5 things emotionally intelligent managers do differently

Future successful managers will be described not as efficient or agile, but as something less expected: emotional. By this, I mean these managers will show more empathy toward workers and their needs, both inside and outside the office setting.

As attrition and burnout continue to climb, it’s clear that employees won’t hesitate to quit their jobs in search of healthier work environments. In recent surveys, 7 out of 10 employees said they would be willing to leave their current role for one that better supports their well-being.

Managers play a crucial role in whether or not an employee feels supported. And while a lot has been written about larger gestures that help teams combat burnout⁠ (for instance, offering an extra week of vacation or sponsoring online therapy services⁠) employee well-being is equally shaped by moments that might seem much smaller at first glance.

If a manager constantly vents to their team, sends anxiety-inducing emails at all hours of the day, or offers only vague feedback that leaves their reports in the dark about what exactly it is they need to improve—a few days of vacation likely won’t make them feel much better.

In other words, top managers prioritize emotional intelligence. They understand the impact a brusque comment can have on their team, take the time to acknowledge and regulate their own emotions, and work hard to prevent their bad day from turning into a horrible week for their team.

Here are five things emotionally intelligent managers do differently.

Practice “selective vulnerability”

As a manager, your role is to walk a fine line between sharing, a trust-building exercise, and oversharing, a trust-destroying habit. Becoming a “feelings fire hose” by revealing too much can undermine your authority and destabilize your team. So, if you’re the leader, avoid blurting out statements like, “I’m so stressed out and have no idea how to handle this,” which certainly won’t inspire confidence in your team.

So how can you open up without burdening your people? By practicing “selective vulnerability, ” or flagging your feelings, without becoming emotionally leaky, and then providing a path forward. A good formula to follow is something along the lines of: “I’m feeling _____ because of _____. But here’s what I’m planning to do next to make it better: _____. And here’s what I need from you: _____. ”

For example, you might say, “I know we’ve all been working hard to hit the big deadline. I’m really feeling the long hours we’re pulling, and I’m sure you are, too. Let’s each go through what we have left to do, see where we can help each other out, and then try to clear a couple of nonurgent meetings off our calendars to give ourselves some more heads-down time.”

Emotionally proofread writing

Miscommunication is much more likely when you’re not face-to-face with your reports, partly because we all suffer from what researchers call a “negativity bias”; in other words, if what’s written has an intended positive tone or impact, we perceive it as neutral. And if it’s neutral (think “sure” or “OK”), we view it as negative.

So the next time you’re about to send one of your reports a message, pause to emotionally proofread what you wrote by putting yourself in the recipient’s shoes. Don’t fire off a note at 9 p.m. that says, “Let’s talk tomorrow,” when you mean, “Your slides look great overall, but I have a couple of small comments I’d love to talk through tomorrow.”

When reviewing these two examples, the first message has a good chance of leaving someone panicked and sleepless, while the second message is much less stressful.

Play chess not checkers

Your team members will work at their best if you invest in understanding each individual’s unique talents and areas for improvement, and then assign tasks accordingly. You’ll also have a better chance of holding onto top talent. To support this, people who feel that their work utilizes their personal skills are seven times less likely to leave their organization.

Spending time getting to know your reports as individuals is also one of the best ways to prevent burnout within your team. Recent research from my HR organization shows that one of the top challenges for managers in 2021 was understanding where their people needed support. In your one-on-ones, ask your reports the following questions, and then take action on what they tell you:

  • What one thing can I do to better support you this week?
  • What kind of flexibility do you need right now?
  • How does your workload feel right now? Where can I help?
  • What projects have you enjoyed most over the past month?

Understand your emotional expression tendency

Are you an “open book?” Or are you more hard to read? When it comes to how comfortable we are expressing emotion, we each sit somewhere along a spectrum. On one end are what I call, “over-emoters,” or people who feel things strongly and express them visibly and verbally. On the other end are “under-emoters,” so people who don’t feel as intensely and rarely display emotion. Neither is good or bad, but it’s useful to be aware of where on the spectrum you sit so you can adjust your behavior in certain situations.

For example, perhaps one of your managers, Erik, is an “over-emoter.” He might have a tendency to let a bad day sour his interactions with his reports. On the other hand, Christina, an “under-emoter,” might show so little excitement about a job well done that her team feels underappreciated.

Great managers acknowledge their tendencies and make small changes to act like “even-emoters.” Erik might take a moment before joining a video call to ensure his frazzled morning doesn’t ruin his weekly team meeting, while Christina might make an effort to express more praise and gratitude than feels comfortable.

Frame feedback as bridging the gap

Employees who don’t perceive that they have growth opportunities are a stunning eight times more eager to leave their company. That means it’s more important than ever to give your people the feedback they need to improve—and eventually get promoted. But unstructured, half-baked feedback can be more hurtful than helpful.

Instead of simply offering advice (or worse, criticism), suggest a different way of doing things and explain how it will benefit the person. An easy step to remember is to frame feedback as bridging the gap: Identify where you want the other person to be, give them clear advice on how to get there, and—most importantly—emphasize that you believe they have the ability to bridge that gap. Your people will be much more receptive to hearing what they need to improve if you first say this: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations of you, and I’m confident you can reach them.”

While these might seem like small steps, they can make a world of difference in how your people feel at work. The pandemic has already made work and life stressful enough. It’s your job as a manager to ensure that you’re not piling additional, unnecessary anxiety onto your people.


Liz Fosslien is the head of content at Humu, a human resources company, and the coauthor and illustrator of the Wall Street Journal best-seller No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work. As an expert on how to make work better, Liz has spoken about how employees can better invest in their well-being at organizations including Adidas, JP Morgan, and Google.