Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace

Emotional intelligence is quickly gaining recognition as a crucial factor in fostering cooperation, productivity, and team cohesion in the workplace. Emotionally intelligent employees are able to effectively harness their own talents and motivation and connect with colleagues to get things done. 

Emotional Intelligence is an integral part of nearly every aspect of life — from personal growth to relationships and, of course, in the workplace. 

Soft skills are no longer nice-to-haves; they are necessary components of any successful organization. Organizations with high levels of EQ are 400% more likely to retain employees, 50% more likely to inspire their people and 40% more productive. What’s more, 71% of employers say that emotional intelligence is more important than IQ when it comes to hiring the right employees. 

How do you know if you, your employees, boss or team members have emotional intelligence at work? And how can individuals and teams improve their emotional intelligence? We’ll break down everything you need to know about emotional intelligence at work, but first, let’s recap what we currently know about EQ. 

History of Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace

Traditionally, psychologists and business leaders believed that rational thinking was the key to productive leadership and decision-making at work. Emotions were largely believed to get in the way of decision-making and regarded as unnecessary in the workplace. Although individuals with higher levels of emotional intelligence existed, their skills were significantly less valued in workplaces than they are today. 

However, in the 1970s, researchers began to recognize the limitations of the Intelligence Quotient (IQ), which led to the development of additional theories of intelligence, such as Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory and Sternberg’s triarchic theory of intelligence

The term “emotional intelligence” was coined in 1990 by Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer, who defined it as “a set of skills hypothesized to contribute to the accurate appraisal and expression of emotion in oneself and in others, the effective regulation of emotion in self and others, and the use of feelings to motivate, plan and achieve in one's life.” 

Since the term's inception, a number of models have been developed to better understand EQ, including a model that suggests EQ is predictive of success in the workplace and a cross-culturally validated model that conceptualizes EQ as a personality trait rather than an ability or skill. 

In 2023, Truity developed a model of emotional intelligence building upon existing frameworks and the company’s own research. Truity created the Emotional Intelligence test to help individuals and teams see where they fall across the five factors of EQ: self-awareness, social awareness, emotional control, empathy and emotional well-being. When some or all of these factors are missing on teams, it shapes communication, conflict management and the overall team dynamic in major ways. 

Why is Emotional Intelligence Important in the Workplace?  

Emotional intelligence is important in the workplace for a number of reasons: it helps you improve communication and conflict management, it helps with relationship building, it can help you make better decisions and it can help you lead more effectively. 

  • Better communication: Misunderstandings occur more frequently in teams with lower levels of emotional intelligence. When employees struggle to understand their own emotions or those of others, it can lead to increased stress, tension and burnout. Developing empathy and social awareness helps improve communication and leads to more effective teams. 
  • Stronger relationships: When people feel seen, supported and understood — and are able to offer those things to others — workplaces and teams thrive. People feel more comfortable voicing ideas and opinions, feel more motivated and productive, and bring their best selves to work. 
  • Improved decision-making: Developing self-awareness and emotional control can help individuals identify when they are making rash emotion-driven decisions, and not considering all of the consequences. On the other hand, developing skills like empathy and social awareness can help remind team members to take others' opinions and feelings into account when making decisions. 
  • Effective leadership: EQ is an essential skill for leaders as it allows them to understand and motivate their team members, as well as create and maintain a positive work environment. 

The above are a few of the primary benefits of EQ in the workplace, but research shows that higher emotional intelligence has a variety of benefits for both individuals and teams. These benefits include increased resilience and optimism, greater levels of creativity and innovation, and a higher likelihood of promotions and salary increases for individuals

Emotional Intelligence and Leadership 

Anyone who aspires to be a leader would do well to work on their emotional intelligence. According to emotional intelligence expert and author Daniel Goleman, emotional intelligence accounts for nearly 90% of what sets high-performing leaders apart from others with similar skills and knowledge. 

Leaders set the tone of their teams and organizations, and when leaders lack strong EQ, that has a negative impact on everyone. So what does an emotionally intelligent leader look like? Emotionally intelligent leaders tend to share several traits: 

  1. They know who they are: Leaders who score highly in self-awareness understand their emotions and use that understanding to help manage their reactions and emotions while dealing with difficult circumstances. They are also more open to hearing feedback from their employees and others. 
  2. They pay attention to how everyone is doing: When leaders have high social awareness, they are more sensitive to their employees' moods and feelings and are better able to motivate, inspire or reassure their team members when needed. 
  3. They can control their emotions: Leaders with high levels of emotional control are able to stay calm and steady even in stressful and high-pressure environments and situations. Employees feel safe and trust that this leader will make rational decisions. 
  4. They’re empathetic: Empathetic leaders are able to see things from the perspective of their teammates, understanding what they’re feeling and why. They lead teams that are built on mutual understanding and respect. 
  5. They look for a silver lining: Leaders who score highly in emotional wellness are positive, steady and resilient. Their ability to make lemonade out of lemons inspires others to keep going, even when times are tough. 
  6. They have a growth mindset: Leaders with high EQs relish the opportunity to grow and learn. They aren’t afraid to tackle new challenges and inspire a growth mindset among their team members. 

Read more: Here are 6 signs that you’re more emotionally intelligent than you realize

Examples of Emotional Intelligence at Work 

From executives to entry-level employees, emotional intelligence is an important skill to cultivate for every person in the workforce. Below are examples of how a person’s EQ, or lack thereof, can impact work performance. 

Example of High EQ at Work: Sarah the Team Lead 

Sarah leads a team of engineers. The team recently received a challenging project and was under a lot of pressure to meet a tight deadline. Although it was a stressful situation, Sarah felt optimistic about her team’s ability to complete the project successfully. One of her team members, John, came to Sarah's office and told her that he was feeling overwhelmed and struggling to keep up with his workload. Sarah listened to John to better understand his concerns. Once she understood what was going on, she offered John support and encouraged him to take some time for himself to recharge. She also suggested that he talk to the other team members about how he was feeling, and she offered to help him come up with a plan to manage his workload. 

John was grateful for Sarah's support and he was able to take some of her advice. This helped him to feel better about the situation, and he was able to come up with a plan to manage his workload. By taking the time to understand John's concerns and by offering him helpful advice and support, Sarah was able to help him to manage his stress and continue to contribute to the team's success.

Example of low EQ at work: Mark, the Project Manager 

Mark is a project manager who is very intelligent and technically skilled but struggles to control his emotions at work. Recently, Mark was working with a colleague, Alice, on a particularly challenging task. Mark was struggling to understand the task and started to get angry. He snapped at Alice and told her that she was not being helpful. Alice was taken aback by Mark's outburst, and she was hurt by his words. She stopped working with Mark, and the project they were working on fell behind.

This example shows how Mark's low emotional intelligence can affect his work performance and relationships with his colleagues. When he is feeling frustrated and stressed, he is more likely to lash out at others. This can damage his relationships and make it difficult for him to collaborate effectively. 

How to Improve EQ at Work 

While some people are naturally more adept at certain factors of emotional intelligence than others, EQ can be learned and developed with practice and intention. If you’ve taken the emotional intelligence test, then you know exactly what factors of EQ need the most attention. Here are some tips on how you can increase your emotional intelligence at work. 

How to increase self-awareness:

  • Step back and analyze your emotions. Give the emotion a name, try to think of why you feel that way. 
  • Get feedback. Ask others who know you well what they see as your strengths and areas for improvement. 
  • Keep a journal of what triggers you. Are there patterns? 

How to increase empathy: 

  • Practice putting yourself in another person’s shoes. When you interact with someone, take a moment to think about how they might be feeling. What are they going through? What might be causing them to feel that way? 
  • Ask questions. If you are not sure how someone is feeling, ask them.
  • Read fiction. Reading about a variety of characters and getting invested in their story helps us understand and relate to various kinds of people with different points of view.

How to increase social awareness: 

  • Practice active listening. Really pay attention to what people are saying and try to look beyond the words to their meaning and feelings.
  • After listening to someone, recap what you heard and the meaning you took from it, and ask if you got it right. 
  • Observe others and try matching someone’s body language to their emotion. If someone has widened their stance, for example, what does that tell you?

How to increase emotional control: 

  • When feeling stressed, pause before reacting. Give yourself a moment to calm down and think about how you want to respond.  Use this gap to get in touch with what you’re feeling before you say or do something you may regret. 
  • Make a conscious choice. Remember that you don’t always have control over what triggers an emotional response, but you do have control over what you say and do and how much power you let the feelings have over you.

How to increase emotional well-being: 

  • Re-frame. When you reframe problems in a positive light, you are more likely to maintain your emotional equilibrium.
  • Be grateful. Gratitude positively affects our well-being, so look for reasons to be thankful. 
  • Practice self-compassion. If you’re experiencing a difficult emotion, treat yourself with the kindness and understanding you’d likely offer to a friend. 

Grow Your EQ: Emotional Intelligence Books to Read 

If you’re ready to take your understanding of emotional intelligence to a new level, start by assessing where you’re currently at with Truity’s emotional intelligence test. And when you’re ready to dive even deeper, check out some of the best books for developing EQ in the workplace. 

Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman 

This book is considered to be the seminal work on emotional intelligence. Goleman defines emotional intelligence as "the ability to perceive emotions, use emotions to facilitate thinking, understand emotions, and manage emotions." He argues that emotional intelligence is more important than IQ for success in life and work.

Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves

This book builds on Goleman's work by providing a more practical guide to developing emotional intelligence. Bradberry and Greaves identify four key components of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. They offer exercises and tools to help readers improve their emotional intelligence in each of these areas.

The EQ Edge by Steven J. Stein and Howard E. Book 

The EQ Edge focuses on the business applications of emotional intelligence. Stein and Book argue that emotional intelligence is essential for success in the workplace, and they provide strategies for developing emotional intelligence in leaders and employees.

Emotional Intelligence for Dummies by Adele B. Lynn

This book is a more simplified and accessible introduction to emotional intelligence. Lynn provides an overview of the four components of emotional intelligence, and she offers practical tips for improving your emotional intelligence in each of these areas.

Surrounded by Idiots by Thomas Erikson 

If you often feel like you’re the only one making any sense, this book is for you. Erikson helps readers develop greater self-awareness, hone communication and social skills, handle conflict with confidence, improve workplace and team dynamics, and get the best out of the people they deal with and manage.

Megan Malone
Megan holds an MS in organizational psychology and manages content and brand marketing at Truity. She is passionate about helping people improve their relationships, careers, and quality of life using personality psychology. An INFJ and Enneagram 9, Megan lives quietly in Fort Worth, Texas with her husband and two pups. You can chat with her on Twitter @meganmmalone.