Emotional intelligence in the workplace

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Published: 26 June 2024 | by Natasha K. A. Wiebusch, Brightmine Marketing Content Manager

Emotional intelligence is one of the top skills professionals will need in the age of AI, especially CHROs. With the rise of AI-powered tools, emotional intelligence is now one of the few differentiators between AI and humans.

But emotional intelligence has always been an invaluable skill for successful leaders. In “What Makes a Leader,” the father of emotional intelligence himself, Daniel Goleman, found that emotional intelligence is twice as important to high performance as technical skills and intelligence quotient (IQ) — at all job levels. Studies also show that employees with high emotional intelligence perform better under pressure and in times of change.

In this guide, we provide an in-depth overview of emotional intelligence and how you can leverage it to take on the future of work.

What is emotional intelligence in the workplace?

Emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability to identify, understand and manage one’s emotions, as well as recognise and influence another person’s emotions. People often refer to people with high emotional intelligence as having a high emotional quotient or “high EQ.”

Having high emotional intelligence helps people manage their personal and professional lives in many ways. Most notably, it helps improve communication, relationship building, conflict resolution and stress management.

In the workplace, emotional intelligence is key to managing relationships with colleagues, conflicts and stress.

The 4 domains of emotional intelligence

What exactly makes someone emotionally intelligent? In the 90’s, Daniel Goleman established five components of emotional intelligence:

  • Self-awareness.
  • Self-regulation.
  • Social skills.
  • Motivation.
  • Empathy.

Then, in 2002, he redesigned the model to include four domains, each of which sit in a quadrant:

Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence Model

Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence Model, which contains four quadrants: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management.
Source: Primal Leadership: Realising the Importance of Emotional Intelligence, by D. Goleman, R. Boyatzis, & A. McKee, 2002

Benefits of emotional intelligence in the workplace

Supporting and nurturing emotionally intelligent people in the workplace has many proven benefits:

Leadership

A study by Daniel Goleman found that emotional intelligence skills are twice as important as technical skills and IQ. In his paper, “What Makes a Leader,” Goleman also noted that 90% of the differences between high and average performing leaders can be attributed to emotional intelligence.

Besides Goleman’s study, research has consistently shown that emotional intelligence is critical to effective leadership. Having high emotional intelligence helps leaders identify strengths and weaknesses in themselves and others, which is key to talent management. It also helps them understand individual perspectives, as high EQ leaders are excellent active listeners.

Additionally, emotional intelligence is extremely beneficial to leaders in times of change, as organisational change often requires leaders to influence, collaborate and build momentum. To do this, they must be able to manage relationships effectively.

Performance

Research has also found that 90% of the top performers have high emotional intelligence. Aside from key leadership skills, emotional intelligence helps employees manage relationships with colleagues and collaborate as a team.

Specifically, high EQ employees have the ability to understand how colleagues are feeling and what they need. This helps employees work together towards common goals and objectives. High EQ employees are also better able to navigate conflict in a productive way, which supports innovation and growth.

Studies have also shown that employees with high emotional intelligence handle pressure and perform better under stress. This is in great part because employees with high emotional intelligence have increased confidence and feelings of self-efficacy. These traits help employees stay calm and better handle the pressures of deadlines, set-backs and other challenges at work.

Well-being

Naturally, employees with high emotional intelligence are better able to handle workplace stress. One study specifically found that self-awareness and self-management abilities were the best predictors of effective job stress management.

Here, it’s important to note that employees (and leaders) can improve their emotional intelligence through learning and development. One common form of emotional intelligence learning is mindfulness training. According to a study by SIGMA Assessment Systems and Western University, mindfulness training improved employee well-being by:

  • Lowering perceived stress.
  • Lowering rates of negative mood.
  • Increasing resilience.
  • Increasing rates of positive mood.

Aside from mindfulness, high levels of emotional intelligence in employees — managers in particular — support employee well-being through improved relationship management. In fact, 70% of employees say their manager has more influence over their mental health than their therapist or doctor.

Managers with high levels of empathy are better able to support employees, understand their needs and influence their performance. They’re also better able to communicate with their employees, which is key to building a healthy manager-employee relationship.

Culture

Finally, emotional intelligence supports a healthy workplace culture, and in turn, a better employee experience. First, teams that communicate effectively and resolve conflicts in a productive manner are more likely to achieve their goals. This is particularly important when teams are managing change.

Additionally, employees and leaders with high empathy are more likely to support psychological safety. And, psychological safety is key to creating a supportive, high-performance workplace culture.

Examples of emotional intelligence in the workplace

Emotional intelligence manifests in the workplace in many ways. The following are a few common examples emotional intelligence at work:

Adapting to change

Employees with high emotional intelligence are better able to adapt to change. They’re able to understand how a change impacts them and their colleagues — and what they need to navigate the change. Also, high EQ leaders are better at leading employees through change through effective communication, support and conflict management.

Communicating effectively

Communicating effectively with team members is key to productive teamwork. And, effective leaders will recognise that not all employees have the same communication style. For example, a manager with low EQ may not be able to recognise how different employees prefer receiving feedback. Because feedback is so important, this can lead to a poor relationship and poor performance.

Employees who have high emotional intelligence can communicate effectively with individual colleagues by understanding their needs and feelings. They’re also able to communicate their ideas clearly in meetings and influence decisions.

Supporting an employee through a challenge

If the COVID-19 pandemic taught us anything, it’s that employees want their employers to treat them as whole people. It also showed us that leaders who recognised their employees’ struggles and concerns, and acted with empathy, were much more successful in retaining talent. Unfortunately, the Great Resignation proved that many employers were not successful.

Employees will have challenges at work and in their personal lives that will impact their well-being and performance. Emotional intelligence can help leaders and managers understand and react to these challenges in a positive way.

Accepting feedback

Being able to accept feedback while maintaining a growth mindset is just as important as providing feedback. Having high levels emotional intelligence, which often leads to better self-confidence and self-awareness, can help employees accept feedback productively. It can also help employees understand why they’re receiving feedback and how it relates to the organisation’s business goals.

How HR can influence emotional intelligence

So what’s HR’s role in promoting emotional intelligence in the workplace? As people leaders, HR can make emotional intelligence a priority for hiring, influence emotional intelligence development and much more. Here’s how:

Make high EQ a desired skill in hiring

HR can ensure the recruitment team and hiring managers value high emotional intelligence in the hiring process. To make this a priority, include skills associated with high EQ in job requirements (or desired skills and abilities). You can also include interview questions or pre-employment tests that measure emotional intelligence.

Implement emotional intelligence training

You can also invest in emotional intelligence training for employees and managers. Because emotional intelligence is a skill, training should be continuous and include clear workplace exercises and applications.

Measure emotional intelligence aptitude and perceptions

Though emotional intelligence can be challenging to measure quantitatively, you can gain insights into their organisation’s emotional intelligence through employee opinion surveys. You can also gain important insights from psychological safety questionnaires and metrics.

Model emotional intelligence

As tone setters, leaders must be able to model emotional intelligence to effectively promote it in the workplace. You can model emotional intelligence by communicating with empathy and instiling confidence in times of change or strife.

Emotional intelligence and the future of work


The critical importance of emotional intelligence cannot be understated. In a future of work where change is rapid and constant, emotional intelligence will play a central role in maximising performance and well-being. A workforce with high emotional intelligence will enjoy improved communication, innovation and productivity. And, high EQ will help managers support their employees and help employees manage their own workplace stressors.

Supporting high emotional intelligence is just one way to take your people — and your business — to new heights. Learn how Brightmine can help you maximise HR’s business impact.