The Role of Emotional Intelligence in Leadership and Decision-Making

By Jack Shaw
Last updated: July 16, 2024
Key Takeaways

Emotional intelligence gives safety leaders the self-control, empathy, and awareness they need to create a safer workplace.

Manager on factory floor, taking a call on a cellphone while employees are working in the background.
Source: Remy Gieling / Unsplash

Working in occupational health and safety (OHS) requires a number of hard skills, such as first aid, data analysis, and the ability to calculate things like fall arrest distance. However, you must also excel in communication, critical thinking, and stress management – all of which are part of emotional intelligence.


These soft skills are essential for building healthy relationships with colleagues and improving your workplace. It’s also an important foundation for leadership and sound decision-making.

In this article, we’ll go over some of the reasons emotional intelligence can help you be more successful as a safety leader.


Emotional Intelligence in Safety Leadership

Conflict Management

In a perfect world, every employee would get along without a hitch. In reality, it’s only a matter of time before your co-workers will disagree about something. And even a relatively mild spat can escalate into a serious conflict or eventually lead to workplace violence if leadership doesn’t interfere.

Emotional intelligence allows leaders to manage their emotions while handling those of their colleagues or clients. With this skill, you can display the empathy and levelheadedness required to develop a satisfying solution and relieve the tension between employees.

Once the conflict is dealt with, lingering resentment could create residual effects on the team’s collaboration and communication. Stabilizing the team and building relationships despite the conflict is an important step to maintaining a safe work environment.

Each year, about 2 million American workers encounter workplace violence – a number that could be reduced if conflicts were managed properly. This makes emotional intelligence a crucial skill for safety leaders.

Social Awareness

Social awareness is essentially the ability to take the temperature of a room. It’s being able to walk into a department or area of the jobsite and get a good sense of how the people working there feel, whether through conversation or non-verbal cues. For instance, those who avoid eye contact, cross their arms, or fidget may be showing discomfort and nervousness.


With emotional intelligence, OHS leaders can be aware of each person’s needs and tailor the way they approach them accordingly. A recent hire who appears to be nervous on the job, for instance, may need extra attention, empathy, and encouragement to ensure that their morale stays high.

More generally, being aware of how others are feeling can help leaders communicate more effectively and make decisions that will be better received by those impacted.

Safety leaders also use their social awareness skills to set the tone for all staff. It helps open up lines of communication, encourages participation, and fosters worker engagement. It also makes employees feel heard, which will make them more likely to speak up and voice their safety concerns.

Self Control

While safety is often about managing social situations, good safety leaders also consistently demonstrate an ability to manage oneself.

Having emotional intelligence means knowing how to react appropriately to both positive and negative news. It means maintaining a calm and assertive demeanor, even if in stressful or challenging situations. Controlling your emotions can be difficult in the moment, but it has a significant impact on how those around you react. After all, if the head of the safety department can’t keep their cool during an emergency, it will be harder for others not to panic as well.

Self control helps safety leaders set a good example for others to follow. Team members desire positive role models who take accountability and do the same things they tell others to do, like admitting mistakes and taking the proper steps to correct their missteps. Additionally, they know their limits and when to take a break or ask a colleague for help. 

Empathy and Understanding

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports 2,804,2oo workplace injuries occurred in 2022 – almost 200,000 more than they reported for 2021. Emotional intelligence can help reduce these numbers by ensuring that safety leaders don’t become careless with the wellbeing of others. Empathetic leaders are also more understanding of workers’ safety concerns – no matter how small – and will take action to ensure that everyone is protected and feels safe.

This is also a factor for occupational health employees with preexisting conditions. Research shows that 40% of Americans have a chronic disease and safety managers must remain aware of any employee’s limitations and the accommodations they need to work safely.

What Happens When Safety Leaders Lack Emotional Intelligence?

Without emotional intelligence, OHS leaders will have more difficulty with their jobs. Here are a few ramifications of emotional intelligence gaps in the field.

Reduced Employee Engagement

Without sufficient emotional intelligence, engagement takes a hit. Leadership teams that struggle in this department can demotivate their colleagues by not addressing conflict, ignoring worker concerns, or improperly delivering feedback. 

Low levels of engagement is a widespread problem. A 2022 Gallup survey finds 69% of North American workers are not engaged or actively disengaged. This is a problem, because a staff that isn’t engaged will be less effective in their work.

Safety also takes a hit as workers are less focused and may be too distracted or disinterested to notice important details or follow safety procedures. 

An organization with engaged workers is safer because their communication improves, and everybody takes their role seriously. And it’s a virtuous cycle, with a 2020 study published in Social Behavior and Personality revealing that work engagement is higher when team members feel psychologically safe.

A Weaker Safety Culture

While a safety culture is built from the ground up, leadership plays a role in empowering it. It’s often their example and encouragement that makes others take safety seriously.

Safety leaders who aren’t attuned to the workers’ concerns and struggle to communicate with them will have trouble fostering a workplace culture where safety is a top priority.

This will results in safety issues getting overlooked. It inhibits effective teamwork. It increases stress and negatively impacts employee wellbeing.

In other words, it creates an environment where incidents are practically inevitable.

Higher Turnover

Safety leaders who show signs of distrust, ineffective communication, or poor conflict management may harm their relationship with certain employees. Those employees may, in turn, feel discouraged when their concerns aren’t addressed in a productive and balanced way. This will make them more likely to quit or actively seek out other employment.

The BLS’ Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey finds that around 3.5 million employees quit their jobs each month, creating uncertainty and instability within organizations. Turnover also harms occupational health and safety, since it can lead to an influx of inexperienced workers who aren’t used to the safe working procedures and may not yet be comfortable voicing their concerns.

When veteran workers leave, they also take with them the wealth of knowledge and experience that allowed them to use the machinery and equipment more safely. New hires may need to start from square one. Even with training, they will be more susceptible to making mistakes. It will also take them time to get the feel of the equipment and develop the muscle memory needed to perform tasks expertly.

Additionally, the new hires must develop relationships with their colleagues and learn to work together. Experienced workers may use unfamiliar terminology, causing confusion and mishaps. These communication breakdowns can lead to poor safety outcomes.


Check out our free whitepaper on How to Hire and Build an Effective Safety Team!


How Safety Professionals Can Enhance Their Emotional Intelligence

OHS leaders who strive to improve their emotional intelligence should take advantage of the resources available to them. Here are a few ways to do so.

Get Feedback From Colleagues

The first step in becoming more emotionally intelligent is to obtain feedback from your colleagues and clients. Ask them how they rate your leadership skills, communication methods, and risk assessment strategies.

These conversations might not be easy for leaders or their teams, but they’re critical for building self-awareness. After receiving the feedback, focus on the common denominators and what you can do to be a better leader in this industry. You may learn, for instance, that you need to become a more effective communicator or get better training in specific areas of workplace safety.

Manage Stress Wisely

While managing others is critical, leaders should learn how to handle and relieve their own stress throughout the day. Emotionally intelligent leaders don’t bottle up their stress, but they also don’t let it get the best of them.

You could accomplish this by practicing deep breathing at work, taking up meditation, or giving yourself time to think before making difficult decisions. Approaching each event with a cool head is critical, so you should practice talking through scenarios and thinking logically before responding. 

This also extends to managing pressure outside of work. For instance, experts say exercise produces endorphins and relieves stress, making it an effective coping mechanism. You will also be a more effective leader if you can strike a solid work-life balance by pursuing hobbies, spending time with family, and doing activities that ease your mind. 

Stress management is critical for workplace safety because this mental pressure often leads to mistakes. When your mind is focused on other tasks or worried about perfection – especially when you’re on a tight deadline – you may overlook tiny details and make worse decisions.

Take Advantage of Professional Development Opportunities

Safety leaders should seek out and take advantage of professional development opportunities. These can give you the technical skills and training you need to make the workplace safer. But they can also nurture soft skills by having you participate in practice scenarios, aid in collaborative decision-making processes, and impart a better understanding of interpersonal dynamics.

Some leaders learn best by example and will benefit most from workshops. Others will prefer reading books by leadership professionals. For instance, psychologist and author Daniel Goleman has written numerous best-selling guides on emotional intelligence that can be insightful and helpful.

A mixed approach will always be more effective, so be sure not to close yourself off to any opportunities. There will be lessons learned in workshops that you could never get from reading through a stack of well-chosen books.

Incorporating Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace

While hard skills are essential for day-to-day operations, soft skills like emotional intelligence are critical for fostering work environments that are conducive to safety.

Emotionally intelligent safety leaders make sound decisions, develop positive relationships, and swiftly manage conflict wherever it arises. Without this quality, safety leaders will struggle to do their job effectively. The result will be a workplace more prone to arguments, resentment, injuries, and other adversities.

Ready to learn more? Check out our free webinar, 10 Safety Lessons I Wish Someone Had Told Me!

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Written by Jack Shaw | Writer & Editor

Jack Shaw

Jack Shaw, senior editor of Modded, is a respected authority on industry and business strategies.

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