Leadership Spotlight

Feedback and Emotional Intelligence

A stock image of two men having a conversation.

Admit it. Giving feedback is one of the toughest things that a leader must master. Receiving it comes with a whole other set of challenges.

Both giving and receiving feedback can be more effective when leveraging emotional intelligence. While this may make sense on the surface, putting it into practice requires purposeful, intentional acts of self-awareness, empathy and social awareness juxtaposed with wise judgment, sound decision-making and effective communication skills.

Important Concept

Emotional intelligence is the capacity to control, express and be aware of one’s emotions in ways that promote sound interpersonal relationships. In simpler terms, it is the ability to recognize and regulate your emotions while helping others do the same. It is making your emotions work for, instead of against, you.1

Many may say that emotions have no place at work or in delivering feedback. The same people might also claim that they can take criticism or receive feedback without emotion interfering in their response. However, emotions have everything to do with both. As humans, we are innately designed to experience emotions, often at a subconscious level. When we see or hear something we do not like, it evokes emotion. Plain and simple, we are designed to experience emotions because they serve a valuable purpose. The problem may arise when we do not recognize or attend to the role that emotion plays in our everyday interactions.2

Developing emotional intelligence abilities allows persons to recognize and regulate emotions in ways that enhance their ability to have mutually satisfying interpersonal relationships. Effective leaders know how to build those relationships in ways that enhance performance at the individual, team and organizational levels. A critical component to those successes involves giving and receiving feedback in positive and effective ways.

Valuable Steps

So, how does one go about doing that? Start with self-reflection. Think about the times you have received feedback that was not helpful or useful, that just seemed hypercritical and was not delivered in a way that made you want to improve. Consider what you have been told about your leadership style — was it positive or negative? Ask yourself questions: Is that the type of leader I want to be? Is it working for me, my team and my organization? Do I give feedback in a way that others see as helpful? Am I open to receiving feedback from others, even when I do not like what I am hearing? An honest self-assessment will go a long way in helping you improve your ability to both give and receive feedback.

You need to be sure that if you see something, you say something (praise first). Do you only give praise at performance check-in time, or is it part of your everyday style? The old advice about using the "feedback sandwich” — constructive feedback layered between two instances of positive feedback — is not the most effective. Most people will only wait for the “but,” focusing on the coming expectation of criticism and missing the praise you delivered first. Simply put, when you see something worthy of praise, give praise. Make it part of your regular leadership routine.

Say “thanks” and express gratitude. This will improve your relationships, gain trust and buy-in, and boost overall optimism in your workplace. Focus on the positive. Coach, mentor and develop people. They are the legacy you leave behind. If you take this approach, people will be more open when you must point out something they need to work on.

Admit when you have failed or been wrong. When you confess that you have not always gotten things right, it shows humility and honesty. Telling your own stories of when you have struggled shows empathy, and empathy builds trust — the backbone of high-performing teams. Vulnerability takes courage, and who does not want to be a courageous leader?3

Finally, be purposeful and intentional in connecting with your team. Make it part of your leadership strategy.

To recap, when giving and receiving feedback, follow several simple strategies.

  • See something, say something. Praise good work and collaboration as part of your regular leadership routine.
  • Listen more. Be engaged and ask critical questions about what is being said. Allow for open, honest, respectful and constructive conversations at all levels.
  • Give thanks. Say it often, but only when you mean it. Authenticity is key.
  • Express gratitude. Spend time reflecting on all the things going right and obstacles or challenges that have been overcome. Create an atmosphere of optimism.
  • Fail forward. Tell stories of your own failures or struggles, mistakes and lessons learned. Failure teaches us how to get back up and grow in our leadership role.
  • Be purposeful and intentional. Your actions can evoke emotion in your team. Pay attention to the emotional climate surrounding you.

“Emotional intelligence is the capacity to control, express and be aware of one’s emotions in ways that promote sound interpersonal relationships.”

Marian Elizabeth “Beth” Coleman, an instructor in the Leadership Education Unit at the FBI Academy, prepared this Leadership Spotlight. She can be reached at mecoleman@fbi.gov.


1 Justin Bariso, EQ Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence (Germany: Borough Hall, 2018), 5-15.
2 Steven J. Stein and Howard E. Book, The EQ Edge: Emotional Intelligence and Your Success, 3rd ed. (Mississauga, ON: Jossey-Bass, 2011).
3 Justin Bariso, “The Way You Give Feedback Is All Wrong. Here's How to Do It Right.” Inc., March 31, 2021, accessed May 21, 2021, https://www.inc.com/justin-bariso/the-way-you-give-feedback-is-all-wrong-heres-how-to-do-it-right-with-emotional-intelligence.html.