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Emotional intelligence in the workplace

Learn about emotional intelligence and why it’s so important in the modern workplace.


What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is a concept that emerged in the 1990s as a topic of academic discourse, and very quickly gained momentum as a crucial part of business psychology and the study of workplace dynamics.

It is commonly referred to as EQ (emotional quotient) as a counterpart to IQ (intelligence quotient). An employee with high EQ is more flexible, versatile, driven and productive. EQ is just as, if not more important than hard skills and qualifications.

Simply put, emotional intelligence refers to the ability to interpret, comprehend and manage the emotions of both yourself and those around you. It’s about keeping cool under pressure, helping others feel at ease, and understanding how your behavior can impact your environment.

While IQ aims to measure cognitive ability, emotional intelligence is rooted in our behavior. It may at first seem abstract or arbitrary, but our minds are systems and it’s important to treat them as such. As humans we have the cognizance to manage, adjust, and improve systems so that they perform at their best, and this can and should apply to our own emotional wellbeing.

An individual may have all the expertise needed for a job, but if they cannot communicate within the team and cannot control their own emotions, it will negatively impact the quality of their work.

How to improve emotional intelligence

Every human being possesses emotional intelligence. To possess high emotional intelligence is really just about knowing how to embrace and improve that intelligence.

In his extensive work studying and defining emotional intelligence, behavioral scientist Daniel Goleman outlined five core skills that must be cultivated to achieve high EQ:

1. Self-awareness

The first step towards complete emotional intelligence is understanding your own emotions.We all experience and express different emotional states in different ways, and the more you understand how you personally cope with them, the more you’ll be able to understand the perspectives of those around you.

It isn’t just emotional awareness; self-awareness relates to understanding the nuances of your identity, behavior, and mindset. It’s about being aware of how others see and respond to you, and being aware of how your actions impact your environment.

That is what we call public self-awareness—the awareness of how you appear to others. This doesn’t mean worrying excessively about how people perceive you, but rather having the ability to impartially evaluate and recognize how others perceive you, and understand why.

So, how exactly do you become self-aware?

Emotion may seem like something that exists purely within the mind, but in reality, we can and do experience and express emotion physically. This is what we’d call private self-awareness.

For instance, when you’re angry, you may experience that “blood boiling” feeling, when you’re anxious, you might have a feeling of “butterflies” in your chest or you might feel tremulous. When you’re happy, you might feel lighter and more energized.

If you can recognize these physical indicators in yourself and understand when and why they occur, you’ll be able to understand, anticipate, and manage your emotions better.

A lot of it simply comes down to personal reflection; taking a moment to stop and ask yourself how you’re feeling and ask yourself how and what you contribute to your workplace. If you feel a disconnect or miscommunication within your team, then evaluate why that may be the case and if there’s anything you are doing or saying that may be perpetuating the issue.

Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings and try to understand how different situations may influence you or trigger emotional reactions. When you’re working, question whether you’d produce the same work when you’re frustrated as when you’re content, and aim to recognize how your mentality impacts your job performance and productivity.

Intuition is linked very closely to emotional intelligence. Intuition revolves around our perception of a situation, and we can use our intuition to gain an understanding of how we truly feel. That’s not to say you should always follow your intuition—nor should you always ignore it—but you should certainly acknowledge it and examine it so that you can form a better understanding of your own views and emotions.

Self-awareness also means being aware of your strengths and weaknesses, and being realistic about your capabilities. Acknowledging your weaknesses is the first step to overcoming them, while acknowledging your strengths aids motivation and general wellbeing.

2. Self-regulation

Once you know how to recognize and distinguish your emotions, you can start to manage them. If you allow your emotions to take over your work, you may not be performing to the best of your ability. Self-regulation means not allowing yourself to get caught up by external factors and instead allowing yourself to concentrate on the task at hand.

We all have our own thoughts and opinions, but it’s crucial to know how and when to express those thoughts and opinions in the workplace. If you don’t appear to be in control of your emotions, it could lead to your being viewed as unreliable, or a liability. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t express yourself or be open about your feelings, but self-management means dealing with your emotions appropriately, professionally, and consciously.

How to self-regulate

Avoid making impulsive decisions and acting on a whim. Thinking before you act is a huge part of self-regulating. Consider how your actions or words might impact your environment and your team, and ask if you are communicating your ideas in the most productive, constructive way possible.

Self-regulation is something that will absolutely help you in the workplace, but the techniques behind it can and should stretch beyond the 9-to-5. Staying active and maintaining hobbies outside of work, maintaining a healthy sleep cycle, as well as finding a safe and wholesome outlet for anger or frustration are all important towards regulating your emotions and balancing your energy, so that you don’t bring negativity into the workplace.

The tools and techniques behind self-regulation can be likened to those practiced in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which is designed to help us manage our problems by adjusting our thought process and behavior. CBT is commonly used to treat mental illnesses and mood disorders, but the techniques and skills it teaches can undoubtedly be applied to help assist self-regulation.

Some of the core techniques include:

  • Breaking down your issues and concerns; if you allow a lot of smaller problems to conflate into one big issue then solving it will become overwhelming

  • Establishing a distinction between the problems that can be solved and the problems you have no control over, and focusing your energy on what you can fix

  • Dedicating specific times to deal with specific issues and trying your best not to think about them until that allotted time, rather than allowing them to burden you all day

  • Practicing mindfulness; take time to focus on your breathing and separate yourself from your issues

  • Stepping back and look at issues you face from an outside perspective

  • Writing down your feelings; this will help materialize and refine vaguer issues and form actionable solutions

If you feel upset, frustrated or any overtly negative emotion, take action to mitigate it, and be open with your colleagues about your experience.

Practicing self-regulation will help you to be more adaptable in the workplace, and will help you stay focused. If you can manage and prioritize emotional issues, you’ll be able to manage and prioritize your workload just as well.

3. Motivation

Intrinsic motivation refers to those who set and pursue goals for their own personal fulfillment. This is not motivation driven by money, reputation, or stature; this is motivation driven by passion and personal satisfaction.

Having integrity for your position and knowing that your hard work is fueled not by money but by personal ambition will help you perform better and produce better quality work. Of course, there is nothing wrong with striving for admiration and financial success, but if that’s all you’re working for, you may never feel truly satisfied with your professional life. You shouldn’t work hard just to please your bosses and clients, you should strive to achieve greater personal achievement by being more emotionally intelligent.

How to stay motivated at work

If you’re struggling to find that motivation, ask yourself what it really is that you’re looking for in your position and your career, and keep asking yourself until you have a solid answer. Figure out what drives you, where you want to be in the future and what you need to do to get there.

Set realistic-but-challenging goals that facilitate your personal passion and desire, so that you know how and why you’re working for yourself even when you’re working for others. Regularly setting goals is a fantastic way to encourage motivation and boost productivity.

Focus your energy on the parts of your job you enjoy and reason with yourself in order to understand that the parts you dislike may be necessary in order to get to the parts you do enjoy. Use the aspects of your work that you enjoy to motivate you in other areas. Ask yourself why you enjoy those aspects, and why you don’t enjoy others.

If you feel completely unfulfilled and burnt out at work, it may be time to address this with your superiors. If you’re not happy at work, it’s not just bad for you, it’s bad for them too, so don’t be afraid to address these concerns head-on.

Motivation is contagious; your enthusiasm, optimism and conscientiousness will reflect on your environment and will help create a positive workplace driven by passion, not by a paycheck.

4. Empathy

Emotional intelligence involves not just understanding yourself, but making an effort to understand the emotions of others. Rather than completely dismissing or invalidating other peoples’ emotions or opinions if you disagree with them, instead try to view things from their point of view. Listen to them, allow them to express themselves, and strive to learn from your interactions. Empathy is everything when it comes to conflict management.

Having high emotional intelligence means having the ability to acknowledge and learn from past mistakes and understanding different perspectives. You do not have to agree with everything that’s said or done by a colleague, but you should always make an effort to at least understand others’ emotions so you can help them manage them.

Have compassion for the members of your team, hear them out, and respond constructively. Aggression or dismissal will only hinder communication and comfort within your workplace, which can have significantly negative impacts on your work and leadership.

5. Social Skills

Having strong social awareness is a fundamental part of relationship management and, in turn, EQ. Having social intelligence is more than just being friendly and using smiley face emojis (although that certainly does help), it’s about being approachable, engaging, transparent, and making sure those you interact with feel comfortable and heard.

Avoid being a passive listener in a conversation. Make sure to stay engaged, maintain eye contact, be an active contributor to the discussion, and show that you’re genuinely interested with a willingness to learn. Gain the trust of your colleagues through your integrity and compassion, and champion positivity and kindness.

Try to be aware of body language, both your own and others’; having strong interpersonal skills means having the ability to “read the room” and understand what is and isn’t appropriate without anybody having to say a word.

When it comes to both empathy and social skills, it’s important to remember these steps:

  • Listen to your colleagues

  • Don’t interrupt people

  • Ensure your feedback is always constructive

  • Be open and genuine, and encourage the same from others

  • Recognize when you or a member of your team is feeling burnt out and take action

  • Dedicate time towards social activities

Communication is key

A team that knows how to communicate with and understand each other will inevitably work better, and the skills we’ve outlined above are all about solid communication, both with your team and with yourself.

Fluid communication is essential whether you’re working together in the same office or you’re collaborating remotely. Utilizing techniques and tools like Dropbox Paper and screen capture videos to facilitate open communication and direct feedback will assist in developing emotional intelligence. Each tool can help you manage your work and collaborate with your team efficiently.

A workplace with strong emotional intelligence skills will be more productive, more driven, and a healthier, happier environment. You don’t have to be best friends with all of your coworkers, but understanding your colleagues, how they think, and how your own behavior and actions are perceived makes a big difference.

Working with emotional intelligence means not allowing your emotions to interfere with the quality of your work or your relationship with your team. It means knowing how to leverage your strengths and acknowledge and overcome your weaknesses. Truly emotionally intelligent people will not ignore a problem or a negative feeling, but instead, will confront it head-on, pragmatically.

A high EQ in the workplace is just as important as IQ—if not more so. Practicing and improving emotional intelligence will help you increase your self-confidence, control, decision-making skills, and overall mental health.

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