The benefits of emotional intelligence for marketing leaders

Authors: Ellen Sluijs, research assistant, Monash University and Dr Michael Valos, Deakin University


“Great young marketers with low EI (emotional intelligence) cannot be coached and guided, they cause ‘breakage’ internally and ‘big hits and misses’ externally. Give me a smart and passionate young marketer with high EI any day; they will become truly great marketers and marketing leaders.” – Mark Willson, director of marketing and communications, IBM Australia and New Zealand

Our interviews for this article support Wilson’s views. Unfortunately, high levels of technical and analytical marketing skills are not enough for career success. Soft skills, such as leadership, emotional intelligence (EI), teamwork and influence were identified as determinants of senior marketing job positions.

Emotional intelligence appeared to provide a common thread and explanation in understanding the difference between leaders and technically competent followers.

“Marketers who have strong analytical, financial, planning, project management and technical skills but do not have emotional intelligence are missing a critical ingredient, particularly for a leadership role.” – Sarah McGeehan, director customer advocacy, Telstra Operations

Applying the benefits of EI to marketers

In Daniel Goleman’s book, Emotional Intelligence, he argued that the difference between people of high IQ floundering and people of modest IQ doing surprisingly well may lie in what he coined ‘emotional intelligence’. He said people with high EI have self-control, persistence and the ability to motivate themselves and others. Goleman divided EI into four domains: personal competencies (self-awareness and self-management) and social competencies (social awareness and relationship management).

People with high self-awareness are in tune with their moods, feelings and emotions, demonstrate a greater awareness of how their emotions may be influencing their thoughts and decision making, and as a result, recognise the impact their feelings have on their outward displays and behaviours. Likewise, people with high self-management have the skill to effectively manage their emotions, move on quickly from events that cause adversity, implement strategies to help maintain positive moods and emotions, and as a result cope more effectively with high work demands and stress.

“In the process of recruiting senior marketers I have found emotional awareness and management are critical factors impacting success. Marketers with good emotional awareness can recognise their own and others’ emotional states and can moderate their initial reactions and decisions. Understanding that a person is ‘emotional’ in a situation is a very important skill for a marketer to have.” Christine Khor, director, Carrera Partners.

Social awareness is the ability to recognise the emotional state of others, even if they do not feel the same way. Listening and observing are the most important elements. Relationship management is the art of managing emotions in others and a competency in social interactions. These people are effective friends, negotiators and leaders. They guide an interaction, inspire others, make others comfortable in social situations, and influence and persuade others.

One example of applying relationship management skills is provided by Warwick Lloyd, communications manager, B2B, BP Australia: “It is human nature for marketers to gravitate to projects that enhance personal recognition and build one’s profile… Yet for those marketers left with more mundane projects it’s very important to acknowledge their contribution and efforts to the marketing department. This could be a simple ‘pat on the back’ as recognition for a job well done.”

Research corroborates our interview findings. Bradberry and Greaves (2009) found that up to 90 percent of the difference between outstanding and average performance is linked to a lack of emotional competence.

Telltale signs that a marketer has adequate EI

EI can be assessed by observing a variety of behaviours and qualities. Marketers with high EI admit and learn from their mistakes, keep emotions in check and have thoughtful discussions on tough issues. They listen as much or more than they talk, take criticism well and stay calm under pressure. They also know how to resolve conflict effectively, are empathetic to team members and react accordingly, lead by example, are skilled communicators and perceptive team players. While the marketers we interviewed felt subjective judgment was accurate there are a number of EI tests commercially available.

Methods to improve your EI

In our interviews and in the wider literature there is a debate as to what degree EI can be taught. While most believe some people are naturally more emotionally intelligent than others, there is a belief that a high EI can be developed or at least improved.

“In my experience it is a tough skill to develop. When recruiting – especially for leadership roles – I look for attitude and behaviours, the technical ‘stuff’ we can develop.”  Sarah McGeehan, director customer advocacy, Telstra Operations

Methods to improve the four domains of EI include paying more attention to your emotions and getting to know them, setting aside time for problem solving hence allowing space for clear thinking, focusing attention to possibilities rather than limitations, observing body language, explaining your decision making, practising taking feedback more positively, and having an ‘open door’ policy, allowing employees to talk to anyone at any level, being accessible.

Another improvement method is based on findings by Bradberry and Greaves (2009) which showed that the more time we spend with empathetic people, the more empathetic we become. This finding supports the ‘EI can be learned’ view.

Consolidating your learning is critical to avoid wasting your investment in skills development, as was found with a drop in EI in a group of people with formal EI training after the onset of the 2008 economic crisis. This suggests skills desert us at the time we need them the most: under stress. Only those with well-ingrained and consolidated EI skills will reap the full benefit of EI in an ongoing way.

“Understanding emotions and how to manage them is common in the best marketing leaders I have seen. Firstly they manage their own reactions, and secondly, they empathise with others and differentiate between the ‘words’ and the emotion. Being calm they can ask the right questions to get to the root of the ‘emotional’ problem.” -Christine Khor, director, Carrera Partners