Agile and Emotional Intelligence: Inextricably Linked

Agile approaches are inherently people focused. But how do you translate that big idea into practical actions that enhance the performance of your teams and the success of your projects? For that, you may need to up your emotional intelligence or EQ. In this post, Mike Griffiths explains what that means and why it’s important.

Written by Mike Griffiths • 19 May 2023


As an agile team leader, I’m always searching for leverage points. It’s a term borrowed from systems science and refers to places in a complex system where a small input results in a magnified output.

In project management, we can target many leverage points to enhance project success. Improvements in planning, estimating, and scheduling, for example, may yield incremental gains in performance. However, if you’re looking for outsized impact approaching 10X improvements, you’ll need to turn to something far more potent – power skills.


Power skills now make up what was formerly the “Leadership” side of the PMI Talent Triangle®. This is in recognition that power skills – the combination of emotional intelligence and leadership – are just as critical as ways of working and business acumen in achieving project success.

Emotional intelligence – sometimes called EQ for emotional intelligence quotient – is the psychology of understanding ourselves and others. When I first came across the term as a young project professional, it seemed nebulous and unstructured, at least compared with the logical processes I enjoyed – things like planning, budgeting, and assessing risks.

As I got older, however, I began to understand that the people elements of a project are more critical and rewarding than the technical elements.

Emotional intelligence is a topic that cannot be taught but can be learned. By this, I mean if you try to “push” the ideas, they come across as a collection of common-sense concepts that are difficult to apply. Yet, when people actively seek how to improve their performance with others in more of a “pull” model, they find better relevance and value in the ideas. So, it is a topic that likely suits self-study and reflection more than mandated training.

There’s also an inherent connection between emotional intelligence and agility. Indeed, the first value of the Agile Manifesto is “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” This agile value emphasizes the importance of people and collaboration.

When you think about it, “Individuals and Interactions” is a great summary of the whole field of emotional intelligence. It covers the need to recognize and regulate an understanding of ourselves and then recognize and influence our interactions with others. I see agile and emotional intelligence as intertwined and stemming from the same roots in neuroscience. Indeed, I don’t think we can be effective in agile leadership without emotional intelligence.

I was lucky in my career to work with some great project leaders who instinctively understood this connection – leaders whose dealings with people seemed effortless. Intrigued, I watched how they interacted with others and tried to copy what they did. When I finally discovered EQ, it gave me a whole new vocabulary for the problems I faced and for the actions these high performers were using. I was excited, and my knowledge and success with my teams took off. EQ was my new rocket fuel for project success.

Not that my role models were in any way flashy. They weren’t attention-seeking or even very charismatic. They were just good people who listened, took an interest in others, and were open to new ideas. When I asked them about EQ, they weren’t even aware of the term. Their approach to EQ had just evolved from how they worked over more than 30 years.

So, where do you start if you want to incorporate greater emotional intelligence into your leadership style? The model below may help. As you see, it’s broken into four quadrants. The left column deals with yourself. The lower half involves being aware of how you feel and what motivates you. The upper half addresses how you act or regulate yourself based on this awareness.


The right side follows a similar pattern but concerning the people you interact with. The lower half deals with empathy – understanding how other people think and feel. The upper half focuses on the social skills required to work effectively with them.

We use all four quadrants simultaneously in our work, but we tend to develop them in a sequence from left to right, bottom to top. So, becoming aware of our emotions allows us to regulate those emotions more effectively. That, in turn, provides the space to begin understanding what others are feeling and then use that understanding to develop more effective strategies for interacting with them.

Each of the quadrants, of course, has a framework – a set of tools and techniques – behind them.

You can read my series of articles on EQ for visual learners that was extracted from PM Illustrated to help guide your work.

Here are some tips for getting started:

  • Understand what motivates and demotivates you. This covers topics such as optimism, initiative, commitment and drive. It explains the mindset of setting your mind on something and then pursuing it positively, knowing there will be challenges, but you can overcome them.    
    Work on your self-awareness. This involves not only recognizing and naming your feelings as they occur but also understanding how your emotions affect your behavior and actions. Being self-aware allows you to recognize and use the gap between stimulus and response – to select the best action in a given situation.
  • Extend self-awareness to self-regulation. Cultivate an ability to remain calm under pressure and to stay focused on goals even amid changing events and stressful environments. Self-regulation also has a moral component and involves establishing a reputation for honesty and trustworthiness.
  • Build empathy through active listening. Take to heart the words and emotions that are being conveyed and sometimes omitted by the person you’re talking with. We need to get into the speaker’s mind and understand his or her thoughts and emotions. You’ll then be better able to evaluate their behavior and adjust your approach in responding to them.
  • Cultivate strong social skills. This includes communicating and connecting, team building and collaboration, and leadership and influence. You may also need to overcome resistance to change and settle differences among team members. So, you’ll want to brush up on your skills as an advocate for change and as a conflict manager – or a “conflict wrangler,” as I like to say.

None of this is easy. Dealing with people is inherently complex and, yes, messy. At times, we can all be overwrought, erratic, and unpredictable. But learning to deal effectively with people is never a wasted effort. It will consistently deliver returns far more significant than just about anything else we can do.

So, pay attention to how your team operates and think about how you can use emotional intelligence to improve performance and make your team’s work together more fulfilling. See what works and what doesn’t. It’s important to try things multiple times and recognize that people are complex.

The good news is that using emotional intelligence works most of the time, and that’s good enough for me. My analytical brain wants to pick apart every misfire, but there are too many hidden variables in working with others. So, now my mantra is “spread more good than harm,” try to improve every day, but also to let things go when I fall short and to keep moving forward.

The other good news is that we can continue to develop our emotional intelligence throughout our careers. The old saying, “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago,” applies to developing your EQ. I wish I had started 20 years earlier, but, failing that, the next best time is today.


Mike Griffiths
Agile Thought Leader | PMI

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