The most emotionally intelligent leadership work phrase explained.
“I appreciate you.”
Three words that should be heard more often. When you do hear it, you know right away that you’re doing something right. You’re being seen and heard, and your hard work is being recognized.
In a recent survey, “I appreciate you” was voted the most emotionally intelligent phrase at work. Why this one in particular over others? There is a lot to unpack here from a psychological perspective. It also begins with the question: What do we mean by emotional intelligence?
It’s a phrase that’s thrown around, sometimes with reckless abandon. What is it — really? Daniel Goleman, one of the original scientists behind E.I., says there are four domains that underlie emotional intelligence — self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. Let’s look at each of these in turn to see how they play out in the “I appreciate you” phrase.
This is the starting point of strong emotional intelligence. As Goleman says, “Being aware of your own feelings puts you in charge, not your emotions.” For a leader to tell someone that they appreciate them and their work, it requires that the leader first go inward to recognize any new emotions that may be surfacing. “I feel something — what is it?”
This is true of any emotions, both positive and negative. In this case, being appreciative of someone else is (hopefully) a positive experience. Positive emotions, however, don’t stir us in the same way that negative emotions do. States of fear, panic, and anger are psychologically more “present.” With negative emotions, alarm bells go off to initiate some sort of action to protect the organism. This is much less the case with states of contentment, calm, admiration, and the like.
All the more reason, therefore, that a leader be open to the experience of positive emotions so that she can do something with those emotions, like, for instance, say something kind to a team member or colleague.
According to the theory of emotional intelligence, self-management means you’re able to control strong, impulsive feelings and behaviors, take initiative, and adapt to changing circumstances. On any given day, especially for leaders in high-stress situations, there’s a flurry of feelings that have to be managed and acted on (or not acted on).
No workplace situation is perfect. No leader-follower relationship is perfect. There are ups and downs. It takes a leader high in emotional intelligence to parse out the good and bad experiences and to say “I appreciate you,” not in spite of the difficult moments but because of them. A leader showing appreciation for someone means they can manage the trickier feelings they may harbor toward that person.
With emotional intelligence, the awareness piece is as much external as it is internal. A leader needs to be comfortable not only sitting with their own emotions, but also sitting with the emotions of others. There’s a lot of emotional potential in telling someone that you appreciate them. In fact, many of us would avoid saying it altogether because we’re worried about how it will make them — and us — feel.
There’s also the important point that no two people will respond the same way to hearing such a compliment. Person A may be very open to hearing it and see it as an opportunity to discuss other emotions and work situations. Person B, however, may be more awkward and shut down the conversation right then and there. The leader needs to know that there are varied reactions depending on the personality of the person receiving the compliment.
This is what Goleman refers to as “friendliness with a purpose.” It’s a matter of complimenting others not just for the sake of uttering kind words, but also for moving them in a particular direction that you need, especially as a leader. Think of it this way. Why are you saying “I appreciate you” to this person, at this particular moment?
Yes, there is a basic kindness element here where you may be doing it because it just feels like the right thing to do. But remember that your words will effect change in the other person’s behavior. There’s a skillful way to tell others that you’re appreciative of them, such as in key moments during a project or when you recognize that the other person would benefit greatly at this point from hearing “I appreciate you.”
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