Women in Leadership: Emotional Intelligence Competencies

By Roberta Attanasio, Forever Leaders Editor

The concept of Emotional Intelligence was first formulated by two researchers—Peter Salavoy and John Mayer—in an article published in 1990. It was later popularized by Daniel Goleman in his 1995 book (Emotional Intelligence:  Why it can matter more than IQ.) Since then, the concept has been widely embraced by educators within programs in “social and emotional learning.” Social and emotional learning is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.


Photo credit: William Warby, CC BY 2.0

Emotional intelligence—a set of competencies that distinguishes how people manage feelings, interact, and communicate—has also been embraced in the world of business, particularly in the areas of leadership and employee development. The Harvard Business Review has defined emotional intelligence as “a ground-breaking, paradigm-shattering idea” and “one of the most influential business ideas of the decade.” Because leaders who get the best results tend to show more strengths in emotional intelligence key competencies, companies worldwide routinely look through the lens of emotional intelligence in hiring, promoting, and developing their employees.

According to a new study, women consistently score higher than men on nearly all emotional intelligence competencies, except emotional self-control, where no gender differences are observed. Emotional self-awareness accounts for the largest difference.

The study, which was released last month (March 2016) by the Hay Group division of Korn Ferry, is based on data collected between 2011-2015 from 55,000 professionals across 90 countries and all levels of management. For the study, the researchers used the well-validated Emotional and Social Competency Inventory, a unique online survey tool which measures 12 emotional and social intelligence competencies proven to impact business performance: achievement orientation, adaptability, coaching and mentoring, conflict management, empathy, emotional self-awareness, inspirational leadership, influence, organizational awareness, positive outlook, teamwork and emotional self-control. The tool was co-developed by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and the Hay Group.

Boyatzis said in the Korn Ferry press release: “Historically in the workplace, there has been a tendency for women to self-evaluate themselves as less competent, while men tend to overrate themselves in their competencies. Research shows, however, that the reality is often the opposite. If more men acted like women in employing their emotional and social competencies, they would be substantially and distinctly more effective in their work.”

Specifically, the study found that:

  • The greatest difference between men and women can be seen in emotional self-awareness, where women are 86% more likely than men to be seen as using the competency consistently.
  • Women are 45% more likely than men to be seen as demonstrating empathy consistently.
  • The smallest margin of difference is seen in positive outlook. When it comes to this emotional intelligence competency, women are only 9% more likely to exhibit the competency consistently than men.
  • Other competencies in which women outperform men are coaching & mentoring, influence, inspirational leadership, conflict management, organizational awareness, adaptability, teamwork and achievement orientation.
  • Emotional self-control is the only competency in which men and women showed equal performance.

Goleman said in the Korn-Ferry press release: “The data suggests a strong need for more women in the workforce to take on leadership roles. When you factor in the correlation between high emotional intelligence and those leaders who deliver better business results, there is a strong case for gender equity. Organizations must find ways to identify women who score highly on these competencies and empower them.”

However, when Victor Lipman asked the study’s authors whether or not women are better suited for management than men, the response was: “Regardless of gender, our data shows that the most effective leaders within organizations are those who are able to demonstrate emotional and social intelligence. Whether remaining calm during times of turbulence, inspiring and building team consensus, or serving as an empathetic mentor and coach to nurture the next generation of professionals, leaders who tap into their social and emotional intelligence competencies make for highly effective managers.”

Copyright © 2016-2018 Forever Leaders.


  1. It’s wonderful that emotional intelligence is being studied! Women are often labeled as ’emotional’, but I think it is seen in the wrong light. Being emotional can be a strength and a weakness like every other quality. This strength of sensitivity comes in attempting to understand others through empathy, judging situations and scenarios that need someone to appeal to all sides. I believe that the corporate power often comes in power and dominance, which leads to tense situations, misunderstanding, and power plays. Through the knowledge that women have socially acquired, we add a huge missing piece to figuring out and sorting through problems, which is emotional understanding. Women can assist greatly in mulling through these situations as long as we use this ability to our strength, without too much judgement. Men also have emotional intelligence, but I believe that women are helping to create a world where both genders feel the ability to show this strength and how it can be used for the better, rather than casting the term ’emotional’ aside as though it were a mental defect.

  2. In “Lean In,” Sheryl Sandberg mentioned that while women extending kindness is taken for granted, men extending kindness is re-payed as a way of showing gratitude. She implied how women who are kind are looked down upon or seen as weak. It is truly sad how the same qualities which makes a man admirable are seen as selfish or weak in a woman. However, this article shows that it is because of these qualities that women tend to be more competent when it comes to emotional intelligence. It can be assumed that while men focus on the logical side to things, women try to incorporate the people’s feelings(although not all men or women do this). I am a people-pleaser; asides from this being right or wrong, I believe that trying to please people has helped me in some ways. Along with the fact that I’m introverted, I always am cautious to what other people are thinking or believe, and I tried to make decisions which would make majority of the group satisfied. Although I rarely voiced my own opinions, I knew that leaders did not make decisions which benefited themselves but ones that benefited the majority of the followers; I know it is wrong to try to please everyone, but it has shaped me in that I always take on not just the logic but the emotional aspects of people and incorporate them when making judgments or decisions.

  3. Many studies have shown that women are viewed as having the tendency to be more emotional than men, and this perception harms many women as they try to achieve leadership roles in the workforce. However, after reading this article, I think that more emphasis should be put not on whether a women has the tendency to be emotional, but how her ability to handle those emotions has equipped her to handle and be empathetic to the emotions of her peers and subordinates if she is in a leadership role. Having women in leadership positions who have strong emotional intelligence capabilities could benefit not only the individuals that they have direct contact with, but also have a much larger impact if those women are encouraged to share and teach emotional intelligence characteristics, such as empathy, better communication skills, and management of the emotions and feelings of others, to mentees and other leaders. In addition to helping women with emotional intelligence gain leadership positions, as a society I believe that we should also seek to understand why women inherently have such high emotional intelligence and aim to implement emotional intelligence in men as well. It seems that the emotional intelligence is not only useful in the professional world, but it also encompasses capabilities that could be utilized in many sectors of society. Due to this fact and the recognition that women exhibit high level of emotional intelligence, women should be encouraged and aided in achieving influential and leadership positions in as many areas of society and the professional world as possible.

  4. I never knew that something as emotional intelligence. I feel as if in the work place women feel that they need to put their emotions aside so they won’t be seen as vulnerable. Reading this blog kind of reminded me that its okay to have emotions and that being able to relate to other people and be considerate can make you a better leader. I need to look within and see how my own emotional intelligence can help me to become a better leader.

  5. From my experience working in the”real world” I have seen many women in leadership positions. I do not think it is odd or uncommon to see a woman in a leadership position. After reading this blog post on emotional intelligence I began to think back on the women I have known in leadership positions. I believe the key to their success is that they were able to effectively use their emotional intelligence. They did not apply it to every situation, but they applied it to the right situation. I had one female manager who was as sweet as pie, but she could not control her emotions. Everything got under her skin and made her vulnerable. She ended up quitting because she could not take it any longer. If I could go back I would have loved to show her this article and get her to see that emotion is a great skill if used in a strategic way.

  6. When I was a student in high school, we were required to take a course called the Theory of Knowledge. In this course, our professor required us to take the Emotional Intelligence exam to show us how much more important our EI was in comparison to our IQ. While many people may have high IQ numbers, that does not necessarily mean they are best for the job as being a leader. In order to be a leader, one must be able to not only read other people by their expressions and actions, but also be able to react properly to change the situation from a negative one to a positive one. If a leader is unable to detect negative expressions from a potential buyer/partner, they may lose out on a great opportunity for either a business deal or an alliance between companies.
    While men may have more confidence than women, their confidences may lead them to have too much pride and thus be unable to notice these emotional signals from others, affecting their ability to become a leader. If they are too confident to understand when others are upset or angered, then they may be unable to fix the situation and thus cause a deal to fall through or a good employee to quit.
    While people may think women are “too emotional” to be effective leaders, this data shows that men may not be emotional enough because of the lack of ability to notice emotions in others. Scientists have stated that the greatest leaders are those with emotional and social intelligence, which shows that women are much better at leading than people may believe.

  7. This post sheds such an important light on the fact that women are very much needed in the workplace — especially in positions of leadership! Exemplifying emotional awareness, especially of those around you, is a skill that every leader should possess. As Kelsi mentioned, women are socially conditioned to be more in touch with their emotions. Moreover, as a culture, we not only teach our daughters to be emotionally aware, but we expect it from them as well. If girls are “too tough” or “hurt someone’s feelings,” they will be, in sociological terms, negatively sanctioned for their behavior. Likewise, young girls and women will be positively sanctioned for abiding by the ideals that we instill in them. So, if we are abiding by what society clearly expects from us as women, why are we still being punished for abiding by the “rules?”
    The fact that women have emotional intelligence should be glorified, not looked down upon. By understanding and responding to the emotions of those around you in the workplace, often times comfort can be provided, greater levels of listening and understanding can take place, and encouragement can be provided for those who may need it at the time. While it is true that there are times when looking at what is best for the company as a stand-alone entity is necessary, it is important to bear in mind that what is often best for the company lies in the hands of employees who feel heard, understood, and important; the best way to accomplish this is to tap into what those around you are experiencing. As this blog quotes from Boyatzis, “If more men acted like women in employing their emotional and social competencies, they would be substantially and distinctly more effective in their work.”

  8. Alexandria I do remember that chapter in the book and have personally witnessed that myself. Women do feel like they have to be men to get the position and combat all competition. I ask myself, what is the best way to counteract this? If I were in a leadership position on the job I would not be ashamed to radiate my feminine energy. There is nothing wrong with it and if it makes a man feel a certain way, then that is on him and his insecurities. I can do the best I can to empower those around me that work hard and that are talented, whether man or women.

  9. Reading this article makes me wonder if women’s higher social-emotional skills are related to the socialization of young girls. At a young age girls are encouraged to play house, nurse, teacher, and the like while boys are encouraged to play “cops and robbers”, football, with cars and trucks. If girls are conditioned to be more nurturing than men, then it makes complete sense that we consistently score higher in the social-emotional range.

    • Kelsi, your comment is most definitely an interesting thought. I have discussed this many times and wondered the same thing. Expectations placed on genders due to societal norms tend to have a lasting effect on the physchological way people develop and interact with one another. I absolutely agree with you that if girls are encouraged to be more nurturing, they will have a higher emotional and social intelligence. As a manager or leader, it is imperative for the individual to be able to discern the current situation and effectively facilitate the situation.

  10. So many times society will reinforce this belief that being emotional is correlated to being weak. Therefore, women are weak, because many times we are recognized as being more emotional. Before I read this article I started to learn on my own that being emotional is a strength. It is something that I started to embrace. Because I am emotional, I am able to empathize with others and the emotions they may experience. You are always able to relate to someone more when you can identify with their emotions. I really love the results of this study. I am excited that emotional competency is a strength in the workplace. The results of this study encourage me to pursue leadership positions in the workplace and be proud that I am an emotional woman who is competent.

    • It is never a bad thing for a person to show emotion. For women to be able to show emotion, it simply means they have the power to acknowledge the presence of the emotions and rather than letting their feelings control them, they face them directly by expressing these emotions. This is I believe is one of the best attributes of a good leader. Having emotions means you care about what it is you do and that you are able to empathize with your colleagues. I completely agree with your statement about how you are able to relate well with others as a result of being able to identify with their emotions. An emotion, to me is a source of power, because your emotions can push you to become a better person and mold someone into a great leader. This article gives me hope because it shows that women strengths are been recognized and sooner or later, their leadership strategies will become widely known and accepted.

  11. All I could think about after reading this article was how another study proved the importance of having women in leadership roles. I am truly puzzled why women have such a difficult time moving up in the ranks, when there is tons of evidence that shows the benefits of having women hold leadership positions. One of the links embedded in the article gave examples of other studies completed about women in leadership roles. For example, women outscored men in engaging their employees and increased women in leadership roles was linked to increased profitability. Based on the evidence, there is absolutely no reason women should back down from opportunities to take leadership positions. Unfortunately, our society has created a negative connotation of women leaders. No, not every single woman is going to be an amazing leader, but more often than not there are women who would make excellent leaders. Personally, I am going to work on better some of the characteristics that make women great leaders. What you going to do to better a leader? What are you already doing that makes you a great leader?

    • As author Sheryl Sandberg discussed in her book, it is common for some women who already hold leadership positions to operate out of character. In order to gain the respect of their co-workers, they may feel the need to act more masculinely and to belittle other women in the workforce who are seen as their competition. This is often a result of years of experiencing gender bias that causes women to unintentionally continue the bias themselves. Thus, women who would score higher in emotional and social competency may not display it in their behavior at work, causing them to not fully operate according to their leadership potential. To make myself a better leader, I will find a balance between being quiet to keep the peace and speaking up issues that I see. I am currently leading by example, which helps make me a great leader.

    • This post really made me think about all of the women leaders I know and their level of emotional intelligence. It also made me think about my emotional intelligence and what I need to work on. I am a very emotional person and care about others. I am also a very positive person and can help others start to become an optimistic thinker. I love helping people reach their full potential and achieve their goals. I know that I need to work on being more assertive with my opinions and say what I am feeling if it affects something important. I also need to not take everything personally. I know that sometimes people may not agree with what you do or what you believe, so reminding myself of this will help me get over this obstacle. I think it is good to be emotional in the workplace because it will cause people to be concerned about how others are doing and not just wanting the work to get done.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *