It’s no secret that today’s physicians are tasked with much more than simply diagnosing and treating patients. In our current healthcare landscape, working in conjunction with fellow physicians, healthcare teams, and organizational leaders on a variety of initiatives is becoming the norm. This is especially true for physician leaders. And to be a successful leader, it’s imperative that physicians apply a particular type of skillset to their interactions: emotional intelligence. Often referred to as EQ, it is the ability to recognize, understand, and manage our emotions and the emotions of others. 

Due to the competitive and individualistic nature of medical school, physicians often emerge with a worldview in which intellectual knowledge and personal achievement are emphasized and rewarded. As we become established in our fields, we assume an authoritative role and are respected, definitive sources of information. We get accustomed to giving directives that are followed without discussion. But being an effective leader requires a shift in the way we think and the way we act. Applying emotional intelligence means that rather than merely orchestrating the actions of others, we also invite their input. We actively listen to their ideas, needs, and concerns. We seek to understand their motivations and behaviors. We strive to meet their requests. When those we are leading feel that they are being heard and understood – and see evidence that we are responding with actions that benefit them and recognize their efforts – the result is high levels of employee engagement. And employees who are engaged and genuinely care about their work are an essential foundation for organizational successin the healthcare industry today. 

Using EQ skills in our interactions is also necessary to create and maintain healthy relationships with peers. Physician leaders are often called on to collaborate with other leaders both within and outside our organization. In these scenarios, it’s vital to practice empathy (striving to understand the viewpoint and emotions of others) as well as self-management (keeping your own feelings in check and communicating in a positive, professional manner). When our interactions are negative, the resulting reaction brings significant consequences that impede forward progress. Laura Wilcox, a Director at Harvard University’s Division of Continuing Education, notesthat “it can take us nearly 20 minutes to recover from an emotional encounter. If the feelings are frequently retriggered, we can end up spending significant amounts of time with little ability to leverage our technical capability and inherent intelligence.” Leaders who are unable or unwilling to work with peers in a healthy fashion will face a loss of participation and assistance in achieving their goals. 

For today’s physician leaders, understanding and applying emotional intelligence is an essential tool for success. While improving your EQmay require personal coaching and targeted effort, the results – and the enhanced relationships with those around you – will be worth it.