The Role of Emotional Intelligence in Change Leadership

The Role of Emotional Intelligence in Change Leadership

GUEST POST from Chateau G Pato

One oft-overlooked aspect of successful change leadership is emotional intelligence (EI). Emotional Intelligence is the ability to recognize, understand, and manage our emotions while also relating to the feelings of others. Change leadership entails guiding, influencing, and facilitating processes of transition within an organization. Combining the two concepts, we can postulate that EI is fundamental in directing the human side of change management in a seamless, effective manner.

First, we explore the concept of Emotional Intelligence, epitomized by four key competencies, according to Daniel Goleman:

1. Self-awareness: Understanding your own emotions, strengths, weaknesses, drives, and values.

2. Self-management: Controlling disruptive emotions and impulses and adapting to changing circumstances.

3. Social Awareness: Sensing, understanding, and empathizing with others’ emotional needs and concerns.

4. Relationship Management: Managing other’s emotions in social interactions.

These areas are critical in managing change, primarily because change evokes emotions. Leaders need to understand their emotions concerning the impending change, help team members identify and navigate theirs, create an environment that encourages open discussion of feelings and anxieties, and manage the ongoing relationships and possible conflicts that change can bring.

Case Study 1: Microsoft’s Culture Shift

Microsoft has showcased its journey towards becoming an emotionally intelligent organization. After Satya Nadella took over as CEO, he initiated a cultural shift, transforming from a “know-it-all” to a “learn-it-all” organization. Nadella recognized the need for colleague empathy and growth mindset as catalysts for organizational change and innovation.

This shift required Nadella to comprehend his own strengths and vulnerabilities honestly. There was a need for self-management to remain flexible, take risks, and drive the transformation. He also emphasized being socially aware, fostering collaboration instead of confrontations, and constantly ensuring effective relationship management. Today, we see a different Microsoft that is consistently innovating and growing, proving that EI is crucial in leading successful organizational change.

Case Study 2: The Turnaround at Volkswagen

In contrast, Volkswagen provides us with a sobering lesson. Following the 2015 emissions scandal, then-CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned, paving the way for Matthias Müller’s term. However, Müller couldn’t properly connect with the workforce’s emotional state post-crisis. The change communication was largely focused on processes and numbers, not the feelings and morale of the staff affected.

If Müller had employed higher emotional intelligence, sensing the feelings of betrayal and disappointment in his team, he might have crafted a more empathetic communication strategy that addressed emotional tensions, encouraging trust and loyalty. The missed opportunity resulted in further turmoil in the company’s reputation and stability.


Leaders should recognize the importance of EI in their role. Not only in times of change but as a consistent practice. Emotionally intelligent leaders see higher engagement, collaboration, and adaptability within their teams, helping navigate the waters of change with far more ease.

In a dynamically changing business environment, understanding and leveraging Emotional Intelligence is not just a soft-skill add-on. It is a crucial competence that ensures change leaders can effectively manage their teams, foresee potential obstacles in the transformation process, and, ultimately, achieve long-lasting, successful change.

SPECIAL BONUS: The very best change planners use a visual, collaborative approach to create their deliverables. A methodology and tools like those in Change Planning Toolkit™ can empower anyone to become great change planners themselves.

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