Bill and Melinda Gates Shared a Profound Secret to Their Success. It’s a Lesson in Emotional Intelligence


When Bill and Melinda Gates got married, Bill’s parents gave the couple an interesting gift: a sculpture of two birds, sitting side by side, staring at the horizon. Twenty-four years later, Melinda said the statue still sat in front of their house.

“I think of it all the time,” wrote Melinda back in 2018, “because fundamentally we’re looking in the same direction.”

Seems that the Gates are still looking in the same direction. In addition to marriage and raising three children together, the two have worked together for years running their charitable organization, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

But any couple who has attempted to live and work together will testify that doing so isn’t easy–especially when you throw children into the mix. How do they do it?

I recently came across a post on Bill Gates’s blog that asked the couple a tough question:

How do you handle disagreements?

The Gateses’ answer reveals major lessons for teams of all sizes. It’s a lesson in emotional intelligence, the ability to identify, understand, and manage emotions. This quality is invaluable when working as a team, because emotions play such a huge role in our dealings with others.

So, how do Bill and Melinda use emotional intelligence to navigate their greatest challenges? 

Here are three highlights:

They exercise empathy.

Empathy is one of those qualities we all want others to show to us, but that can be difficult to show to others–especially when we disagree.

“I love Bill because he has a kind heart, listens to other people, and lets himself be moved by what they say,” writes Melinda. “When I tell a story about what I’ve seen, he feels it. He might ask me to gather some data for good measure, but he doesn’t doubt the reality of my experiences or the soundness of my judgment.”

Melinda’s description of Bill’s behavior is a perfect description of empathy:

2. Identify with the other person’s feelings.

This is easier said than done. Just think of a time when a member of your team (or family, or a friend) complained to you about something you didn’t think was a big deal. How did you react? For many, the tendency is to dismiss the other person’s experience.

But when you can find a way to relate to the other person’s feelings, you’ll reveal this automatically–in the words you use, the tone in which you speak, your facial expressions, even in your body language.

Empathy serves as a great foundation for any relationship. Because when someone treats you with empathy, you’re moved to do the same for them.

They give valuable feedback.

“Some people see Melinda as the heart of our foundation, the emotional core,” writes Bill. “But just as she knows I’m more emotional than people realize, I know she’s more analytical than people realize.”

Bill says the couple takes advantage of these strengths to keep each other balanced.

“When I get really enthusiastic about something, I count on her to make sure I’m being realistic,” says Bill. “She helps me understand when I can push our teams harder (as I pretty much always did at Microsoft) and when I need to ease off.”

Similarly, Melinda says the couple has learned over time to give each other feedback at home when they aren’t reaching their goals in the office.

Teams of all sizes thrive when team members can trust one another to give constructive feedback. When change is needed, it’s not about identifying who’s right or wrong. It’s all about continuous improvement.

Emotional intelligence is about learning both to deliver and receive feedback in the best way possible–one that is designed to help, not harm.

They begin with respect.

In a world where women are afforded much less opportunity than men, Melinda says she is thankful that she and her husband have achieved true equality–both in their marriage and work relationship.

“This is a balance that married couples, and co-workers, all over the world are always trying to strike,” Melinda writes. “One of the reasons this work has been so fun for me is that we’ve been on this journey together.”

“We are partners in both senses that people use the word these days: at home and at work,” Bill chimes in.

You may not work with your spouse, but there’s a lot to be learned from the Gateses’ experience. 

Do whatever you can to give your team ownership, to make them feel that they are partners, not pawns. That means giving them freedom to explore and share new ideas, and rewarding them for doing so. At times, it also means learning to “disagree and commit.”

Because once they feel respected and valued, and especially if they feel a sense of ownership in the work, they’ll be ready to go all in, all together.

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