Improving emotional intelligence is one of the most important things any business leader can do.

In my ebook, Improving Emotional Intelligence 2021: How to Get What You Want in Business and in Life, I talk about strategies to accomplish just that, often by paying attention to very subtle differences in language. (You can download a free copy here.)

It's probably easier to understand with examples. So, let's go through a series of three, quick word-selection explorations. I think they'll demonstrate how great leaders can use strategies involving emotionally intelligent language to motivate teams and achieve business goals. 

1.    "You're here because you're amazing."

Let's start with this phrase, which comes from an unlikely source: Bill Gates, who probably doesn't register high on most lists of business leaders who are known for their emotional intelligence. 

But I think that's wrong. In an interview on Dax Shepard's podcast last year, Gates explained how he chose his words carefully as CEO, to inspire specific, emotional reactions among team members. Here's what he said:

"In the business I was in, every day counted. We had to see what we were doing wrong. So we said, hey, this is not for everyone, to sit here and work these hours, and be this tough on each other. The reason you're here is because you're amazing."

I know Gates is summarizing his own words here, more than 20 years later, but it's striking to me how his phrasing at the end hits two emotions at the same time: ambition and pride.

The power of this language makes even more sense when you compare it to other messages a boss might impart instead, when trying to get his team to work long hours:

  • "This work is important, and we need to meet a big deadline."
  • "If we achieve this goal, the rewards will come. We'll all be rich."
  • "We have an opportunity to leave our mark on the world, and improve things for generations to come."

Any of these might work in certain situations. But you see the difference. None of them harnesses the emotional power of ambition and pride as effectively as the words Gates chose.

It wasn't about being kind, or making people feel happy. Emotional intelligence here was about mastering emotions in a way that enabled Gates, and his team--and Microsoft writ large--to achieve big goals. 

2.    "If there were a problem, what would it be?"

I once interviewed an entrepreneur whose business had grown from a tiny startup (launched in a walk-in closet in his apartment), to become a very profitable Internet company with hundreds of employees.

As the company grew, he found himself leading much larger teams than he ever had before, so he hired an executive coach. The coach taught him that if he wanted really good information from his employees -- especially more junior employees -- he'd have to ask for it three times.

Here's an intentionally generic example of how it might work:

  • Boss's first question: "How's everything going?"
  • Boss's second question: "What are the things that are getting in the way?"
  • Boss's third question: "OK, but if there were a problem, what would it be?"

Why ask progressively, three times like this? Because the odds are pretty good that even if there is a problem to report, a junior employee confronted by the CEO won't do so.

He or she might instead say something like: "Things are great, thanks for asking. I'm thankful for the opportunity to work here."

Not everyone of course, but enough to make this an issue. Why? Because of natural, human, emotional reactions. The junior employee isn't duplicitous, but he or she might not feel empowered to speak up to the boss.

That's why you ask the same question repeatedly: to get past the emotions, and the assumptions, and the power imbalance, and give the junior employee implicit permission to speak up.

It's an emotionally intelligent way to interact. It provides the junior employee with the support he or she needs to provide good information. But remember: It's not just about being a nice person. While the kindness and positive experience are great, it's really about using emotionally intelligent phrases to achieve business goals. 

3.    "Here's the situation."

For decades, as he built Walmart into what became world's largest employer and the largest company by revenue on the planet, Sam Walton held a weekly, mandatory, in-person, Saturday morning meeting for all of his top executives.

Before we go on: Don't try this in your business. It was a different time, technology was different, work-life balance was a concept of the future. Even Walmart doesn't do this the same way anymore.

But that doesn't mean you can't steal the best part Walton's weekly event, which was known simply as the Saturday Morning Meeting.

One small way to do just that has to do with emotional intelligence, and sharing information in a way that empowers your team, and makes them feel valued, trusted, and knowledgeable.

That's why emotionally intelligent bosses find themselves using that phrase often, or one like it--"here's the situation," along with its partner, "here's the plan."

People want to know what's going on, and how their work fits into an overall objective and strategy. If you don't tell them, they'll quickly fill in the gaps of their understanding with conjecture. So emotionally intelligent leaders minimize the gaps.

Related: People will offer great suggestions, and if you're leading well, you rely on them to know things you won't, and come up with smart ideas you'd never think of. But, great bosses know that it's your job to make decisions and stand behind them. 

Like some of the examples before, this kind of language is best illustrated by considering the opposite.

In this case, it's contrasted with the times when a leader simply pushes people from tactical objective to tactical objective, with no context, and no focus on how each one interacts -- or if they even do, at all.

Again, people perform better when they feel like they have the big picture. Their morale improves. Heck, their lives probably improve. These are wonderful things, and very positive side-effects to emotionally intelligent leadership. 

Your job, however, is to recognize and leverage the emotions in any situation, and react in ways that takes them into account, as you strive to reach your team's goals. Leaders with high emotional intelligence understand how to do just that.  

(If you liked this exploration, I think you'll enjoy my ebook, Improving Emotional Intelligence 2021: How to Get What You Want in Business and in Life, which you can download here, free.)