronger relationships between teammates, and greater loyalty to the organization. Finally, participants credited mindfulness with helping them understand their own role in being a good team member in the context of relationships with subordinates, peers and superiors. Leaders tied these improvements to their effectiveness, directly attributing career success to the combination of greater team capabilities, and the willingness of others to help them.

How Leaders Create Cultures Conducive to Teamwork

Study participants demonstrated a working understanding of multiple leadership theories, such as Situational, Transactional, and Transformational. Their leadership behaviors, however, tended to be more reflective of the relational leadership theory and dispersed leadership approaches. Specifically, they understood the importance of being able to meet the needs of the people and groups they worked with, and realized that the definition of a good teammate may not be the same for everyone. They also knew that they, and members of their teams, may need to adapt their behaviors in order to successfully align with the frequently changing goals of the organization.

Participants reported that investing in attentiveness to others had a powerful impact on the strength of their relationships. The HR head for a leading global manufacturing firm summarized this as “…the deepness of listening and relating to a person and helping them connect on an individual level so they feel valued and connected to you as a leader,” which he directly attributed to improved team performance. A leader with a Fortune 10 Firm also touched on the importance of being open to receiving feedback from his direct reports: “I asked for feedback and insights from the people that I work with, and therefore they felt comfortable giving it to me.”

The importance of following through on commitments to coworkers was also stressed by participants. For example, the senior legal counsel for a leading healthcare product manufacturer shared the positive impact that her previous managers’ interest in her work life balance had on their relationship. As a result, she made sure to care for her direct reports in the same way, and take on additional personal workload if necessary: “…I want to make sure that people when they’re off, they’re truly off…certainly something can wait or we’ll try to get something else done.”

Making certain to not be perceived by others as paying lip service to concepts such as participation, respect, and fairness was highlighted by participants. A Department Head for a major US Hospital Network illustrated this point when describing the way he interacted with a newly promoted manager on his team: “I’ve decided to allow space for her and her team to design the new model, and giving everyone space to have their own thoughts and ideas.” His comments echoed what other leaders had to say about the relationship between team performance and the leader ensuring that each member feels valued and motivated to make continued contributions.

How to Create a Stronger Team

Leaders were consistent in expressing their belief that you need to pay careful attention to being a good teammate if you want to be a member and/or leader of a high performing team.

This includes study and refinement of team development activities, and active observation of whether or not your interactions with others make them willing to support you as a teammate. These aspects of cultivating teamwork were summarized by a participant who has held Controller and CFO roles for three leading corporations: “I’m being respectful and…really listening, really understanding where they’re coming from… and then reflecting.”

Some steps you can take to promote teamwork that were described by participants include:

  • Work with your team to agree on a formal description of a good teammate
  • Jointly design a plan to help each member become a good teammate
  • Create and maintain open feedback channels
  • Focus on a culture of improvement, aimed at learning from mistakes

It is also important to keep in mind that building trust with your teammates requires authentic and compassionate behavior on your part. This means being available to openly discuss their fears and concerns, and working with them to find ways to manage these issues. Making a sincere effort to help teammates manage stressful situations more effectively will also contribute to greater engagement, as will modelling the behaviors you expect of others in the workplace.

Recommended Reading:

Our new series of primers focus on the 12 Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competencies, including Emotional Self-Awareness, Adaptability, Influence, Teamwork, and others.

The primers are written by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis, co-creators of the Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competency Model, along with a range of colleagues, thought-leaders, researchers, and leaders with expertise in the various competencies.

See the full list of primers by topic, or get the full collection!

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Coaching for Conflict with Self-Awareness and Self-Management

The more I have learned about the emotionally intelligent leadership competencies, the more I am struck by how little most other conflict management trainings and literature focus on self-awareness and self-management.  Some models focus on social awareness, incorporating listening for other perspectives, but most focus almost exclusively on relationship management “moves” – i.e. how we interact productively with others in conflict.

In my experience, any approach not grounded in the self is not likely to succeed. The best conflict “moves” in the world won’t help me engage effectively in our conflict if I arrive feeling that I’m right, you intentionally hurt me, and that what I really want is “justice.”

Before we focus on strategies to manage conflict, we must raise critical self-awareness and build self-management so that we are able to bring our best selves to any relationships in our lives – personal or professional.  In my coaching of people in conflict, this rigorous self work begins with exploring the baggage and stories that might be getting in our own way.  Then it moves to self-management, exploring how we can manage our baggage and stories so that we can effectively communicate with others in conflict.

What baggage might be getting in your way?

As a leadership coach, my first goal is to help people see how their emotional reactions to conflict have triggered their “baggage’’, or the thoughts, beliefs, emotions and behaviors that limit their ability to effectively engage others.  This happens through asking a series of questions that include some combination of the following:

  • Tell me exactly when in this conflict you were first aware of having a strong negative emotion?
  • Tell me what emotions you were feeling? (follow up with probing questions and only accept answers that are actually emotions)
  • Exactly what happened that triggered these emotions?
  • When you were feeling these emotions, what thoughts were going through your head?
  • And so what did you do?
  • How do you think your actions served you, and how do you think they might have gotten in the way of resolving your conflict?
  • If you had to name what you really wanted to happen—your real goal—what would you say?

What stories might be getting in your way?

Once people are able to see their baggage more clearly, they are ready to consider how their stories—about other people involved and about what actually happened—may also need to be reconsidered.   My next goal, then, is to help them become aware of their negative stories, focusing mostly on the person or people on the other side of the conflict.  This work happens through the following questions:

  • When you were/are feeling the strong emotions you have named, what story are you telling yourself about the person/people on the other side of the conflict?
  • What evidence do you have that supports your story?
  • How does your story about this person or people serve you, and how does it get in your way of engaging effectively in this conflict?
  • What other stories might be true about this person/people and their emotions, values and behaviors?

How can you manage your baggage and stories?

Getting to awareness about our baggage and stories tends to be pretty enlightening for most people in conflict because we are least likely to be aware when we are feeling wronged by others.   Awareness alone, however, does not mean we are prepared to effectively engage with others in a conflict.  We also need to deliberately manage our baggage and stories in the moment.

To manage the baggage, I focus people on self-management strategies they can use at the moment they feel emotionally triggered.  Coaching for emotional self-management follows this line of questioning:

  • How can you manage the emotional triggers that are getting in your way right now?
  • What do you need to do for your true goal to be working through this conflict, and what can you do in the moment to hold onto this goal?

Helping people manage their stories is usually the highest impact self-management coaching for people in conflict.  We explore what they need to believe about the other person/group in the conflict to effectively engage them.  I help them build the emotional “muscle” of replacing negative stories with “noble” ones by engaging them in the following exercise:

  • Make a list of the real challenges this person is facing, and the emotions that feel related to this conflict. What can you genuinely empathize with?
  • Write a list of at least five aspects of the other’s noble story that you respect or value. These may include: values they hold; positive shared experiences; behaviors and actions that positively reflect on their character; their real strengths and past successes; the noble intentions that drive their actions

Without fail, after making this list people notice an immediate positive shift in their emotions connected to the other person/people with whom they are in conflict.  I charge them with reading their list before their next engagement and noticing how it impacts how they show up differently to the interaction.   People usually report that they are suddenly able to engage without the negative emotions they have been bringing up to this point, and they are able to listen with real curiosity to other people’s experiences and interpretations of the conflict. This, in turn, prevents escalation, and may even prevent future conflicts from coming up.


When we add rigorous self work to our conflict management coaching, we make it exponentially more likely that our people will effectively access the relationship management strategies they learn in most programs and literature in the field.   When we help people become aware of their emotions and the baggage and stories they trigger, they realize the extent to which they are working from assumptions without evidence.   They become motivated to manage their baggage and revise their stories about others involved in their conflict.

When you self manage effectively, two things happen.  First,  you show up able to listen with curiosity to other perspectives.  Second, you show up reflecting other people’s noble stories back to them.   When we reflect people’s noble stories—their best selves—to them, that’s typically how they will show up. If our goal is truly to resolve conflict, then shouldn’t we be inviting our best selves to the conversation?

Recommended Reading:
Conflict Management: A Primer

In Conflict Management: A Primer, Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and colleagues introduce Emotional Intelligence and explore the many facets of approaching conflict management with skill and positivity.

In a relatively short read, the authors illustrate how to frame conflict as an opportunity rather than a burden, how to maintain bonds despite differing perspectives, and how to blend mindfulness and thoughtful analysis into professional relationships that work.

For more in-depth understanding of emotional and social intelligence in leadership, see the full primer collection or the Crucial Competence video series.