Flexing Your Leadership Style Using Emotional Intelligence

Research by Daniel Goleman demonstrates that effective leaders use multiple styles of leadership depending on the situation. A leader’s ability to successfully flex between leadership styles is rooted in emotional intelligence. When you understand the connection between emotional intelligence and contextual leadership, you can pause in the moment to evaluate which leadership style is needed to reframe the situation and find the best solution.

“The best leaders don’t know just one style of leadership – they’re skilled at several and have the flexibility to switch between styles as the circumstances dictate.” – Daniel Goleman, Leadership That Gets Results

If you find you are using one of the following leadership styles more often than the others, remember that different situations call for different leadership styles, and be cautious of the overuse of any of them. A balanced and considerate approach will help you lead with emotional intelligence.

Coercive – “Do what I tell you”

The traditional “top down” leadership approach is rooted in the coercive style. It is recommended that this style be used sparingly.

When to use this style: A coercive style can be helpful when it’s time to make tough decisions or in emergencies.

Caution: When overused it can damage workplace cultures and make employees feel undermined, so be intentional when deciding to use it.

Authoritative/Visionary – “Come with me”

When it is time to lay the groundwork of what’s to come, the authoritative (or sometimes called visionary) style can be effective.

When to use this style: The authoritative/visionary style is beneficial when you need to create team alignment. Clearly stating a goal while helping team members envision the outcomes ensures everyone can align their focus and energy accordingly. Of all the styles, this one works in the most situations.

Caution: This style is tricky when the team is full of “experts” who might not be buying into the vision that being communicated. Managers need to be mindful of communications and not miss opportunities to provide clarity, reinforce goals, and make connections to the organization’s mission and vision statements.

Affiliative – “People come first”

People want to work in an environment where they feel respected and valued. Managers can create that by giving positive feedback and recognition with the affiliative leadership style. This style pairs nicely with the visionary style to show your team you believe in them.

When to use this style: The affiliative style will create a sense of belonging, promote harmony, and build strong relations and moral on your team. If an employee is struggling with something in their personal life and you want to be there for them, this is a great style to use to show your support.

Caution: This should not be the only style you are leading with as poor performance will go uncorrected. To mitigate this risk, implement a healthy balance of affiliative feedback and constructive advice.

Democratic – “What do you think?”

Listening is a valued and powerful management skill that can generate new ideas. The democratic leadership style will help you intentionally engage with your employees.

When to use this style: When timed and executed well, the democratic leadership style supports buy-in for change and a climate of trust, respect, and commitment through open communication, well asked questions, and good listening skills.

Caution: Be aware that this style can lead to seemingly endless meetings, a lack of decision making, and a slow-paced culture.

Pacesetting – “Do as I do, now”

Managers can set high standards and a desired pace by demonstrating to a team how they would like to get things done and how to achieve desired outcomes.

When to use this style: The pacesetting style works well when you need to set a new example, challenge your team to try something totally new, and are very willing to grow your people.

Caution: This style has a negative impact on climate when overused, as the energy and initiative is manager-oriented rather than empowering to employees. Managers can look to their communications to see if there is a degree of micromanaging, a “be like me” mentality or a lack of trust in the messaging. If so, it’s best to balance this style with the more positive styles to motivate the team. Employees will feel overwhelmed if this style is overused.

Coaching – “Try this”

Investing in coaching is proven to improve results and is usually perceived as rewarding in and of itself.

When to use this style: If your team wants the coaching style from you, be supportive, most of them will welcome development opportunities. Good coaches understand what employees are thinking and help them identify opportunities for growth.

Caution: Not everyone will be open to being coached and some will resist the need for growth. When the coaching style is done well, it will start to attract and retain the right people.

Goleman’s research finds that no one style should be used exclusively, and all six have at least short-term uses. Leaders who master at least four of the six styles have the best climates in their organizations and improve overall business performance. His research also found that the authoritative, affiliative, democratic, and coaching styles had the best results.

Think about your own leadership style and ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Which of the styles might you be over-using? Could you improve your leadership effectiveness by using it less? You are likely under-using one as well, so which style(s) do you need to try to use more?
  2. Think of a recent leadership opportunity you had – how did it go? The next time one comes up, think of these six styles. What do you want to change?
  3. Remember that these styles do well when mixed, so how can you mix the styles up in your leadership? What combination of them are you looking forward to trying first?

When you figure out what you currently use, under use, and what your employees need more of from you, your organizations culture will likely start to change as will your leadership!

You can enhance your ability to lead intentionally further in Leadership Beyond Management, a week-long program that will give you a 360° view of your leadership strengths and developmental needs to discover your authentic leadership purpose. You will further investigate how the best leaders design their organizations for success and engage in post-program one on one coaching to help you clarify your leadership development goals.