Like a cool breeze on a summer’s day, emotional intelligence is a welcome break for everyone it touches. Without it, when tension rises, we sweat in the heat of the moment. Of the top 10 skills identified by 800 businesses in a global study by the World Economic Forum, eight involve emotional intelligence. Why then is it in short supply? And how can it be expanded? 

High scores in emotional intelligence competencies have been falling, according to an international survey of 10,000 people. Meanwhile, burnout has increased in a majority of sectors. While the causes of this are rooted in company culture, the solution is a set of behaviours in emotional intelligence that can be easily learned and developed.

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence (EI, also known as emotional quotient or EQ) is the ability to recognise, understand, and manage emotions – our own and other people’s. When emotions are about to let fly, EI’s mix of reason and perspective calmly catches them in the moment so that they – and you – stay grounded.

While traditional measures of intelligence focus on cognitive abilities such as problem-solving and logical reasoning, emotional intelligence is a more nuanced blend of awareness and empathy.

First coined in 1990 by social psychologists Peter Salovey and John Mayer, the phrase was later popularised by psychologist Daniel Goleman who used it as the title of his 1995 book which quickly attracted the attention of leaders and HR managers. For Goleman, EI abilities – more than IQ or technical skills – emerge as the “discriminating” competency that best predicts leadership talent.

What are the key features of emotional intelligence?

Based on the work of Salovey, Mayer, Goleman, and others, emotional intelligence is accepted as consisting of four key components:

  • Self-awareness: recognising your emotions, including triggers, strengths, and weaknesses. Self-aware individuals can accurately assess how their emotions influence thoughts and behaviour.
  • Self-regulation: responding to challenges calmly and constructively requires the ability to manage emotions and reactions through techniques such as stress management, impulse control, and emotional resilience.
  • Social awareness: to better understand the emotions, needs, and perspectives of other people, we rely on empathy, confidence in social situations, and skills in building rapport.
  • Relationship management: communicating effectively leads to positive relationships with others so that we work well in a team, resolve conflicts, and nurture trust and co-operation.

What is emotional intelligence in the workplace?

In the workplace, emotional intelligence involves accepting and assessing a range of factors and viewpoints. This relies on skills in listening, empathy, and critical thinking – in which you hold  your thoughts to the light and objectively assess their value.

Leaders with high emotional intelligence excel in communication, decision-making, and managing conflicts. As a result, they are better able to inspire and motivate their teams, in turn fostering the kind of positive work environment that organisational success relies on.

Individuals skilled in EI benefit from sound judgements, informed decisions, and a consistent ability to successfully work with others. Trusted, reliable, and able to navigate complex personalities and situations, their abilities open the door to promotion and new opportunities.

Why is emotional intelligence so important?

Self-reliance on intellectual abilities and hard work will only get you so far, to get where you want to be you need to work well with other people. Leaders skilled in EI are able to gain more from their people by showing them understanding and support. Meanwhile, teams whose members are skilled in EI gain from collective intelligence. In other words, trust and respect bring the group together so that it outperforms the sum ability of its members.

Individuals with high emotional intelligence develop stronger resilience and are better equipped to cope with stress and adversity. They can regulate their emotions effectively, use healthy coping mechanisms, and stay positive even in difficult circumstances.

Without EI, unrestrained emotion affects our cognitive abilities, decision-making powers, and interpersonal skills.Just one person with poor EI can have a disproportionate impact on the workplace, creating problems that cascade through the team, disrupting relationships and slowing productivity.

Those who struggle with EI risk allowing emotions to rise unchecked, along with stress – which can lead to physical health problems. Without EI, your mental health is at risk too. If you’re unaware of your emotions, or you fail to manage them, you’ll struggle to develop meaningful relationships, which can leave you feeling isolated and vulnerable to problems such as anxiety and depression.

Why is emotional intelligence important in the workplace?

Emotional intelligence is becoming increasingly important in the workplace in response to the rapid rise of AI and automation. Of 750 executives polled by the Capgemini Research Institute, 76% said employees need to develop EI skills so that they can adapt to more client/person-facing roles. According to a McKinsey report on the future of the workforce, between 2016 and 2030 demand for social and emotional skills will grow across all industries by 26% in the United States and by 22% in Europe.

Yet, despite its value, emotional intelligence sometimes appears to be in short supply. Research by consultants Korn Ferry suggests that “only 22% of 155,000 leaders have real strengths in emotional intelligence, where people see them as often or consistently showing at least nine of 12 key EI competencies. The remaining 88% of leaders show moderate strength or less.”

In a damning indictment of the lack of EI in business, the report’s authors see a “huge gap between the crying need for emotionally intelligent leadership and leaders’ ability to deliver on that requirement.”

When hiring new people, many companies test candidates for EI proficiency to be sure of finding individuals who excel in teamwork, communication, and adaptability. EI is seen as positively correlating with job performance, leadership effectiveness, and career advancement.

How to improve emotional intelligence

Feel the need to work on your EI? Start with these simple steps:

Self-awareness: pay attention to your emotions. Think about what triggers certain feelings and how you typically respond to them.

Self-regulation: practise techniques that might help you manage your emotions in the moment, such as deep breathing, visualization, or taking a pause before reacting.

Listen: Take the time to listen to what people are telling you, both verbally and non-verbally. Body language can carry a great deal of meaning.

Empathy: cultivate empathy by trying to understand others’ perspectives. Put yourself in their shoes, and show that you validate their feelings even if you don’t agree with them.

Social skills: work on your communication skills to build better relationships. Practise assertiveness and active listening, and be open to feedback – adapting your behaviour accordingly.

Coping mechanisms: develop ways of dealing with deep-seated stress and negative emotions, such as exercise, hobbies, or talking to a trusted friend. Avoid bottling up emotions.

Reflect and adapt: regularly reflect on your emotional responses and interactions with other people. Educate yourself about emotional intelligence, and practise in real-life situations.

By trying these tips, incorporating them into your daily life, you can gradually enhance your emotional intelligence and improve your relationships, communication, and overall wellbeing.

How to develop emotional intelligence in the workplace

Emotional intelligence can be developed by individuals haphazardly over time, however a structured training course in emotional intelligence will bring the whole team up to speed quickly and effectively.

Training is particularly important for teams stretched by digital communication challenges, remote working, hybrid patterns, working with AI, or anxiety about economic instability. At Working Voices, our Sustainable Human training programme, for leaders and their people, puts social wellbeing at the heart of company culture.

The Sustainable Human programme enables organisations to build the trust, respect, psychological safety, and belonging that together define emotional intelligence. This approach to culture leads to sustainable working practices that effectively tackle stress, support engagement, and strengthen productivity. Emotional intelligence has previously been described as a ‘soft skill’. In a future shaped by artificial intelligence, a hard-headed commitment to EI is the best way of staying human at work.

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