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Emotional intelligence in the workplace: Why it matters and how to build it

Harnessing the power of emotional intelligence in the workplace can improve both employee and operational performance.
emotional intelligence in the workplace
Credit: Ana Kova

In the age of automation, the secret ingredient of top-performing teams is no longer high IQ, but high levels of emotional intelligence in the workplace.

It’s seen across every industry: professionals with the same levels of experience face a similar obstacle, but while some self-sabotage under pressure, others manage their emotions and achieve exceptional performance. The difference can be attributed to how well they’ve developed emotional intelligence in the workplace.

In fact, over 80% of the skills and abilities that set top performers apart from their peers fall under the umbrella of emotional intelligence.

The importance of emotional intelligence in the workplace

When employees develop emotional intelligence, they benefit personally and professionally — and so do the organizations that employ them.

High EQ employees can:

  • Identify personal triggers that cause them to feel emotional distress at work
  • Regulate their emotions to maintain a positive attitude
  • Recognize social cues and sense the emotional states of team members and clients
  • Build and maintain positive working relationships

Internationally known psychologist and best-selling author, Daniel Goleman has identified these four attributes as the primary components of emotional intelligence. In the clip below from a Big Think+ lesson, Goleman explains how EQ is one of the key distinguishers between average performers and those who climb the organizational ladder.

Far too often, when senior leaders meet to discuss how to achieve quarterly and yearly objectives, they rarely consider the influence emotional intelligence has on the organization. But emotional intelligence has a significant impact on many KPIs — be it sales, customer satisfaction, or employee turnover rates.

Studies have found that 70% of lost customers and 75% of derailed careers can be attributed to factors related to EQ. The Institute for Health and Human Potential shared these ominous statistics, along with several case studies that illustrate the positive impacts of emotional intelligence training.

At Motorola, for instance, 93% of manufacturing employees who completed emotional intelligence and stress management training increased their productivity scores. And in a single year, the U.S. Air Force saved $2,760,000 in recruitment spending due to their nominal investment (of less than $10,000) in emotional competence testing.

How to improve emotional intelligence in the workplace

Successful organizations don’t leave employees’ EQ levels up to chance. Development can be facilitated through company-wide practices, such as cultivating a compassionate culture, as well as more targeted role and team-specific training. 

Company-wide practices that foster emotional intelligence

Employees’ EQ grows when their organization is empathetic to their needs, empowers them to engage, and facilitates relationship building. Consider the following practices that can help foster emotional intelligence in the workplace.

Leverage the power of leaders

Team leaders who not only consider themselves “managers” but “people developers” can help inspire and motivate employees to grow. One key characteristic of people developers is transparency — they build trust by sharing big decisions and inviting their team to voice questions, concerns, and ideas. 

Cultivate a compassionate culture

When leaders within an organization are service-oriented and empathetic, they set the tone for a compassionate work culture which allows employees to feel valued and understood. In addition to driving productivity and outcomes, this type of leader considers the emotional health and wellbeing of employees. When issues arise, they balance the needs of the business with the needs of the workforce. 

Enable cross-functional collaboration

Provide opportunities for relationship building by breaking down departmental silos and encouraging collaboration across all business units. This creates an environment where employees can practice and develop their emotional intelligence skills, while helping teams leverage the expertise throughout their organization.

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Targeted training solutions

In addition to company-wide practices, targeted solutions for specific roles and teams should also be used to grow emotional intelligence in the workplace. The most effective solutions focus on building knowledge and skills in the four components of EQ: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. 

Self-awareness

Training should help employees become more aware of their emotional triggers, as well as how their emotions impact others. For instance, it can include exercises to help an anger-prone employee identify their most common triggers (e.g. disagreements, unmet expectations, delayed projects) and the physiological effects of those triggers (e.g. a racing heartbeat, tense shoulders, dizziness). Once an employee understands their triggers, they can create personal plans to mitigate associated risks such as stress and anxiety, interpersonal conflicts, and self-sabotaging behavior.

Self-management

Employees will also need to learn how to self-regulate disruptive emotions so they can stay calm under pressure and deal with difficult situations. One tool to consider is the S.T.A.R. model. When an employee recognizes their fight, flight, or freeze response has been triggered, they can smile, take deep breaths, and relax to de-escalate their thoughts and feelings. In addition to improving an individual’s health and wellbeing, developing self-management also helps senior leaders and managers keep projects on task.

Social awareness

Social awareness impacts all types of working relationships, from clients to coworkers, and is considered a prerequisite for navigating social interactions successfully. It’s a skill that comes more naturally to some than others — particularly those with neurodiverse backgrounds that may struggle to recognize social cues — but it can be developed through a variety of exercises. For instance, employees can practice paraphrasing what someone else said to check for understanding in a conversation, as well as identifying and interpreting facial expressions or vocal tones correctly.

Relationship management

Training should also help employees improve their relationship management skills so they can engage in positive interactions with others. Guided role play can help employees learn how to discuss their concerns clearly and respectfully with managers, share constructive feedback with coworkers, and resolve conflicts with escalated customers. 

Final note

In many cases, training alone may not be enough to trigger lasting behavior change, so it’s important to provide learners with performance support. Certain employees may benefit from additional process guides or job aids that incorporate EQ guidelines.

As leaders brainstorm solutions to improve emotional intelligence in the workplace, they don’t have to start from scratch. Partnering with digital content providers, emotional intelligence coaches, and performance improvement consultants can be very effective.

Whichever resource is chosen, developing emotional intelligence in the workplace will help employees thrive in collaborative situations, build more positive working relationships, and make better decisions that advance organizational objectives.

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