Emotional intelligence in the workplace
Last updated on: November 3, 2022
Did you know that our thinking brain actually grew from our emotional one?
In other words, long before our rational part of the brain developed, there was an emotional one — the limbic system.
So, just like there is an IQ — a measure of how rationally intelligent we are — there is an EQ — a measure of how emotionally intelligent we are.
Lately, however, emotional intelligence (otherwise known as emotional quotient or EQ) is gaining in popularity.
Especially in the workplace, emotional intelligence is becoming more and more relevant.
As a matter of fact, in 2021, Crunchbase reported that more than 95% of surveyed business founders stated that in leadership, EQ matters more than IQ.
That is why, in this blog post, we’ll first define emotional intelligence and consider its importance in the workplace.
After that, we’ll provide you with examples of people with low EQ and high EQ in the workplace.
Then, we’ll dive into 5 elements of emotional intelligence and give you some tips on how to improve each one of them and boost your EQ.
Let’s get started!
What is emotional intelligence?
Coined by Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer and first introduced in 1990, emotional intelligence is a phrase that has become commonplace.
But, what does it actually mean?
Namely, in his book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, Daniel Goleman defines emotional intelligence as “the capacity for recognizing our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and our relationships.”
OK, now we know what emotional intelligence is — but, what does it have to do with our workplace?
Why is emotional intelligence important in the workplace?
You’ve surely heard multiple times that EQ is more important for success than IQ.
Even Goleman states something similar in the title of his book we previously mentioned.
This very book even points out that sometimes people with IQs of 160 work for people with IQs of 100.
What’s the catch?
Emotional intelligence — the former have lower EQ than the latter.
So, to motivate you more to work on your own emotional intelligence, let’s consider some of the benefits of emotional intelligence in the workplace.
Benefit #1: Emotional intelligence improves teamwork
More emotionally intelligent employees work better in a team because they are:
- Better communicators,
- More open to their coworkers’ ideas, and
- Less likely to take complete control over a project.
Emotionally intelligent employees are considerate and communicate respectfully with others.
Emotional intelligence enables them to build trusting relationships with their coworkers, which further improves their teamwork.
One of our contributors, Kathryn Boudreau, a remote operation manager at Spread Great Ideas, shared with us her opinion:
“Emotional intelligence builds self-awareness and helps you better relate to others at work, leading to better communication. It helps build better self-regulation and interpersonal relationships, allowing teams to work towards organizational goals regardless of the challenges.”
In other words, self-regulation, a component of emotional intelligence, improves your workflow with your team.
Benefit #2: Emotional intelligence improves your career prospects
The qualities of effective leaders correlate with high emotional intelligence.
Namely, great leaders are:
- Active listeners,
- Positive, and
So, if you strive towards higher positions in your organization, you should consider working on these qualities and improving your EQ.
Namely, having high EQ enables you to build closer working relationships and understand your role in the team and the company.
All of these increase your chances of promotions and raises.
Benefit #3: Emotional intelligence reduces stress
According to the research Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace: Exploring its Effects on Occupational Stress and Organizational Commitment, employees with higher scores on emotional intelligence tests suffer less work-related stress.
In other words, instead of succumbing to pressure during stressful times, these employees show emotional self-control and resiliency.
Thanks to those qualities, they overcome professional obstacles with more confidence and ease than those with lower EQ scores.
Our contributor Cheryl Brown Merriwether, Senior Professional in Human Resources and Vice President of the International Center for Addiction and Recovery Education (ICARE), shared with us a similar observation:
“The workplace has always been a high-stress environment. Individuals differ in their abilities to cope with stress. Some choose unhealthy methods that lead to struggles with mental health, substance misuse, or other behavioral health issues.
Emotional intelligence benefits individuals by providing them with skills needed to improve working relationships and develop higher levels of resilience in response to change, and increasing self-awareness and greater self-control.”
To put it another way, emotional intelligence leads to greater resilience.
Benefit #4: Emotional intelligence increases accountability
Theodore Roosevelt once said:
“The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything.”
So, if you work, you’re bound to make some mistakes.
Even when that happens, it’s not the end of the world.
However, how you deal with these mistakes afterward is what makes a difference.
Managers and employees with higher emotional intelligence are more likely to promote accountability and constructive feedback.
In other words, they often own up to their mistakes and seek help to correct them.
Thanks to higher levels of self-awareness, they are unlikely to pass the blame on others or get defensive.
Benefit #5: Emotional intelligence improves the workplace environment
For a workplace environment to be an area of enjoyment, employees should respect one another and get along with one another.
Emotionally intelligent employees help reduce stress and boost morale in the workplace, making a healthy company culture.
“In today’s stressful workplace, emotional intelligence teaches people how to constructively ‘blow off steam’ and resolve conflict, which protects the safety of the individual and others and fosters a culture of workplace wellness.”
Again, just like mistakes, stress is a common factor in the workplace, but that doesn’t mean it must be debilitating.
Luckily, emotional intelligence helps you deal with stress and achieve a healthy workplace environment.
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Benefit #6: Emotional intelligence improves motivation and engagement
According to the study Role of Emotional Intelligence on Employee Engagement, emotional intelligence in the workplace is related to employees’ level of enthusiasm.
Aside from that, more emotionally intelligent employees are also more dedicated to their job.
Their engagement is higher, and all of that influences their overall job performance and satisfaction.
In the longer term, employee engagement reduces absenteeism and increases retention.
Benefit #7: Emotional intelligence builds effective communication
Last but not least, emotional intelligence improves your communication by enabling you to stay calm under pressure and be in control of your emotions.
When dealing with various obstacles or deadlines in the workplace, it helps when you can react in a calm and reflective manner.
Emotionally intelligent employees don’t let their emotions negatively affect their communication.
Instead, even when under pressure at work, they stay relaxed and communicate their expectations clearly and effectively.
By doing so, they, at the same time, build stronger relationships with their colleagues.
Additionally, emotional intelligence enables you to read the situation and restrain yourself from responding impulsively.
This diplomatic manner of communication also prevents conflicts between colleagues.
In our research, we contacted Dr. Gena Cox, an organizational psychologist and the founder at Feels Human, LLC:
“Emotional intelligence helps managers and colleagues understand ‘what is really happening here’ — the unspoken context that is as important as what is spoken out loud. When people lack this intelligence, they come across as lacking empathy, because they do not pick up on nonverbal cues. And they are not easily trusted.”
Finally, emotional intelligence makes you a more assertive communicator — it allows you to present your ideas and be proactive.
Now that we’ve considered some of the main benefits of emotional intelligence in the workplace, it’s time we briefly look at the examples of the behavior of employees with high and low emotional quotients.
Examples of people with high and low EQ in the workplace
If you’re still not sold on the idea of EQ being more important than IQ in the workplace, let’s look at the table showing the differences between people with high and low EQ.
After that, we’ll illustrate these differences with a couple of examples.
|People with high EQ||People with low EQ|
|Make better decisions and solve problems||Play the victim and avoid taking responsibility for their mistakes|
|Keep cool under pressure||Have passive or aggressive communication styles|
|Resolve conflicts||Refuse to work as a team|
|Listen, reflect, and respond to constructive criticism||Dismiss other people’s opinions|
|Have greater empathy||Are overly critical of others|
Now, let’s look at two examples of the importance of emotional intelligence in the workplace.
Namely, we’ll consider two possible responses to the same request.
Situation: Karen Wilson, a PR specialist in an IT company, has come up with an idea about the upcoming conference. She shares this idea with her manager, Katie Stark.
Response #1: Let’s see how Katie Stark, a manager with low emotional intelligence, would respond to her colleague’s idea.
In this example, Katie is being too direct and not at all empathetic.
We might say that she has a lot of work to do on improving her emotional intelligence.
Response #2: Now it’s time for the response from Katie from a parallel universe — where she’s considerably more emotionally intelligent.
In this case, Katie has explained to her coworker why the idea she suggested is not feasible at the moment.
At the same time, Karen is more likely to feel seen, heard, and understood although her idea is rejected.
We’ve seen some examples of how less and more emotionally intelligent managers behave in the workplace.
Now, it’s time to give you some tips on how to improve your emotional intelligence.
How to improve the 5 elements of emotional intelligence in the workplace
Before we dive into some useful advice on improving your emotional intelligence in the workplace, let’s briefly consider what the components of emotional intelligence are.
Namely, Goleman outlines 5 elements of emotional intelligence:
- Empathy, and
- Social skills.
Now it’s time to consider these elements in more detail and see how we can improve each one of them.
Element #1: Self-awareness (and how to improve it)
According to Goleman, self-awareness is the crucial component of emotional intelligence.
It is the ability to recognize and understand a feeling as it happens.
This element is the keystone to psychological insight and self-understanding — if we’re not able to recognize our true feelings, we’re at their mercy.
Consequently, being aware of our emotions makes us better pilots in our lives. We’re in control.
To quote Dr. Dan Siegel: “If you can name it, you can tame it.”
It’s time to see what we can do to improve our self-awareness.
Tip #1: Write down your plans and priorities
If you want to raise your self-awareness, the first thing you need to do is write down your plans and priorities for the day or the week.
This exercise will help you track your progress and see if you stick to your agenda.
Even the famous Benjamin Franklin used a somewhat similar method to increase his own self-awareness.
Namely, he used to write a so-called ‘balance sheet’, in which he would list both the assets and liabilities of his personal traits.
This helped him better assess his character and identify opportunities for improvement..
Tip #2: Take psychometric tests
Psychometric tests are not reserved for HR professionals and the recruitment process.
They can be a useful tool for your journey to your better self.
A plethora of psychometric tests are at your disposal — the most famous ones being:
- The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator,
- The Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire, and
These tests help you better understand your true personality and see what your strengths and weaknesses are.
Again, after you gain a more profound insight into your character, you may find it easier to deal with the obstacles you’re facing — you’ll know what you should work on.
Tip #3: Get regular feedback at work
According to an Officevibe study, 65% of employees want more feedback.
If done well, constructive feedback enables you to better understand your strengths and weaknesses.
This is an irreplaceable tool for continued learning and improvement.
In the example below, Judith is unsure whether her latest project was satisfactory, so she’s asking for her manager’s feedback.
Judith is demonstrating a healthy attitude toward her insecurities.
She’s not sure she’s done what needs to be done, so she’s asking for her manager’s opinion, rather than succumbing to self-doubt.
Element #2: Self-regulation (and how to improve it)
It’s not enough to be aware of your emotions and accurately name them — you have to regulate and manage them effectively if you want to improve your emotional intelligence.
People who have trouble with the regulation of their emotions are in a constant battle with distress.
Those who are lucky and know how to self-regulate can bounce back more easily from the setbacks life throws at them.
However, it’s important to highlight that the goal here is not suppression of emotions — as they all have their value and place in our life.
The key is to find balance.
You don’t want to mute your emotions too much and become dull and distant.
On the other hand, you don’t want them to be out of control and become too extreme and overwhelming.
So, let’s see what are the best ways to achieve this balance in self-regulation.
Tip #1: Respond, don’t react
Have you ever heard of amygdala hijack?
Namely, the amygdala is a part of the brain responsible for our emotional and behavioral responses. It also activates that famous fight-or-flight response.
So, that’s one side of the medal.
The other side belongs to the frontal lobes of our brain, which regulate reasoning, thinking, decision-making, and planning.
In other words, it is the more rational side of the medal.
Now, when we find ourselves in a dangerous situation, the amygdala is the first to react.
Sometimes, this reaction is so severe that it becomes irrational — and this is the phenomenon Goleman named “amygdala hijack”.
In these cases, the amygdala disables all other responses and “hijacks” control of your brain.
This hijack often leads to irrational and inappropriate behavior and after it passes, you may experience embarrassment or regret.
That is precisely why you should learn to respond, not react to situations.
What is the difference between a response and a reaction?
A response is considerate and deliberate.
A reaction, on the other hand, is rash and immediate.
Let’s illustrate this difference with an example.
🔶 Situation: Your colleague forgot to send an important report to your most valuable client.
Here are two possible ways you can deal with this situation — reaction (not recommended) and response (recommended).
|❌ Reaction:||✅ Response:|
|You lose your grip and start yelling at your colleague. Both you and your colleague are upset, and the problem is no closer to its solution.||You acknowledge that you are angry at your colleague for forgetting to send that report, but you take a deep breath and pause. Then, you consider the situation, try to make amends to your client, and talk to your colleague (who promises not to repeat the mistake).|
Tip #2: Understand that many things are out of your control
Accept that you cannot control everything.
This acceptance is not the same as resignation or passivity — it simply means that we need to analyze the situation objectively and be real about what we can and cannot control.
For instance, you can’t control the traffic or the way your colleagues think and act.
What you can do, though, is control how you respond (not react) to the world around you — even though you can’t control the outcome of the situation.
So, after you’ve analyzed the situation and realized it’s out of your control, just take a deep breath and practice mindfulness.
Tip #3: Relieve stress with hobbies or meditation exercises
To equip yourself for a battle with your own emotions, you should strive to be as relaxed as possible.
Some of the ways that lead to you being at peace with yourself are taking up a hobby or meditating.
These activities help you get in touch with yourself and turn off that auto-pilot when it comes to dealing with unforeseen problems.
By being more relaxed, you allow yourself to pause before responding to the situation, thereby increasing your chances of a more temperate response.
Element #3: Motivation (and how to improve it)
In their book Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior, Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan claim that, if we want to persist at anything, we need mechanisms that initiate and maintain effort.
In other words, we need to be motivated.
However, there are two types of motivation:
- Intrinsic motivation — stems from inside the individual — we do something because we find it interesting and satisfying, and
- Extrinsic motivation — stems from outside the individual — we do something because it leads to a tangible award.
Intrinsic motivation plays a critical role in emotional intelligence — emotionally intelligent and successful people know how to motivate themselves.
They seek internal, rather than external rewards.
Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory of motivation presupposes that people are naturally self-motivated, curious, and eager to succeed because success is personally rewarding.
However, sometimes, under the influence of circumstances and the environment, we become passive and disaffected.
Still, there are ways to improve our intrinsic motivation.
Tip #1: Maintain a positive attitude
An optimistic attitude at work keeps you from falling into apathy or hopelessness.
If you’re not a born optimist, worry not — optimism can be learned.
Underneath it all lies a so-called self-efficacy — the belief that you can master all life events and overcome any challenges.
When you develop any kind of competency, your sense of self-efficacy gets stronger and you’re more willing to take risks and accept demanding challenges.
Thereby, you’re developing an optimistic attitude towards your work.
Tip #2: Focus on what you love about your job
In every job, there are things you love more and less.
To motivate yourself, focus on those aspects of your work that you enjoy — the feeling of satisfaction when you complete an important task or help a colleague.
The main thing is to identify those parts of your work and make them your inspiration.
That is a surefire way to motivate yourself from within.
Tip #3: Avoid chasing material rewards
Although motivation in the workplace has traditionally been linked with extrinsic rewards — pay, benefits, bonuses, etc. — science shows that things are not as they seem.
Yes, people respond well to monetary rewards, but once those rewards are depleted, the motivation also plummets.
On the other hand, according to the study Intrinsic Rewards and Employee’s Performance With the Mediating Mechanism of Employee’s Motivation, there is a strong correlation between intrinsic rewards (satisfaction at doing a good job and a sense of purpose in the workplace) and employee performance.
So, intrinsic rewards are an important part of a workplace motivational strategy and should be combined with extrinsic rewards.
In other words, people should be encouraged to do things they enjoy doing, to find those aspects of their work that satisfy them. Only then can their intrinsic motivation soar.
Element #4: Empathy (and how to improve it)
We’ve come to the 4th element of emotional intelligence — empathy.
Empathy is the ability to understand how others feel and be compassionate toward them.
Neuroscientists say that empathy happens when the emotional and the cognitive center of our brain work together.
First, the emotional center perceives other people’s feelings.
Then, our cognitive center tries to make sense of why they feel the way they do and how we can help them.
Being empathetic is absolutely crucial to emotional intelligence, and, fortunately, it’s a skill that can be practiced and improved.
And, that is a good thing, since Businessolver’s report 2022 State of Workplace Empathy states that 70% of employees and HR professionals believe that empathetic organizations drive higher employee motivation.
So, let’s see how we can improve empathy in the workplace.
Tip #1: Consider the situation from another person’s point of view
Before jumping to conclusions and judgments, consider the other person’s perspective.
Sometimes, it’s not so easy — especially when that person has an opposing view to your own.
However, don’t be hasty.
Before responding to someone, take a pause and think about their predicament, as well as their arguments.
If you’re not sure how other people feel, there is a simple solution: ask them.
In an article in the New York Times, Jodi Halpern, a psychiatrist and bioethics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies empathy, says:
“For me, the core of empathy is curiosity.”
So, if you’d like to consider other people’s points of view, and you’re not sure how they feel, just follow Halpern’s advice.
Tip #2: Read books
Researchers at the New School have discovered that reading literary fiction increases our capacity to understand other people’s feelings.
People who enjoy reading literary fiction score higher on empathy and emotional intelligence tests.
In other words, reading is one of the most effective ways to open your mind to the experience of the people around you. It requires you to enter the characters’ lives and minds and helps you understand their motives and actions.
Tip #3: Don’t be afraid of difficult conversations
Don’t be afraid of being uncomfortable in order to gain some insight into other people’s views. Allow them to change your mind.
Open conversations about opposing opinions go a long way in opening your mind.
During difficult conversations, it’s not unusual for people to feel uncomfortable, but that is the point.
If it’s comfortable, you’re doing something wrong.
In order to broaden your horizons, you must be willing to step outside of your comfort zone and try to understand other people’s opinions.
There are some guidelines that can help you during these hard conversations:
- Don’t be rude.
- Engage in conversation — don’t just state your opinion and walk away.
- If after a while no one has changed their mind, agree to disagree.
- If you do change your mind, proudly tell people you did so.
Element #5: Social skills (and how to improve them)
Another important aspect of emotional intelligence are your social skills, aka your ability to interact well with others.
Among other things, good social skills include:
- Active listening,
- Communication skills (verbal and nonverbal), and
So, to help you improve both your social skills and, consequently, emotional intelligence, we bring you a few useful tips.
Tip #1: Be an active listener at all times
It’s not enough to simply hear the words the other person is saying — you need to actively communicate with your coworkers.
This means you need to be fully present in the situation, which implies that you should do the following:
- Make eye contact — This shows your interest in your coworker’s words and makes the other person feel valued and heard.
- Don’t listen to respond, but to understand — In other words, while the other person is talking, don’t rehearse your rebuttals and answers in your head, but make an effort to truly understand what the other person is saying.
- Reflect what you heard — Check if you understood what the other person is saying by paraphrasing their words. Also, ask open questions to encourage your coworker to further respond.
- Withhold judgment — Be empathetic toward the other person and try to understand their situation.
If you practice these tips, you’ll surely become a more active listener.
Tip #2: Pay attention to nonverbal cues from others
Another important aspect of communication that should not be overlooked is nonverbal communication.
These sometimes subtle signs can go unnoticed, so here’s what you should pay attention to:
- Facial expressions — These include smiling, frowning, sighing, and appearing sad, angry, or excited. When communicating with others, facial expressions say a lot about what is being communicated. It’s our job to interpret these signs, to fully understand another person.
- Body language — Sometimes people inadvertently communicate the real truth via their body language. That is why it’s important to read what their body language is saying and check if it correlates with their words. For instance, if they’re saying ‘No’ while at the same time nodding their heads*, it’s more likely that their body language is telling the truth.
*Be mindful of cultural differences during cross-cultural communication — in some cultures, for instance, in Bulgaria, nodding your head means “No”.
Even if your meetings are virtual, you can use technology to your advantage, thanks to video call options. These allow you to read other people’s nonverbal cues even though you’re not in the same room with them.
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Tip #3: Hone your persuasion skills
Persuasion skills are maybe the most important social skills in the workplace.
Whether you’re a manager or an employee, you’ve most certainly needed to persuade someone to do something at least once.
Maybe you needed to negotiate a better budget for your team or convince your manager your idea is worth considering.
Whatever the case was, one thing is certain: you needed to persuade someone to do something.
But, maybe your persuasion skills weren’t up to par and didn’t get what you wanted.
The good news is that these skills can be fine-tuned in a few simple steps:
- Do your research — you need to have all the necessary information before trying to persuade other people into doing something.
- Find a common ground with the person you’re trying to persuade.
- Show them how you can solve their problem.
- Be persistent but respectful in stating your arguments.
In the example below, Christina Fray, an HR manager in a digital marketing agency, is informing her coworkers about some changes in the company.
She has prepared properly — she first did a survey on the preferred work models, and only after that sent a message informing her coworkers about the change.
By taking these necessary steps, she manifested highly developed persuasion skills, which helped her gain her coworkers’ approval and trust.
Wrapping up: EQ can be more important than IQ in the workplace
Your success in business (as well as in life in general) depends more on your EQ than your IQ.
Luckily for all of us, emotional intelligence can be improved.
We have given you 5 sets of tips for improving 5 elements of emotional intelligence:
- Empathy, and
- Social skills.
The ball is in your court — use these tips wisely and enjoy the benefits of the increased emotional intelligence.
Don’t be surprised if you become more popular in your workplace. You’re welcome!
✉️ What about you? In your opinion, how important is emotional intelligence in the workplace? How does it affect your workplace communication? Do you have any additional tips for improving emotional intelligence? Share your experience and tips at firstname.lastname@example.org and we may include your answers in this or future posts.