In the modern workplace, a great level of importance is placed on technical skills. And rightly so, because technology has affected industries across the board. But on the other side of the scale, there is a need for the capacity to work with people to achieve vital objectives and maintain productivity and morale. In essence, a strong sense of emotional intelligence affects how you navigate both your career and your personal life. Being able to effectively utilize and manage things like empathy, social skills, self-restraint, and positivity can support and contribute to success in all facets of your life. As far as your career goes, whether you're an entry-level staffer or an experienced manager, maximizing your emotional intelligence is an effective tool to help you work better with others.
However, emotional intelligence generally isn’t something we are taught in school, so we may not even be aware of it. Fortunately, it is something you can develop and learn. In this article, we’ll discuss the concept of emotional intelligence and how it can help you in the workplace, including:
What are the mechanisms of emotional intelligence?
What’s keeping us from developing emotional intelligence?
What are the signs of emotional intelligence?
3 ways to improve our emotional intelligence
How to create an ethos of emotional intelligence in the workplace
What is emotional intelligence?
At its core, emotional intelligence is the ability to identify, comprehend, and deal with our personal emotions and other people. It’s the ability to appreciate how emotions affect your thoughts, ideas, and actions so you can have a greater influence over your behavior and cope more successfully. Developing your emotional intelligence will help you gain a deeper, more nuanced sense of self, allowing us to interact more positively with others and develop more meaningful relationships.
Elements of emotional intelligence
Emotional intelligence is a collection of skills and actions. While some level of emotional intelligence is innate, it is possible to improve emotional intelligence skills. The four main elements of emotional intelligence are what we’ll call “The Four S’s”:
Self-awareness, which is identifying and comprehending your own emotions and how they affect others.
Self-regulation, or the ability to manage your emotions and behaviors.
Social awareness, or empathy, is when you can understand other people's emotions. It's more than just putting yourself in their shoes, it's the ability to understand how they actually feel.
Social skills include effectively handling conflict, working effectively with a team, and inspiring others. Employees with solid social skills can benefit the workplace because they understand others and help the team work toward their goals.
Can developing your emotional intelligence make you happier at work? According to a study published by ScienceDirect.com, “Based on data collected from 373 project managers in the Australian defense industry, our results indicate that EI has a positive impact on project success, job satisfaction, and trust.”
What’s keeping us from developing emotional intelligence?
One of the main barriers to developing our sense of emotional intelligence is that we don’t always see ourselves clearly, but most of us think we do. In fact, a study done by Tasha Eurich, Ph.D., an organizational psychologist, researcher, and New York Times bestselling author, found that 95 percent of the subjects in the study rated themselves as having a high level of self-awareness. However, using more scientific methods, the study determined that only 10-15 percent of the study participants were truly self-aware. That’s a bit of a disconnect.
And it gets worse the higher up the career ladder you climb. Dr. Eurich’s research also showed that those on the executive level are the least self-aware. It makes sense because when you're at the top of the career chain, few people are offering you constructive criticism. Still, getting that feedback is critical to developing your sense of emotional intelligence and getting a greater understanding of your interactions with others in the workplace.
How we perceive ourselves and those around us is directly tied to self-awareness. We tend to see ourselves in one way, positively or negatively, and that can affect how we interact with others in the workplace.
Emotional barriers are mostly internal, and consist largely of your fears — feelings of unworthiness, fear of failure, pride, and even the dreaded “imposter syndrome.” Dealing with emotional barriers takes a lot of self-reflection and self-awareness, which can be difficult to face, but can be tackled with some effort and perhaps seeking out the services of a mental health professional.
Introspection is important, but it has to be approached the right way. Dr. Tasha Eurich posits that asking ourselves “why" we feel the way we do is an ineffective self-awareness question, because "research has shown that we simply do not have access to many of the unconscious thoughts, feelings, and motives we're searching for." And because so much of this information isn’t available to us, “we tend to invent answers that feel true but are often wrong.” A better approach would be to ask “what,” instead of “why.” “What” questions, according to Eurich, keep us “Objective, future-focused, and empowered to act on our new insights.”
What is an emotionally intelligent person like?
The good news is that emotional intelligence is a set of behaviors and skills that can be cultivated and strengthened. People who have poor emotional intelligence may get upset easily, feel emotionally overwhelmed, and have issues with confidence.
Conversely, people with higher emotional intelligence tend to stay cool headed in a crisis, motivate others to reach their goals, and tactfully deal with difficult people and situations.
Can you improve low emotional intelligence? 3 strategies can help
Emotional intelligence can be learned, but it isn’t something that can be changed overnight. It’s an ongoing process. There are steps you can take to improve your emotional intelligence and your interpersonal relationships in the workplace.
Identify your emotions
This can be tough because we don't always know what we're feeling. Think about how you felt in a recent situation at work. Next time it happens, take a moment to stop and consider your feelings, and decide if you can improve your reaction.
By asking supervisors, coworkers, or your friends how they would evaluate your emotional intelligence, you can gain a more accurate picture of how you respond to stress, new situations, or conflicts. It may not be easy to hear, but it is invaluable for developing your emotional intelligence.
You may not have thought that reading books could help strengthen your emotional intelligence. Some studies show that reading fiction featuring multifaceted, well-developed characters can improve empathy, a vital component of emotional intelligence.
Having well-developed emotional intelligence isn’t just helpful in getting hired; it may set you up for future success as well. According to the Niagara Institute,
Emotional intelligence is the strongest predictor of performance out of 34 essential workplace skills
The demand for emotional skills will increase by 26 percent by 2030
75 percent of managers use emotional intelligence to gauge their employee’s promotion and salary potential
Creating a workplace environment that supports emotional intelligence
Developing your own emotional intelligence is valuable because it can help improve your relationships and self-esteem. But building stronger emotional intelligence in your workplace might be more difficult, since you’re dealing with a wide range of personalities, viewpoints, and egos. While you absolutely can (and should) model this positive behavior on your own, creating a culture of emotional intelligence where you work requires a team approach.
Margaret Andrews, who teaches a course called “Emotional Intelligence in Leadership” at Harvard University, says, “If you want to change how your organization does in EI (emotional intelligence), you can set norms for how people communicate and how they disagree. In addition, you need to recognize and celebrate those that exhibit emotional intelligence…if you want to encourage good team behavior, recognize it and call it out for what it is.” In other words, companies need to stop encouraging and rewarding selfish, cutthroat behavior, and start celebrating more positive qualities such as empathy, positivity, and teamwork.
Don’t worry that you have to be a doormat to have emotional intelligence. It's not always about being nice or bending over backward for others, even if it's to your own detriment. Rather, emotional intelligence means having an awareness of how emotions influence your thoughts, words, and actions, and then putting that knowledge into practice to create more fruitful and positive interactions with your colleagues.
Signs of an emotionally intelligent workplace
So what does emotional intelligence in the workplace actually look like? An organization that employs a culture of emotional intelligence will have three major commonalities.
Employees feel confident in speaking up
Most people have, at one time or another, worked in a place where the employees felt that they didn’t have a voice, or feared retribution if they did. About 50 percent of employees don’t speak up for this very reason! In a culture where emotional intelligence is supported and promoted, everyone is encouraged to share their ideas, even if they don’t match up with the management’s point of view.
The workplace is more productive
A common joke is, “This meeting could have been an email.” But it is possible to conduct meetings that are informational, helpful, and lead to increased productivity instead of being a total time-waster. In an environment that promotes emotional intelligence, people understand that their colleagues have limited time during the day and make a point of not wasting their time. They have a clear, concise agenda, keep the conversation on-topic, and ensure that the meetings have productive, tangible results.
There is less employee turnover
In this age of “The Great Resignation,” people are more aware of what their employers are (or aren’t) doing to support their employees, and more employees are leaving because of it, and in large numbers. But emotional intelligence in the workplace helps employees stay in their jobs because employees feel they can have honest conversations about their work/life balance, goals, challenges, and their overall career aspirations. This level of openness and transparency between management and the “rank and file” can increase employee engagement, productivity, and retention.
Three steps for cultivating emotional intelligence in the workplace
So this all sounds great in theory, but it can be challenging to put into practice. In fact, while 92 percent of workers believe they have well-developed emotional intelligence, only 74 percent think that their management does. That said, more than 61 percent of employees have admitted that they’ve lost control of their emotions in the workplace. Although it’s even harder to cultivate connections with colleagues in the age of remote work, it’s not a lost cause. There are three steps you can take to develop overall emotional intelligence in the workplace:
Start from the top, down. Management should model the behavior they want to see in the workplace.
Encourage team building. This doesn’t mean paintball wars or building various work scenarios with Legos. But it’s still okay to make a game of it, which gives employees a chance to bond and gives them a break from their daily routine.
Fostering open channels of communication. Companies can convey that improving overall emotional intelligence is a priority, share the steps they’re taking to develop it, and offer regular opportunities for employee feedback. Attention should be paid to behavior that does not support the effort, which can be difficult but will ultimately help employees understand the intent in a real-world application.
In the end, supporting emotional intelligence is a win-win for both individuals and companies. For employers, it leads to stronger teamwork, higher productivity, and employee retention. For you, the employee, it can mean more confidence and creativity, and improved personal relationships, all of which can lead to career success.
Not sure about the next step in your career? For help, check out our Career Pathways tool.
Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify, comprehend, and deal with our emotions and other people.
While some level of emotional intelligence is innate, it is possible to improve emotional intelligence skills.
Emotional intelligence in the workplace supports personal development, as well as higher productivity and employee retention.