Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace, Explained

Technical skills and business acumen can only get you so far.

Written by Jeff Rumage
Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace, Explained
Image: Shutterstock / Built In
Brennan Whitfield | Apr 22, 2024

Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and manage one’s emotions, read the emotions of others and adjust one’s approach to meet the emotional needs of others.

Emotional intelligence is an important skill in the workplace, especially for leaders, and it’s critical to developing a positive company culture where team members feel heard, valued and comfortable collaborating with each other in the pursuit of organizational goals.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize and regulate your emotions. It also includes the ability to recognize others’ emotions, learn what motivates them and use that information to form collaborative relationships.

As a concept, emotional intelligence comes from Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, specifically those of interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligences. The term ‘emotional intelligence’ was first coined in 1990 by researchers Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer, and garnered mainstream attention in 1995, when science journalist Daniel Goleman published his book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ

Researchers have developed several types of assessments to measure a person’s emotional intelligence, which can be quantified as an emotional quotient (EQ). While some people are more predisposed to emotional intelligence — either through genetics, their upbringing or other life experiences — it’s also a skill that can be learned over time.


What Does Emotional Intelligence Look Like?

Emotional intelligence goes far beyond being likable, and includes the ability to offer constructive criticism, manage conflicts and lead organizational changes. In practice, emotional intelligence can look like:

  • Remaining positive, flexible and solutions-oriented during a tight work deadline.
  • Taking ownership when falling short of project expectations, and actively seeking feedback for self-improvement.
  • Communicating calmly when providing or receiving criticism.
  • Listening attentively and asking thoughtful questions in conversations with coworkers.
  • Empathizing and offering support when a coworker brings up a personal struggle.


Why Is Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace Important?

Emotional intelligence can help employees and leaders identify their own strengths, weaknesses and motivations, and then make career choices that align with their values. It can also help them learn what other people are feeling and how they can best relate to those people, which leads to healthy workplace relationships and business success.

Additional benefits of emotional intelligence include the following.

Emotionally Intelligent Leaders Keep Morale High

An emotionally intelligent manager works to know how employees feel and what they value. This helps them set the emotional tone of group discussions and guide employees through stressful projects, tight deadlines and uncertain circumstances.

“You want a boss who has these skills,” said David Caruso, a management psychologist, author and co-founder of Emotional Intelligence Skills Group. “Because they’re going to hear you, they’re going to see you and they’re going to acknowledge you.”


Emotional Intelligence Improves Relationships

Regardless of one’s position in a company, emotional intelligence is a critical skill for forging and maintaining healthy workplace relationships. 

“If I’m not strong in EQ, we could be in a conversation and I would not be aware that something is bothering you or you’re worried about something,” Christina Wang, a fractional HR consultant at Peak Advisory Consulting, told Built In. “It’s just about me, myself, and what I want, and we’re not going to be able to have a deeper connection or relationship.”


Emotional Intelligence Allows for Better Communication

When a colleague or manager has high emotional intelligence, coworkers know they can talk to them without fear of judgment, hostility or other reactive emotions. This open communication prevents mistakes, encourages productivity and boosts innovation. 

“If the way we talk is always past each other, we’re not going to create anything that’s amazing,” said Wang.


Emotional Intelligence Helps With Navigating Change

Emotionally intelligent leaders are known for their ability to stay calm, optimistic and goal-oriented during times of change or hardship. 

For example, if a team is rolling out a new initiative, an emotionally intelligent manager may be able to pick up on workers’ reluctance, anticipate how the new initiative will make their job harder or use the opportunity to talk through workers’ concerns.


Emotionally Intelligent Leaders Have More Engaged Employees

Organizations with emotionally intelligent managers are more likely to have high leadership performance outcomes and high employee engagement. When leaders underwent emotional intelligence training at Siemens, for example, the organization saw a 46 percent increase in employee engagement.


Emotional Intelligence Leads to Higher Performance

One study found that 90 percent of top-performing employees are emotionally intelligent. Further, an internal study by PepsiCo found that managers with high emotional intelligence exceeded their annual revenue goals by up to 20 percent.


Emotional Intelligence Correlates With Higher Pay

Research has also shown that emotionally intelligent professionals earn an average of $29,000 per year more than their colleagues.


Emotional Intelligence Makes Employees Happier

When teams are high in emotional intelligence, people are able to communicate, solve problems and achieve results together. Numerous studies have shown that emotional intelligence contributes to job satisfaction and employee morale.


Emotional Intelligence Helps Prevent Turnover

Employees are more likely to stay with an organization when there aren’t workplace conflicts, communication issues and unnecessary barriers to success. A Korn Ferry study found that emotionally intelligent leaders can inspire up to 70 percent of employees to stay with an organization for five years or longer.

Related Reading What Are Soft Skills?

The Elements of Emotional Intelligence 

In his book Emotional Intelligence, Goleman identified five key elements of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skill.

1. Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is the ability to recognize one’s emotions and how they show up in the workplace. Someone with high self-awareness understands their own strengths, weaknesses and personality type, and they may check in with their emotions before speaking or making a decision. If they realize that they are more talkative than their colleagues, they might intentionally make space for other perspectives in a conversation. A self-aware person will also be aware of their own limitations, which will prevent them from taking on a project they aren’t equipped for.


2. Self-Regulation

In addition to being aware of their emotions, an emotionally intelligent person should be able to control their impulses. They won’t lose their temper when someone makes a mistake, and they’ll think about their words before they speak. A person who regulates their emotions will also be well-equipped for a dynamic business world, as they are more likely to suspend judgment amid changing conditions instead of reflexively resisting a new way of doing things.


3. Motivation

Emotionally intelligent individuals are less driven by money, status or job titles as they are a sense of achievement and an interest in the work itself. They are on a quest for self-improvement, and they are always looking for ways to improve themselves and their team. Even when faced with obstacles, they remain optimistic and focused on meeting their goals. Motivation is especially important in leadership positions, as it can inspire other team members to push themselves to their full potential.


4. Empathy

Empathy is a core component of emotional intelligence. By listening to other people’s issues and putting yourself in their shoes, you are able to consider how your actions or words affect other people on your team. Leaders can’t be expected to make everybody happy, but they should be able to understand where their teammates are coming from. An empathetic person will also be able to pick up on another person’s body language and sense emotions that may have gone unsaid.


5. Social Skill

An emotionally intelligent person will be able to build a rapport with other people and find common ground. They will also be able to manage and sustain relationships, which is a must-have leadership trait. Social skill doesn’t just mean being friendly. Goleman defines it as “friendliness with purpose.” A leader may have to sell employees on the merits of a new initiative, or they may have to build relationships across departments to get a project across the finish line, both of which require social skill.

Related ReadingWhy Self-Awareness Is a Crucial Management Skill


How to Improve Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace

Developing your emotional intelligence takes practice over time, but the extra effort is worth it. Here are some tips to get started.

1. Check In With Your Emotions Consistently

The first step to improving your emotional intelligence is to get a handle on your emotional strengths and weaknesses. By being aware of your emotional state, you can acknowledge your emotions without letting them control you, the energy you bring to a meeting and the interactions you have with coworkers.

Most people overestimate their emotional intelligence, Caruso said, so it’s best to use an assessment tool like the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT). You can also try to assess your emotions by noticing if emotions like anxiety, anger or sadness are linked to certain people or situations and then determining what factors are driving those emotions.

By better understanding one’s own emotions, one can become better at detecting and interpreting emotional signals in others, said Joshua Freedman, founder and CEO of emotional intelligence nonprofit Six Seconds.

“As we get better at tuning in and sensing our own feelings and making sense of them, that is the pathway that … shifts the way we have our conversations and what we listen for,’” Freedman said.


2. Solicit Feedback Regularly

Sometimes it can be difficult to see through the fog of our own emotions, which is why it can be helpful to seek an outside perspective. A 360-degree assessment is a popular feedback mechanism, but the feedback may not be honest if people don’t think you can handle constructive criticism. You could also lean on the feedback of a trusted colleague to tell you how you presented yourself in a work situation. If you obtain the necessary permissions, you could also record audio or video of yourself in meetings and review the recording with a career coach.


3. Hire a Counselor or Coach

Knowing oneself and managing one’s emotions is no small feat, so it can be helpful to talk with a therapist or coach to process these emotions and gain the tools necessary to improve one’s emotional intelligence over time.

Emotional intelligence is best learned through real-life situations and coaching. Instead of giving a presentation to a full company, Freedman has found that it’s most effective to coach leaders over the course of several months, working with them to incorporate emotionally intelligent practices into the processes at every level of the organization.


4. Read Books About Emotional Intelligence

There are also many popular books about emotional intelligence. In A Leader’s Guide to Solving Challenges With Emotional Intelligence, for example, Caruso lays out four skills that leaders can put into practice, like matching their work to match their level of energy and pleasantness. If you’re feeling low energy and low pleasantness, for example, your time might be better spent proofreading a document for errors instead of leading a group brainstorming session. Other popular books about emotional intelligence include Emotional Agility, Emotional Intelligence 2.0 and The Emotionally Intelligent Manager.


5. Practice

Emotional intelligence can’t simply be picked up by reading a book or attending a seminar. It’s a skill that needs to be developed and a muscle that needs to be exercised over time. 

The people and situations we encounter can sometimes trigger a response from our limbic system, the emotional center of our brain, but emotional intelligence requires us to process those emotions with the rational part of our brain in the prefrontal cortex. By consciously practicing emotional intelligence skills, you can develop the neurons connecting these two parts of the brain, helping you to understand why you feel emotions and how you can manage them.

Related Reading Are You an Empathetic Leader?


Frequently Asked Questions

Emotional intelligence can be used to develop positive relationships, navigate change and consider other perspectives. This creates an environment where people feel heard, share ideas and are motivated to achieve organizational goals.

A person can improve their emotional intelligence by assessing their emotions, gathering feedback from others and seeking advice from counselors, books and other resources. By practicing skills like self-awareness, empathy and active listening, one can grow their EQ over time.

Goleman’s five characteristics of emotional intelligence are self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skill.

Emotional intelligence can help individuals understand their own motivations and emotions as they happen, allowing them to make conscious decisions and navigate changes in a way that align with their values. It also helps individuals identify how others are feeling and how to best relate to them, making for positive relationships at work or beyond.

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