The necessity of emotional intelligence at the workplace

Despite the fact that she had been with the company only a few months, David decided to assign Cara to the group giving the toughest presentation of the year. Every step along the way, he gained more confidence in that decision. On the first day, she seemed to naturally ease tension and get everyone back on track after Kyle threw one of his infamous temper tantrums. Then about a week in, David noticed shy Amanda offering more input than usual — many times looking over at Cara for a reassuring smile or subtle nod of encouragement. And during the presentation itself, Cara realized an elderly member of the audience cringed whenever tech terms came up. Cara understood his difficulty and patiently explained concepts until he grasped them.

Reflecting on the experience, David smiles at his good fortune. He has an emotionally intelligent superstar on his staff.

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability to recognize and effectively manage one’s own feelings and to understand the emotions of others. Individuals with high emotional intelligence do a good job of figuring out how what they feel influences their own behavior and how it impacts those around them. Similarly, emotionally intelligent people pick up on what others feel. Keying in on how a situation is making someone angry, sad, frustrated, disappointed, or the like enables emotionally intelligent people to adjust their own behavior to create a more positive interaction.

A synonym for emotional intelligence is emotional quotient (EQ). Experts sometimes like to use this term because it sets up a nice parallel with a familiar metric — intelligence quotient (IQ). IQ measures things such as knowledge, reasoning, and problem-solving ability. EQ measures emotional and social awareness.

Obviously, employers love employees to possess both a high EQ and a high IQ. Interestingly, though, a survey of hiring managers revealed roughly 75% valued an employee’s EQ more than IQ. The book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ by Daniel Goleman likewise supports this viewpoint. In this 1995 best-seller — often credited as introducing the concept of emotional intelligence to a wide audience — Harvard-trained psychologist Daniel Goleman makes a case that emotional intelligence is a better indicator of business success than cognitive intelligence or IQ. Why is it so desirable?

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Components of emotional intelligence

Goleman theorizes that emotional intelligence consists of five critical competencies: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. Each brings its own set of merits to the table, and together they form an attractive package.


Self-aware individuals have a good handle on their own emotions. Not only do people high in this skill identify what they feel, they understand how this in turn affects other things.

For instance, a worker who knows she stresses out when deadlines get close may monitor her behavior to ensure she does not snap at other team members during tense times. She may practice greater self-care when sensing anxiety spiking, perhaps getting more sleep or scheduling a walk to work off nervous energy. She also may work harder to complete steps of the project earlier in the process to reduce worries about finishing on time.

Knowing “what’s going on inside you” promotes better mental health. Self-awareness also can play a part in good, ethical decision-making. Identifying when something stirs feelings of not being quite right can lead to asking more questions or reevaluating actions to restore inner peace.


Keeping feelings locked away is not good for one’s well-being. However, emotionally intelligent individuals realize that immediate or unchecked expression can harm interpersonal relationships.

Here’s a common example: Nearly everyone has worked with a hot-tempered boss or colleague (like Kyle in the opening) whose rants when something goes wrong. These employees can bring the work environment to a nervous standstill. Even if the individual later calms down or apologizes, damage has been done. Harsh words and actions prove difficult to take back, and they make others leery about working together in the future.

Someone with solid self-management skills pauses before reacting. She may leave the room to gain composure, put off writing an email until cooling off, or schedule a private meeting with a co-worker who offended her. She does not deny her feelings, but she realizes sensible times, places, and ways exist to present them.


For workers high in this aspect of emotional intelligence, a job well done is a reward in and of itself. Sure, money and recognition also are nice (and there is nothing wrong with those things), but meeting challenges, feeling personal pride, and enjoying the experience give motivated folks a special spark.

Great leaders often display intrinsic motivation. They find overcoming obstacles invigorating and maintaining a positive attitude better than looking for something to blame. Those around them catch their excitement for accomplishing goals and exceeding expectations, which leads to greater morale.


Empathetic people know how to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. They recognize the emotional states of others and act accordingly based on what they sense. They often possess excellent listening skills and the ability to read body language.

For instance, an empathetic person may “pick up” on a colleague having a bad day. This knowledge may lead to lending a hand, offering words of encouragement, or waiting until tomorrow to discuss an upcoming project. Because this aspect of emotional intelligence involves being in tune with other people, experts sometimes call it “social awareness.”

Empathy also helps with things like decision-making and teamwork. Instead of looking out for just themselves, empathic employees consider choices in light of what they will mean for others involved.

Social skills

Social skills are what we use to communicate and interact with others on a daily basis. They involve not only what someone says but how and when they say it — tone of voice, volume, body language, facial expressions, and timing.

People with good social skills often make situations run smoother. They know how to make everyone in a group feel important and heard. They help keep negotiations civil and focused. They earn respect through active listening — the act of paying close attention to those with whom you are communicating.

The benefits of emotional intelligence

If we think about these five emotional intelligence skills as a whole, it becomes clear that people who exhibit them could be great additions to any workplace at any level. These competencies contribute to:

  • Forming and maintaining effective relationships.

  • Coping with stress.

  • Communicating clearly.

  • Helping others feel valued and heard.

  • Seeing and considering the point of view of others.

  • Collaborating.

  • Easing tensions.

  • Remaining cool under pressure.

  • Accepting and receiving constructive feedback.

  • Displaying emotions properly.

  • Managing conflict with tact.

  • Tackling challenges.

  • Making sound decisions.

  • Dealing with change.

  • Establishing common ground and shared goals.

  • Improving workplace morale.

  • Finding intrinsic job satisfaction.

Some industries, though, seem particularly inclined to gain from having emotionally intelligent employees. Human resources, for example, involves using communication skills with a range of people on a daily basis. Responsibilities include resolving conflict, “reading” new talent who come in for interviews, and maintaining positive relationships with current staff to promote workplace harmony and retention.

People with strong emotional intelligence also tend to excel in occupations requiring the ability to comprehend the viewpoint of a consumer, such as sales, real estate, and customer service. They connect by recognizing other people’s points of view and their emotional states. They understand underlying issues and address them in effective ways.

Building emotional intelligence

As important as it is to acknowledge what emotional intelligence adds, it’s equally necessary to see how the lack of it may cause serious problems.

“Teams filled with people low on emotional intelligence are more likely to suffer ongoing conflict, misunderstandings, and turnover,” says Peter Dudley, author and executive coach at Gray Bear Coaching. “I’ve found the biggest problem comes from lack of self-awareness: people with low emotional intelligence don’t understand their own role in conflict and misunderstandings, so they blame others again and again. This creates persistent problems with misunderstanding and conflict, causing others in the group to work around, rather than work with, these people. Over time, this becomes exhausting and discouraging, and eventually the people who carry the emotional work will leave.”

While emotional intelligence seems to come easier for some people than for others, anyone can improve their overall EQ or strengthen weaker components. Recognizing the importance of emotional intelligence, many colleges offer classes on the topic as part of their business curriculum or continuing education programs. Interested in studying and practicing on your own? Goleman and many other notables conduct TED talks on emotional intelligence as it pertains to the workplace and to personal life.