Empower your team through emotional intelligence


Partner, PMProgetti Srl


Leadership is a set of skills that project managers already have inside, but they need to learn how to bring them out. Great leaders know that leadership is based on emotion: through emotions leaders inspire others, because emotions are contagious. With emotions great leaders build and rebuild continuously resonant relationships with stakeholders and with the project team above all, to enable sustainable growth and development. Over 60 years of research have demonstrated that we convince people first by emotional arguments, and then by rational arguments (Boyatzis 2013c).

This article aims at explaining the principles of Emotional Intelligence and the relationship that exists between leadership and Emotional Intelligence. The intention is to help project managers develop leadership skills for:

1.     Understanding themselves and their emotions;

2.     Empowering team members and creating a sustainable team development;

3.     Building resonant leadership with project stakeholders to improve project performances.

The case study

Some time ago I was appointed as project manager for the development and management of a website for a not-for-profit company. This company had decided to remove the previous project manager a few months after the project had started.

The first project manager had already gone through some of the typical project management activities: i.e. preparing the project charter, analyzing the stakeholders, appointing the project team members, preparing the project plan, etc.—everything that is very well explained in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition. As for organizing and developing the project team, the previous project manager had already gone through a series of specific tasks:

•    On-boarding the project team members;

•    Explaining and sharing the project objectives;

•    Building, together with the team, the project plan and establishing a set of ground rules;

•    Involving the team members in nominating the coordinators;

•    Assigning the project tasks;

•    Doing the kick-off meetings; and etc.

The reason why the previous project manager had been removed from the project was because the project had had a very slow and bad start and the company feared its failure. When I started with this project, I noticed that some team members were quite excited about the job they were doing, and they did it with passion. Others really saw the project as not so exciting, and their level of performance was very low (they were actually annoyed by the general situation that the project was suffering). There were many conflicts between some people, and I was informed that a couple team members had suddenly decided to leave the project to get back to their normal operating activities.

I am sure cases like this already happened in many other projects. And in this article I would like to address the following topics: How to revamp (change) a project team in situations like the one explained above; How to transform a “normal team” into a “super team;” How to change the relationship with the stakeholders; And how project managers can develop leadership skills to do that.

I have experienced that leadership and Emotional Intelligence can provide great hints to project managers to deal with these difficult situations. In this article, I want to share some principles of leadership that can be applied to trigger and nurture a sustainable change in the project environment.

What is Emotional Leadership?

An Emotional Intelligence competency is an ability to recognize, understand, and use emotional information about oneself that leads to or causes effective or superior performances (Boyatzis 2009a, p. 757). Emotional Intelligence competencies can be significantly developed in adults and are very different than cognitive intelligence (Dulewicz & Higgs, 2000, pp. 341-372).

Great leaders use Emotional Intelligence competencies when they liaison with other people. To understand better how this happens, for just one moment:

1.  Think of a leader (project manager, team leader, your `boss, a stakeholder, etc.) with whom you have already worked or interacted for some time, one person that really inspired you, one you would work with again. What did he/she say to make you feel in this way? What did he/she do? How did he/she make you feel?

2.  Think of a leader (project manager, team leader, your boss, a stakeholder, etc.) with whom you have already worked or interacted for some time, one person that you did not like, one you would not work with again. What did he/she say to make you feel in this way? What did he/she do? How did he/she make you feel?

In the first category we can group the “great” leaders, which we call “resonant leaders.” In the second category we can group the “bad” leaders, which we call “dissonant leaders.” If you did the exercise above, these are few words that might have come to your mind (see Exhibit 1):

Resonant leader vs. dissonant leader.

Exhibit 1 – Resonant leader vs. dissonant leader.

So, as you have seen, it is not very difficult to recognize what leadership is and what great leaders do; we know already in our heart. Project leaders use Emotional Intelligence to create a special relationship with their stakeholders. We call this relationship resonant leadership, so that people that interact with these leaders feel to be in sync, in tune, on the same wavelength, and this make them feel good. And when this special relationship is created, the stakeholders feel better and the project performances also increase.

It is through the use of Emotional Intelligence competencies that project leaders:

1.    Inspire stakeholders, above all team members, by building a shared vision of the project and giving them hopes and a sense of purpose. They work to align the purpose of the organization with the purpose of the project, and with the purpose of each stakeholder. When this happens, each stakeholder feels to be part of something bigger and important. They feel excited, charged-up;

2.    Care about stakeholders, above all team members, and when this happens, people understand that decisions are made in the best interest of the person, the project, and the organization. Beyond empathy or understanding, they deeply care about their stakeholders;

3.    Are mindful, that is, they appear to be authentic, transparent, genuine, and act with integrity. Project leaders must understand their emotions, because it is through them that they influence others. Integrity is an essential skill for leaders, as in this way they can build trust, which is essential for making people change;

4.    Create and maintain a resonant relationship with their project stakeholders throughout the project.

And when project leaders apply these skills, stakeholders live a positive experience through the project, their performances increase, and the project performances get benefits from these resonant interactions. In the end, emotions last longer than words: when the project is over, after many years, people will not remember what you did, or what you said, but how you made them feel. And this is basically what happened to you in the exercise above.

But not all great managers are great leaders. Research conducted by R. Boyatzis shows that, “very few executives are effective leaders. 70-80% of people in management can be removed from their role and the organization will function more smoothly” (2013c).

Using Emotional Intelligence is fundamental for moving from a command-and-control, hierarchical model of leadership toward a more participative leadership style (Ruderman, Hannum, Leslie, & Steed, 2001, p.7).

But now, let's see how all of this works.

Emotions are contagious

Resonant project leaders are mindful, i.e. they understand their emotions. And on a daily basis they balance their own stress and renewal moments. And they also coach the stakeholders to go through the same process.

Great project leaders know that emotions are contagious. Both positive and negative emotions are contagious. Emotions spread at very fast speeds, often in milliseconds. When a project leader is angry, people around him/her feel also angry. When a project leader is sad, people around him/her feel sad too. And if the project leader feels happy, people around him/her feel happy too. The reason behind this behavior lies in our brain, and “mirror neurons” play an important role in this phenomenon (Boyatzis, 2012b, p. 1).

Clearly, it is essential for a great project leader to understand and recognize his/her own emotions and stay in connection with them, because through these emotions he/she will influence the people around. If the project leader is not emotionally intelligent and mindful (i.e., not aware of his/her feelings), he/she cannot understand how his/her emotions are affecting others, nor can he/she consciously change the impact on others to be more effective.

During a normal working day, people can experience many different emotions, which can be both positive and negative. Negative emotions cause stress, and stress has both negative and positive effects. As a negative effect, stress diminishes the functioning of our immune system and inhibits neurogenesis (the process by which neurons are generated). When we are under stress we aren't not only on top of our performances, but we also experience a degree of cognitive, perceptual, and emotional impairment. This closes off any relationship with others; stymies personal improvement, listening, and valuing the opinions of others; and blocks our creativity. But we need stress: we need stress to wake up in the morning; we need stress to defend ourselves; we need stress to build up our resilience. Stress is fundamental for our survival (Boyatzis 2013c).

Without regular and periodic renewal experiences, chronic stress will make our performance non-sustainable. The only way we have to survive to these stressful moments is to counterbalance them with positive, or renewal moments. We need constant renewal moments, otherwise we would be dead. Renewal results in our body rebuilding itself neurologically, with the possible growth of new neural tissues (neurogenesis) engaging our immune system (becoming healthier) and becoming more open to new ideas, emotions, other people, and new possibilities, learning, adaptation and change. Renewal is fundamental for thriving (Boyatzis 2013c).

What resonant leaders do through Emotional Intelligence is to liaison with stakeholders to foster these renewal moments by provoking experiences of:

1.    Mindfulness - i.e., listening to ourselves, understanding our emotions (the same experiences that we might live for instance through meditation, yoga, prayer, etc.);

2.    Compassion - i.e. feeling loved, feeling cared for by someone (the same experiences that we might have in a loving relationship, or when we have pets, or when we do volunteering activities for helping those less fortunate, etc.);

3.    Hope - i.e. thinking and talking about future dreams, personal or shared;

4.    Playfulness - i.e. laughing and having fun with others.

In general we encounter more negative stressful situations during the day than opportunities for renewal. And the first ones are also more powerful than the second ones. For biological reasons, we remember negative emotions more easily than we do positive ones. Therefore, to be effective in building resonant relationships, project leaders must be ready to create a greater number of renewal situations than negative stressful situations: research says at least in a ratio of 3:1 (Boyatzis 2013c). This number is not constant during the project; particular stress moments (i.e. in stage gates, or during execution) need to be counterbalanced properly.

How to foster sustainable change (in ourselves and others) through Emotional Intelligence

Resonant project leaders foster sustainable change by triggering and nurturing a process of continuous change. This process is often discontinuous and non-linear and goes across many states of stress and renewal. Leaders use Emotional Intelligence to counterbalance the negative states with the positive ones. The process is described in the picture below (see Exhibit 2).

The process to foster sustainable change through Emotional Intelligence.

Exhibit 2 – The process to foster sustainable change through Emotional Intelligence.

1. Understand yourself and your emotions

Listen to yourself: are you in the right state to trigger the process?

Before starting the process, great leaders practice mindfulness. They must understand their own emotions, because it is through them that they will build resonant leadership. Remember that when you are angry, people around you also feel angry. When you are sad, people around you feel sad too. And if you feel happy, people around you feel happy too. Project leaders have to be in a renewal state before they can move other people in the same state. In the end, your emotions will influence the people you interact with.

2. Find the right moment

Before starting the process, beware that also the other person be in the right mood.

When you want to liaison with a person and create a resonant relationship, that person should also be in the proper mood. If this does not happen, it will be more difficult to move this person into a renewal state. So you have to catch the right moment before you interact with a person to create your resonant relationship.

3. Align visions

Understand the company/organization vision and how it aligns with the project vision.

Understand the vision of the organization and develop a vision for your project. Figure out what the core purpose of the organization is and what the core purpose of your project is (if you haven't any, it needs to be defined, usually the project charter is a good starting point). The two core purposes—organization and project—should be aligned to be effective. The organization core purpose is the organization's reason for being. At the same level, the project must have its own core purpose, its own reason for being. When these two purposes are aligned, the project has a reason for being for the organization. Therefore, you must understand what the core purpose of your project is.

4. Coach for discovery

Coach the other person to help him/her develop a personal vision; understand the “ideal” person he/she would like to be. Create a renewal state and work to align the personal vision with the project purpose and the organization purpose.

This is the stage where leaders build resonant relationships by helping someone think about and identify his/her personal vision. In order to achieve that, project leaders may ask the following questions (adapted from Boyatzis 2013c):

1.    If your life was perfect and all your dreams could come true, what would your life and work be like in 5-10 years? Do you see yourself in this company? Why here and where do you see yourself? (This question arouses vision and hope for the future);

2.    If your life was perfect and all your dreams could come true, what would your life and work be in this project? Why here and where do you see yourself in this project? (This question arouses vision and hope for the future);

3.    What are the values that are most important to you? (This question arouses mindfulness);

4.    Who helped you the most become who you are or get to where you are? (This question arouses compassion).

When you ask these questions, you should try to liaison with that person in a warm way. People who are warm and have a good sense of humor are often able to make others feel at ease, relaxed, and comfortable in their presence.

Some people in the first approach might feel reluctant in answering your questions. Explain to them in a transparent way that you are asking these questions in their interest and in the interest of the project and proceed with your interview, but if you see that this person does not change behavior, it might be better to stop the process and try again at another time (you might have chosen the wrong moment).

When you ask the questions, you will move the person in his/her renewal state. You are using your Emotional Intelligence competencies. Try to keep him/her in this state for at least 45 minutes to an hour. In your communication, try to not use sensitive words such as “must,” “have to,” or “should.” These words usually make people feel guilty, and will move them away from their renewal status.

Once you have understood what is really important for this person—how does he/she see himself/herself in his/her ideal future; what are the most important values for him/her—then you should work to align the project purpose and the organization purpose to his/her personal vision. Explain how the purpose of the organization and the project is related with his/her purpose and values. If you are effective at explaining this, you will see a click in his/her face. You have invoked in this person a sense of purpose and now he/she realizes that this project is not only a project but the way to make his/her dreams come true. And he/she will feel also very proud to be part of this organization, which now has acquired a sense of purpose: this person feels like a part of something bigger, and has realized what and where he/she wants to be.

In this process, you help the other person to understand his/her “ideal self”—the person he/she wants to be. The “ideal” state should be clearer now. In the next steps, we will discuss how we can move a person from a “current state” to a desired “future state.”

5. Help to understand the initial state

Coach the other person to let him/her understand his/her current strengths and weaknesses.

Coach the person to understand the “ideal self” and the “current self”—who he/she is now, his/her current strengths and weaknesses. In this process, first invite the person to describe his/her personal view of his/her strengths and weaknesses. Then, you might want to give your contribution, but in this case as the person might feel judged (and switch back from the renewal state to a stressful state) you should give your contribution in a factual way and highlight the fact that is in his/her best interest. Also, prepare that person to accept feedback: after all, it is only through the feedback that we receive from others that we understand if we are moving in a certain direction.

Some indicators that may be used to value the quality of this interaction is the capability of the person to envision the “ideal state”; the capability of the person to understand the “current state”; and the quality of the relationship (level of empathy, willingness of the person to do more coaching).

6. Help the person define a learning agenda

Coach the other person to let him/her define how to exploit his/her strengths and overcome his/her weaknesses.

Starting from the weaknesses; help the other person define a set of actions to bridge them to get to the “ideal state.” Likewise, help the other person define a set of actions that exploit the strengths to get to the “ideal state.” Invite the person to maintain a kind of agenda where all these actions are documented. The same agenda can be used to record any information relevant during the execution of the actions.

7. Let him/her experiment improvements

Invite this person to experiment with the actions defined in the agenda.

Invite the person to execute the actions defined in his/her learning agenda. It is important to know that during the execution of these actions, the person will experience many stressful moments. But you know how to deal with them: you need to create complementary renewal states by using your Emotional Intelligence competencies.

The map of our relationships

We all live an intense life and have many relationships. Some of them are very important, others are less important. For example, this is a “partial” map of my own relationships (see Exhibit 3):

The author's (partial) map of relationships.

Exhibit 3 – The author's (partial) map of relationships.

These maps make us understand the relationship that each of us is experiencing, and it helps to analyze if it is a resonant or dissonant relationship. If it is an important relationship, then we should work to make it resonant through the process above described. If it is not so important then we might let it go.

Final Words

In this article I have explained very briefly what Emotional Intelligence skills are and how project managers can use these skills to trigger and foster sustainable change. Through Emotional Intelligence, project managers can develop leadership skills to create “resonant relationships” with the project stakeholders, and when this happens, the project performances increase. Emotional Intelligence competencies are used to move people from a stressful state to a renewal state. To foster and nurture a sustainable change in the project, project leaders should: understand themselves and their emotions; find the right moment to trigger the process; align the organization's purpose with the project's purpose and with each team member's purpose; coach for discovery; help to understand the initial state; help the person define a learning agenda; let the other person experiment improvements. Sometimes it is very important to map our relationships to discover which ones are important and need to be improved by using the Emotional Intelligence competencies.

Boyatzis, R. (2009a). Competencies as a behavioral approach to emotional intelligence. Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio. Guest Editorial.

Boyatzis, R. (2012b). Neuroscience and the link between inspirational leadership and resonant leadership. Ivey Business Journal.

Boyatzis, R (2013c). What is great leadership. Inspiring leadership through emotional intelligence. Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH. Retrieved from https://www.coursera.org/#course/lead-ei.

Dulewicz, V., & Higgs, M. (2000). Emotional intelligence: A review and evaluation study. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 15(4), 341-372.

Project Management Institute (2013). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Ruderman, M. N., Hannum K., Leslie, J.B., & Steed, J.L. (2001). Leadership skills and emotional intelligence. LIA, 21(5)

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2014, Michele Maritato
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Dubai, UAE



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