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In the Weeds with an EQ expert: How to use your emotions as data
Amy Jin coaches founders on tapping into their emotions to lead with clarity and intention.
“Many startup founders begin their journeys believing that success in their business will come from intellectual mastery alone — being the smartest, and using only cognitive ability to make the best decisions or outmaneuver their competition,” said Amy Jin, a leadership coach for founders and an executive coach for Velocity. “Unfortunately, this leads people to separate themselves from their emotions, suppressing feelings and forgetting that, at the end of the day, it’s other people they need to inspire and lead.”
Focusing only on intellectual mastery also means ignoring some pretty significant data. “There is super high-quality, lucrative information within a founder’s intuition, their emotional system, and the way emotions manifest physically,” Amy shared. “When we can tap into emotion, we can connect with ourselves and then with one another, which is what we actually need to do to obtain insights, make better decisions, and develop the resilience to build this thing that nobody has built before.”
The awareness of emotions — your own and those of others — and the ability to manage and interpret them is at the heart of emotional intelligence, or EQ. It’s also a topic Amy is uniquely qualified to discuss.
With a degree in psychology and a professional path that’s included leading sales efforts at OpenTable, six years in business development at Google, and co-founding a fashion startup before launching her coaching career, Amy has seen the impact of leaders leveraging EQ as well as the danger in ignoring it. She’s also personally driven to share the importance of tending to emotional wellness and mental health after suffering severe burnout herself. Today, she uses mindfulness, psychology, and neuroscience to help leaders navigate the founder journey.
In this conversation with In the Works, Amy offers insight into the powerful role EQ plays in founding and growing a business.
From the top: How can a founder’s awareness of their emotions and the role of EQ in their leadership help drive growth?
First, so much of startup success is about resource allocation — where you’re putting your human and financial capital and your energy — and emotions are energy. If you’re operating in a sustained negative emotional state, such as stress, anxiety, fear, or pessimism, this will drain your energy and your ability to do work. The opposite is also true: Operating in positive emotional states — such as joy, flow, fun, fulfillment, connection, and gratitude — gives you energy that nourishes you, propels you forward, and makes you more resilient and productive.
With that information in mind, ask yourself: If I don’t have awareness of my emotional state, how am I going to manage my energy? How am I going to sustain and scale my own and the company’s growth?
Second, emotions are extremely important data. Imagine you have a dashboard measuring critical metrics, but you’ve decided to completely discount one of them. That type of intentional blindfolding is what you’re doing if you ignore your emotions. Not only does ignoring or stifling negative emotions cost you energy, it can cause you to avoid acting proactively to address something that’s amiss or amplify something that’s working. A calibrated emotional intelligence can help you make better decisions.
Third, as the leader of a team, if you're not including your emotions in communicating with others, you're working with one hand tied behind your back. If you’re not paying attention to what you’re feeling and what the people you’re working with are feeling, you’re missing the opportunity to lead vulnerably and authentically and connect with others.
The founder journey is lonely enough, and loneliness is actually associated with fatigue. I can’t think of a single founder who would voluntarily opt for more loneliness or exhaustion. If you can learn to integrate your emotions and share these with your team, you’ll create connection, which is incredibly energizing, engaging, and inspiring for others and can help drive growth and results.
Where does this work start? What are the foundational steps you take when you work with a founder around EQ?
First, a founder needs to be willing to get curious. What have you learned about the role of emotions in work and life up to this point — through media, society, or family? What might the benefits be of exploring and integrating your emotions in your work life? Most of us have spent enough time worrying about the risks and downsides; now it’s time to ask yourself, “What do I stand to gain by including emotions at work?”
Second, know you are already well-equipped, and you’re simply learning a new skill. And, just like any new skill, it takes practice. I always start by telling founders, “You have all the hardware. It's not a hardware issue. You're capable of feeling all the things and understanding what you feel. We're going to look a little bit at the software — how to recognize and act on the data your emotions deliver.”
As we begin this work, I also focus on the concept of self-compassion. You're going to find out new things about yourself. Don't judge yourself. There’s nothing wrong with you if you feel a specific emotion; we all experience these emotions. Shame, anger, sadness — these are universal. Be kind to yourself as you do this mindful, inward-looking work.
How can founders begin to tune into their emotions and use that insight in a productive way?
Along with intention, you’ll need the vocabulary to be able to name your emotions and those of others. This might seem basic, but as researcher and author Brené Brown noted in the introduction to her book Atlas of the Heart, when her team surveyed 7,000 people to identify all of the emotions that they could recognize and name, most could only name three: happy, sad, and pissed off. So I always start by providing a vocabulary list I love (developed by Stanford Graduate School of Business) to help identify your own personal range.
With that vocabulary in play, it’s also valuable to practice identifying what different emotions feel like physically. Ask yourself: “What does this emotion feel like in my body?” Understanding your physical experience can allow you to feel the arc of an emotion — that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. (In meditation, this is a technique called “noting.”) It’s helpful to know that as intense as an emotion might feel, it will end. When you understand that, it can be easier to get some perspective on the emotion so you can acknowledge it, observe it, and — over time — develop self-awareness and understanding around what you’re feeling.
In that bit of space you create when you step back to note and observe an emotion, you can start to ask, “What is this emotion here to tell me?” Then, you can use that data to help make a values-aligned decision from a grounded, informed place or to reflect further. For example, with more attention and discernment around an emotional response, you might realize that when you initially say or feel something like, “I’m pissed off,” you may actually feel betrayed, disappointed, or lonely.
When you recognize that more nuanced, specific emotion, you’ll be better able to determine what action should come next. Betrayal may merit a specific conversation. Disappointment might lead you to give feedback. Loneliness might encourage you to call a friend or join a founder’s group. It really changes our options and empowers us when we accurately name what we’re feeling. I see that when founders are able to do that, it creates a real understanding of their experience and activates their problem-solving.
I think practicing that kind of relationship with your emotions helps cultivate a sense of agency — you can make a choice as to how to respond or act; you’re at the wheel. And that’s where leadership takes flight.
How can EQ help founders work through challenges or get “unstuck” as they grow their businesses?
For many founders, fear can show up as a powerful block when they’re trying to move forward in various ways. When I see founders become stuck at a critical point — maybe they’re trying to make a big hire, attempting to understand how to best show up during a crisis, or faced with giving someone tough feedback — they are often blocked by subconscious fear, something they can’t always initially name. They might be thinking, “I’m scared that this person I’m about to hire is actually the wrong person, and if I can’t hire, I must be a bad CEO, right?”
These thoughts may not be running consciously through your head, but they could be playing in the background as you’re trying to make a decision, affecting how you behave and what you avoid.
But if you’re aware of how your emotions affect you and you can identify and name them, you can respond with intelligence. Then, you can ask yourself, “What is it I’m really afraid of? Does hiring one wrong person actually mean I’m a bad CEO? What can I do to mitigate the risk? What is knowable and what is not? What risks are worth taking?” These and other helpful questions can promote analysis and critical thinking, which can go offline when we are in a fear response. Once we can talk about our fear, we take the wheel back in our own hands.
Are there regular practices that can help strengthen or fine-tune a founder’s EQ?
First on my list is meditation. I know the idea may seem daunting or uncomfortable, but stay curious and open until you find a technique that works for you, and you’ll see that practicing self-awareness, sustained attention, and observing your thoughts and emotions through meditation can be invaluable.
Second is reflection. If you're not reflecting, you're not learning. This may mean different things to different people. It might be processing a meeting in a retrospective conversation with the group or one-on-one; it might mean taking time to make notes about what you were thinking or feeling during an interaction.
The absolute best, least expensive way to practice reflection is to create a daily journaling practice. You can write whatever comes up for you or focus on a specific experience or conversation. If you need a simple prompt, start with: How am I feeling right now? Answering that question regularly will help you improve your skill of being aware of and able to identify your emotions with more and more accuracy.
I’d also add that regular work with a therapist can be really helpful. And they’re often much less expensive than a coach!
How have you seen high EQ — or a lack of EQ — impact founders over the last few years of uncertainty and challenge?
I think emotional intelligence has come into play for every person in a leadership position over the last two or three years. Every leader has had to have some tough conversations with their team, whether that was around a layoff or another change or crisis. Those conversations are inherently emotional, and folks who haven’t recognized how important it is to tune into their own emotions and those of their teams have likely not seen a positive response.
We've probably all seen responses from leaders that ignore the emotional experience of their team. Employees wonder, “How can I trust this leader if they're not even acknowledging this thing? Why would I continue to follow this leader if it’s clear they don’t grasp what’s really going on?”
Real strength in leadership in a time of crisis or shared grief is to acknowledge the moment and say, “Hey, this is scary. I feel the uncertainty of this moment. I feel the sadness of this experience we’re all sharing. Here’s how I’m thinking about it and what we can do together.” If a leader can be vulnerable and name their emotions, it can help people feel seen and move the company forward together through that shared experience.
What are some resources that can help founders learn more about EQ?
Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown
Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D. and Amelia Nagoski, D.M.A.
Say What You Mean by Oren Jay Sofer
Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life by Susan David, Ph.D.
The bottom line: Why is emotional intelligence an important aspect of a founder’s journey?
As a founder, consider this: How are you really going to know your fullest potential if you don't explore your emotions? If you never allow yourself to connect with your feelings and the impact of those emotions on your life and work, are you going to be as effective or as successful as you want to be? Probably not, because you’ll be suppressing a lot of potential energy and insight. And you may miss out on one of the most important emotional experiences of building a company — joy. As a founder, that’s an emotional experience you don’t want to miss.
If you never allow yourself to connect with your feelings and the impact of those emotions on your life and work, are you going to be as effective or as successful as you want to be?