Leading Intelligently with Heart: Emotional Intelligence as a Key Differentiator for Outstanding Leadership by Female Project Managers

Clinical Researcher—August 2022 (Volume 36, Issue 4)


Zoran M. Pavlovic, MD


In 2016, a report from the Davos International Economic Forum on “The Future of Jobs” identified emotional intelligence (EI) as the essential and vital leadership attribute within the “soft skill” armamentarium.{1} The next report from 2018 on reskilling in the workplace stated that by 2022, no less than 54% of all employees would require significant re- and upskilling. Of these, about 35% were expected to require additional training of up to six months, 9% would require reskilling lasting six to 12 months, and 10% would require additional skills training of more than a year.{2} According to this report, skills continuing to grow in prominence by 2022 were EI, leadership competence, social influence, and service orientation. In the latest “The Future of Jobs” survey from 2020, EI is ranked among the top 15 skills for 2025.{3}

EI and Leading Remotely in a Time of Crisis

New research from The University of Toledo by Professor Wittmer and Hopkins conducted during the pandemic and published in a special issue of the Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies, found that individuals with higher levels of EI experienced lower levels of concern for leading remotely during the crisis. At the time of the survey, 82% reported that their current leadership was 100% remote, and 85% of them stated that during the COVID-19 pandemic was the first time they led remotely. The capacity to understand oneself and regulate one’s emotions, as judged by the self-perception and stress management scales of EI, were the two most important components contributing to leading remotely in a crisis.{4}

EI Definitions

In 1990, Mayer and Salovey defined EI as “organized responses inter-linked with many peripheral psychological systems, including physiological, knowledge, motivation and trial systems.”{5} In 1993, the two researchers expanded their definition of EI and considered it “a form of social intelligence which includes the ability to perceive the emotions of the individual and others, to distinguish between them, and to use the emotional information to direct the thinking and actions of the individual.”{6} In 1997, Mayer, Caruso, and Salovey proposed a new definition that “EI indicates the ability to recognize the meanings of the emotional patterns, and cognitive analysis of this based on which problems are then solved.”{7}

In 1995, Goleman described EI as a set of abilities and competencies that enable an individual to detect their own and other people’s feelings, as well as to motivate themselves, control their emotions, and effectively manage their relationships with others. These competencies and skills include five areas: self-awareness, management of emotions, self-motivation, empathy, and dealing with others or social skills. He explained each of these five categories and believed self-awareness to be the key to EI since it is tied to emotional understanding.{8}

In 2017, Alothman stated that EI is “the ability to be aware and note emotions and own feelings, to understand and be able to clearly articulate these feelings, and to regulate these feelings based on observation and a good awareness of the emotions and feelings of others, to be able to engage with them in positive social and emotional relationships which would enhance individual’s capacity for mental, emotional and professional development, and to acquire an increasing amount of positive life skills.”{9}

Meanwhile, in 2007, Semadoni argued that EI is a type of social intelligence that represents the capacity to comprehend one’s own inner emotions and sensations as well as the emotional states of others,{10} and in 2003, Nasif presented three frameworks within which most of the EI theories converge.{11}

EI Models

Four EI models currently dominate the scientific field of emotion perception and regulation. The first, from 1988, is Bar-On’s model of what he calls ‘‘emotional and social intelligence.’’ According to his research, these personal attributes include the ability to be aware of, comprehend, and express oneself; the ability to be aware of, understand, and relate to others; the ability to deal with strong emotions and control one’s impulses; and the ability to adapt to change and to solve problems of a personal or social nature.{12}

Another major EI model is based on the 1997 work of Mayer, Salovey, and Caruso.{7} They see their model as a “mental ability” or “information-processing” approach, and measurements based on it have a higher correlation with cognitive ability tests than with personality tests. The four components (or branches) of their model are: the ability to perceive emotions, the ability to use emotions to facilitate thought, the ability to understand emotions, and the ability to manage emotions.

A third model is based on the 2004 work of Boyatzis and Sala.{13} Although their approach was influenced by the earlier work of Mayer, Salovey, and Caruso, it was meant to include the social and emotional abilities associated with great job performance. The model consists of numerous specific competencies organized into four basic clusters: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management.

The most recent model to emerge comes from work in 2007 by Petrides, Pita, and Kokkinaki, and is known as “trait EI.”{14} This model might be called second-generation because it integrates many of the personal characteristics seen in earlier generations. It is based on a content analysis of early EI measures and is meant to include all “personality facets that are specifically related to affect.” The model consists of four components: well-being (which includes self-confidence, happiness, and optimism), sociability (social competence, assertiveness, and emotion management of others), self-control (stress management, emotion regulation, and low impulsiveness), and emotionality (emotional perception of self and others, emotion expression, and empathy).

EI and Gender

According to the Athena Doctrine, our future is female (or should be female), and the worldwide consistent beliefs we have toward what is called “feminine” features are the ones that will promote economic development and sustainability in the 21st century. We live in a more social, interconnected, and transparent society, and feminine values are thriving. Powered by, among other things, collaboration, communication, nurturing, and inclusivity, it appears that institutions, corporations, and individuals are breaking free from traditional male structures and mindsets to become more flexible, collaborative, and compassionate, as noted by Gerzema and D’Antonio in 2013.{15}

In 2011, Broadbridge and Simpson proposed that the “future is female,” indicating that EI can be a key differentiator of the individual to distinguish his/her effectiveness in the implementation of important human abilities or behaviors during the various phases of the project.{16} The comparison of masculine and feminine features (emotional control, rational, quantifiable use of emotions for performance, talking about emotion, empathy, and caring) reveals sociologically established and biased gender-linked disparities.

With empathy, collaboration, conscientiousness, reliability, patience, and honesty skewing toward women and high emotional quotient, a change toward a more “feminine” leadership style may be on the horizon, and it may be just what our future workforce needs to flourish and prosper in our ever-changing world. Just as one consideration, females are more adept in guiding and managing emotions, both their own and those of others. They also occasionally outperform males in emotional attentiveness and empathy, although males outperform females in emotion control, according to 2006 studies by Bindu and Thomas and by Goldenberg, Matheson, and Mantler.{17}

EI and Project Success

Over the last two decades, the “human face” of project management has become widely recognized as a vital component of the project manager’s (PM) position linked with success, as noted by Cooke-Davies in 2002.{18} According to Keeling et Branco in 2012, to succeed in the projects, the PM, in addition to having a good understanding and skills in applying tools and management techniques, must have personal skills.{19} These refer to management and interpersonal skills (i.e., the ability to lead and communicate with project stakeholders). The PM must have specific personal characteristics such as courage, steadfastness, tenacity, self-respect, and the ability to deal with one’s own emotions and those of his/her colleagues, thus creating a more productive working environment.

In 2008, Rudolph et al. reported that the behavioral component of project management, which includes communication, engagement, motivation, and conflict detection, is crucial to project success.{20} Along the same lines, Druskat et Druskat in 2006 suggested that the concept of EI can be a key differentiator for the individual to distinguish his/her effectiveness in the implementation of important human abilities or behaviors during the various phases of the project.{21} In the same context, Mersino in 2009 reported that this kind of intelligence can assist the PM in the development of one’s relations with stakeholders, the anticipation of eventual interpersonal conflicts, increasing his/her assertiveness in making decisions and effective communication, and facilitating team engagement to fulfill the promised scope of the project.{22}

In 2011, Davis showed that EI can help PMs to assume leadership roles, causing them to act efficiently by, for example, performing feedback through constructive criticism, allowing the development of the team members, dealing with negative behaviors, and effectively understanding communications and accountabilities of all stakeholders.{23} Finally, an accurate understanding of what motivates team members by the PM facilitates the process of their redirection toward the achievement of the project objectives, according to Oliveira in 2011.{24}

According to the PMI Survey from 2012 overall, 93% of the professional agree that EI impact the success of the project; 56% agreed with the statement that the emotions, present in routine work, when unrecognized or poorly managed directly impact the outcome of the project; 68% felt it is important to understand the emotions of those involved and this helps to manage the project to success.{25} Also in this line, 78% believe that keeping the positive emotional climate of the team also contributes to the project’s success. Mount in 2006 assessed the skills related to the success of PMs in 74 international petroleum corporations and found that, of all the skills that contributed to PM’s success, 69% were the emotional competencies (self-confidence, influence, achievement orientation, teamwork, and coordination); 31% were business expertise, whereas there was none (0%) in the area of cognitive skills, such as conceptual or analytical thinking.{26}

Based on the findings of a variety of studies, it has become clear that personality and organizational culture influence the way the PM conducts the project because their EI allows self-knowledge, which is dependent on the personal characteristics of each PM and determines his/her way of leading and managing people. It is understood that everything starts with “knowing yourself” to be able to understand the aspirations and achievements of others and lead them in achieving common goals, thus satisfying the goals and corporative strategies.

Another highlighted issue is the level of emotional involvement that the PM should have with the project. Sharing of existing problems with team members should be dosed just to be enough to motivate them. Experienced PMs have greater discernment between one’s feelings and those of their team members, thereby demonstrating an equalization of thought and conduct related to a certain project activity.

Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadership (TL) is characterized as one that raises collective awareness and interests, builds group and individual confidence, and strives to focus subordinates’ priorities on development and success rather than simply survival, according to Gardner and Stough in 2002.{27} In their 2000 study, Barling, Slater, and Kelloway examined the EI and leadership styles of 49 PMs.{28} They found that EI highly correlated with TL, with the highest correlation being between inspirational motivation (a component of TL) and EI.

Gardner and Stough investigated whether EI predicted the leadership styles of 110 senior-level managers and found a strong correlation between TL style and EI.{27} Further, Leban and Zulauf in 2004 reported on their study of 24 PMs and their related projects in six different organizations from varying industries to examine the relationship between leadership in projects and EI. They found that EI scores and the ability to understand emotions were found in significant relation to inspirational motivation (a dimension of TL).{29} They concluded that a PM’s TL behavior has a positive impact on project performance; in other words, EI abilities contribute to a PM’s TL and subsequent actual project performance.

According to research, the rise of feminization in the workplace has impacted an increase in the desire for “feminine” attributes in employees and leaders, such as warmth, connection, openness, and empathy, wrote Thory in 2012.{30} These characteristics are associated with TL, focus on interpersonal relations, and work satisfaction from interpersonal warmth, which are more likely associated with female leaders. TL is preferred over transactional and laissez-faire leadership in our modern economy due to its emphasis on “high organizational involvement” that focuses on open communication channels and decentralized management, which is seen as more democratic and customer-centric. Therefore, female leaders are considered more transformational than male leaders, noted Powell and Butterfield in 2011.{31}

Can We Train EI?

One of the more appealing theories in the EI training approach is that the observed EI-related gains after training reflect the plasticity in the cognitive-neural system underpinning EI. The evidence for this came from neuroimaging studies of EI by Krueger et al. in 2009{32} and Barbey et al. in 2014.{33}

It appears that, to increase knowledge transfer regarding emotional concepts, moods, and social expressions, the training content should be provided and practiced over multiple spaced sessions. Kotsou et al. in 2019{34} and Hodzic et al. in 2018{35} reported on data indicating that EI could be improved through training and that one possible reason is that the neuro-cognitive system supporting EI is malleable to a considerable degree.

EI Training for Female PMs

A study of South African Women Leaders from 2017 by Mayer et al. showed that women leaders need to improve their awareness of emotional quotient dimensions related to independence, stress tolerance, flexibility, and optimism. They should also explore the importance of these functions on a deeper level, as they might strengthen their independence in decision-making and networking, increase levels of stress tolerance, and enhance flexibility to plan and organize their working and private lives.{36}

Findings by Nicholas Clarke in 2010 suggest that EI ability related to understanding emotions can be developed in PMs as a result of a two-day training intervention.{37} The study also found statistically significant improvements in the self-assessed project management competencies of teamwork and managing conflict. The ability to understand emotions enables individuals to identify what circumstances cause different emotional responses and how more simple emotions blend to cause more complex emotional states. This knowledge is thought to be important in enabling individuals to understand why they may be experiencing particular feelings, which is a prerequisite for considering how these feelings are best managed or controlled.

Understanding how events in projects can trigger specific emotional responses that then impact performance can assist PMs in planning, setting, and communicating tasks, Jordan et al. noted in 2002.{38} Knowledge of how different emotions are generated and how they can influence attitudes and behaviors is also likely to offer PMs distinct advantages within contexts where they are dependent on building commitment and trust rapidly for individuals to work effectively together within projects, reported Burgess and Turner{39} as well as Hartman in 2000.{40}

Beyond project effectiveness, it would seem likely that there may well be other major gains that could be made from PMs attending EI training, in terms of wider health and well-being aspects, as the improvements in self- and social awareness abilities may moderate the levels of emotional distress that PMs are experiencing. The findings from Clarke’s study suggest that, certainly as far as developing the EI ability of understanding emotions, organizations wishing to develop this particular EI competence of their PMs might achieve similar positive results if they adopt the following strategies when designing the training program:{37}

  • Taking advantage of opportunities for participating in structured practice sessions that require participants to consider how emotional abilities may be used in their roles as PMs.
  • Practicing EI-associated behaviors and then receiving feedback.
  • Observing others during role plays and simulations.

Clarke also suggested that initial improvement in EI abilities is unlikely to be achieved within short periods after the training, and that findings from the few empirical studies to date point to periods of two months or more as being necessary.{37} The results indicate then that the impact of training on this ability is unlikely to be seen immediately, requiring some months before any improvements can be detected. This suggests that, although training can provide an initial self-awareness of the importance of emotions, the actual processes associated with the development of this EI ability continue taking place after training, possibly through on-the-job learning mechanisms.

Calculate Your Leadership EI

A self-assessment questionnaire designed to measure the various aspects of EI associated with your leadership competencies is available here from the National Health Service in the United Kingdom.{41}

In the December 2022 issue of Clinical Researcher, we will focus on daily practices that you can use to self-improve your EI in the long-term, so stay tuned for more information on this vital soft skills topic.


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Key Takeaways

  • EI is ranked among the top 15 skills for 2025 by the World Economic Forum.
  • EI is a key differentiator and predictor of a PM’s effectiveness and one of the main components associated with project success.
  • Attributes with strong links to TL, success, pleasure, and morality which are considered primarily “feminine” are also traits associated with high emotional quotient.
  • Female PMs are more interested and motivated for EI training than males, as they typically underestimate their current emotional quotient skills.
  • EI training for female PMs should focus on improvement of their inherently less developed EI competencies, which include self-perception (self-regard), self-expression (independence), emotion regulation, and stress management (stress tolerance) skills.

Zoran M. Pavlovic, MD, (heruka.innovations@gmail.com) is a psychiatrist, psychotherapist, and executive coach for life science leaders on agile, entrepreneurial, and mindful leadership with Heruka Lifescience and Health Innovations. He is also a creator of 4-H SWELL (States of Wellness) Leader and Employee® Self-Care and HELO (Heruka Employee, Leader and Organization) Resiliencetraining.