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Cultivating Emotional Intelligence in New Managers


Mon Oct 03 2016

Cultivating Emotional Intelligence in New Managers

Transitioning from a role as an individual contributor to a frontline, or people, manager can be tough. This transition becomes even more complicated when the employee comes from a role in which hard skills are emphasized and rewarded, such as an engineer or a software developer. There are many reasons this new manager role is difficult for those who previously held jobs in hard-skills areas, but one of the biggest has to do with emotional intelligence, or EQ. Put simply, EQ entails recognizing your own and others’ emotions and using emotional information to guide your behavior and thinking. 

When people transition from hard-skills jobs to managing other people, they may find it challenging because they are dealing with more emotion. They no longer have to address only their own emotions; they must consider the emotions of their team as well. There are a plethora of potentially emotional situations for a manager, such as negotiating a conflict between two direct reports, giving feedback to an employee who chronically underperforms, and even letting someone go. All of these situations require an emotionally intelligent manager. 


Therefore, it’s not surprising that for those with jobs requiring attention to emotion, higher EQ means better performance. The same, however, cannot be said for those with jobs that do not require attention to emotion, such as those who are individual contributors in hard-skills areas. Instead, higher EQ means poor job performance. According to Adam Grant, this could be because employees working in hard-skills areas “were paying attention to emotions when they should have been focusing on their tasks.” 

To put this research into context, consider the reason for promoting an individual contributor in a hard-skills job to the position of people manager: It’s likely because she is really good at her current job, not because she has what it takes to be a good manager. Being good at her job before the promotion likely means that she has lower EQ; now that she is a manager, she’ll need higher EQ to get the best results from her team and move the business forward. 

So how can talent development professionals assist new managers who are struggling with the transition?  

Help managers determine their strengths and weaknesses. After an employee has been promoted, talent development professionals should encourage him to determine his strengths and weaknesses in managing and working with others. Marielena Sabatier suggests asking others for their feedback about the employee’s behavior. Direct reports and other colleagues can be an effective mirror when a manager wants to improve his emotional intelligence. 

Connect new managers with a mentor. It’s always a good idea to pair up a new manager with a mentor within the organization, regardless of the skills that need to be improved. In the case of emotional intelligence, a mentor should be able to exemplify high EQ to serve as a role model for the manager. A mentor with considerable management experience can also offer advice on how to handle emotionally charged situations better in the future.  


Encourage managers to acknowledge others’ feelings. Travis Bradberry, coauthor of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, explains that “lingering emotions inhibit effective action.” Therefore, it’s important for managers to observe and acknowledge employees’ emotions to keep things moving forward. Bradberry suggests asking employees about the emotion they noticed, and summarize to the person what they said.  

No matter the exact steps taken, it’s important for those in talent development to broach the topic of emotional intelligence with those in management positions, particularly when they are transitioning from positions that focused on hard skills. It’s essential for managers to be high in emotional intelligence; otherwise, their teams will suffer.

For more tips from the ATD Research team, visit us here.

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