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Why Change is So Hard: The Link Between Emotional Intelligence and Change Management

Author: Siana Sylvester
Editor: Rachel Bryars

The most dangerous phrase in the language is, “We’ve always done it this way…” -Admiral Grace Hopper

Change is hard. Change triggers emotional responses such as fear, anger, stress, and anxiety because we are disrupting the status quo. If changes in job title, management, social norms, or workplace environment are perceived as dangerous to us, this can narrow our ability to see the big picture. It can hinder our ability to respond productively and trigger our fight-or-flight response.

Of course, none of this is desirable to leaders who need to make changes in their organizations.

So, how do we improve our ability to respond well to changes that may actually be positive, even when our brains perceive them as threatening? As leaders, how do we accelerate the adoption of change within our team, knowing change can be so uncomfortable?

Improved emotional intelligence is a key part of the answer.

What is Emotional Intelligence (EQ)? It is defined as “the ability to perceive and express emotion, assimilate emotion in thought, understand and reason with emotion, and regulate emotion in the self and others” (Mayer, Salovey, & Caruso, 2000, p. 396).1 According to Daniel Goleman, author of “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than EQ,” there are 4 emotional intelligence domains:


A leader with high levels of self-awareness understands their own emotions and how their emotions affect their performance.

According to Korn Ferry Hay Group research, 92% of leaders with strengths in Emotional Self-Awareness have high energy and high-performance teams.2 Leaders with high levels of self-awareness are more likely to foster positive emotional climates with high levels of psychological safety and trust.


Self-management, also known as self-regulation, is one’s ability to manage how they control and respond to their emotions.

Maybe the organizational change came without your input. This might create feelings of anger and frustration. However, just because you feel anger, doesn’t mean you have to respond in an angry way. Great leaders model the behavior they expect from others regardless of the initial reaction to the emotion they are experiencing. The ability to lead through change depends on our ability to self-manage through negative emotions.

Social Awareness

Social awareness is that part of emotional intelligence that is focused on others instead of self. It includes the ability to express empathy and have organizational awareness. A leader who is able to understand the emotions and feelings of others will be more effective in supporting others through needed changes.

For example, a leader may recognize that an impending change is going to strongly impact their team. Leaders who practice empathy and show patience toward various change responses will make psychological room for others to move toward welcoming the change at their own pace. This response helps leaders mitigate resistance and inspire their team to see change as a challenging opportunity for growth instead of being perceived as a threat.

Relationship Management

Relationship management breaks down into 5 competencies including: (1) influence, (2) the ability to coach and mentor, (3) conflict management, (4) teamwork, and (5) inspirational leadership. A leader with good relationship management is able to communicate effectively and express emotions with the ability to anticipate how others will respond.

So how does a leader’s emotional intelligence play into the actual process and implementation of change? Solid emotional intelligence in leadership is the beginning of effective change management, but it doesn’t end there. Leaders should follow an evidence-based approach when rolling out a change initiative through a process like the Prosci ADKAR Model and utilize their emotional intelligence skills throughout.

The Art of Utilizing the ADKAR Model: It’s not what you said changed, it’s how you said changed it.

The first step in the ADKAR model is Awareness. When leaders are aware how change will be perceived, they can anticipate and plan for resistance. Leaders need to exercise their emotional intelligence to communicate the “why” or the need for the change, how the change is connected to the overall vision of the company, and how the team’s support directly impacts the success of that change.

The second step is Desire. A leader that is looking to motivate their team to take on the desired organizational change might want to invest time in developing their inspirational leadership. An inspirational leader will connect the vision or mission of the organization to emotions within themselves and within their team members. When leaders communicate the connection to a higher purpose and help their team understand why the change is needed to fulfill that purpose, leaders can foster internal motivation within their team creating a desire to put effort toward the change.

When leaders forget to bring awareness to and cultivate the desire for change and skip right to training (Knowledge and Ability within ADKAR), change efforts suffer or fail. A leader that is emotionally intelligent can understand why blindsiding someone with a training is not the most effective way to start a change effort. Without the proper groundwork, this approach can produce frustration, anxiety, and resistance.

The last step is Reinforcement. It is natural for us to want to return to the way things have always been. Lasting change requires effort from leaders such as productive feedback, perhaps even monetary rewards or celebrations, and public recognition. An emotionally intelligent leader can link the reinforcement efforts to the change initiative and is aware of how individuals will respond to each type of reinforcement. Without reinforcement, organizations run the risk of unsustained change, ultimately wasting the funds and time invested to make the change in the first place.

Maybe change doesn’t have to be so hard…

Imagine a change is coming in your organization. Would you want a leader to jump right into training without informing you of why the change is needed? Or would you respond better to a leader that explains why the change is coming and how you are personally connected to the success of that change?

Emotionally intelligent leaders communicate change messages in a way that is received well by their teammates, allowing for change to be adopted more quickly and sustained over time. If we improve our ability to manage our own emotions and can effectively anticipate the emotions of our team… maybe change doesn’t have to be so hard.

For more on how you can strengthen your emotional intelligence, check out this blog. If you are interested in Change Management support that is focused not just on process but on people, contact HigherEchelon today.


Mayer, J. D., Salovey, P., & Caruso, D. (2000). Models of emotional intelligence. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Handbook of intelligence (p. 396–420). Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511807947.019

Goleman, D. What is emotional self-awareness? Korn Ferry. Retrieved on March 9, 2021 from https://www.kornferry.com/insights/articles/what-is-emotional-self-awareness

About the Author

Siana Sylvester is a High Performance Coach, Prosci Certified Change Practitioner, and Program Analyst at HigherEchelon. Siana’s focus is on helping clients grow and develop mental, life, and self- regulatory skills that optimize performance and help clients achieve personal and professional goals. Siana has 7 years of coaching experience spread across various populations including Army Captains, NFL former and current players, NCAA D1-D3 athletes, international athletes, and corporate executives. Siana is a member of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) and appeared as a guest speaker for the 2019 AASP Regional Conference and the 2020 AASP Annual Conference. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Hartford earning a B.A. in Psychology and received her M.Ed. in Athletic Counseling from Springfield College.