How leaders can use and improve emotional intelligence in the workplace

Illustration of a brain, and addition sign and a heart.

Emotional intelligence (EQ or emotional quotient) is the ability to identify, understand, and use emotions in ourselves and other people to improve communication, relationships, and decision-making — all things that have a positive impact in the workplace (when we get them right). If you’re wondering how to use emotional intelligence in the workplace, let’s start by exploring the roots of emotional intelligence and why it matters at work.

The concept of emotional intelligence was originally coined in a 1990 research paper by two psychology professors, John D. Mayer of the University of New Hampshire and Peter Salovey of Yale, and later popularised by psychologist Daniel Goleman who authored the book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.

Through his research, Goleman argued that academic intelligence, while traditionally associated with leadership success, alone was not enough. And those people who are successful at work aren’t just smart — they also have high emotional intelligence. Now, decades later, emotional intelligence has been named the second most sought-after skill in the workplace by the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report.

In this article, we’ll explore why emotional intelligence matters in the work environment, ways to use EI at work and how this can positively influence employee engagement and performance as well as the bottom line.

What is emotional intelligence (EI or EQ)?

Emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability to recognise and manage your own emotions, as well as the emotions of others. It’s an important skill because emotion plays a big part in how we make decisions and interact with others. Emotional intelligence can be learned—the more you practice, the better you get at using it. This makes emotional intelligence valuable in all aspects of your life, not just work: having strong emotional intelligence means that when you’re managing personal relationships or experiencing difficult situations, you’ll have tools at your disposal to help navigate them smoothly.

Elements of emotional intelligence at work

According to Harvard Business School, the five most important emotional intelligence skills the best leaders and emotionally intelligent people possess and use in their workplace include:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-regulation
  • Empathy
  • Motivation
  • Social skills

So if you are looking to improve your EQ these are the five key aspects leaders need to keep in mind.

Why is EI important in the workplace? 

Research gathered by RocheMartin over the past 15 years showed that higher levels of emotional intelligence resulted in greater abilities to adapt constructively to disruption, maintain a positive focus and manage mood.

Workplace emotional intelligence has been linked with a variety of benefits including:

  • greater success at work;
  • higher levels of job satisfaction;
  • decreased turnover intention;
  • increased organisational commitment;
  • increased workplace productivity;
  • better relationships with supervisors and co-workers;
  • and enhanced resilience and coping skills when working under pressure.

Further to that, the research showed that people with high emotional intelligence made better decisions, kept cool under pressure, were effective at problem-solving and conflict resolution, demonstrated greater empathy and responded better to constructive criticism – all desirable leadership attributes.

Inkling insight: Effective leadership and emotional intelligence aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, effective leadership is a by-product of emotions like self-confidence, optimism, independence and enthusiasm – which are all pillars of emotional intelligence.

5 steps to become more emotionally intelligent: Use emotional intelligence to lead better 

Developing emotional intelligence is essential for success in any leadership role — whether you’re a seasoned leader or at the beginning of your leadership career with grand aspirations. Here are five ways to improve and leverage emotional intelligence in the workplace and become a better leader.

1. Teamwork and collaboration

While the modern workforce is constantly evolving, and in many positive ways, there remains a prevalence of high stress, low morale, and unproductive work environments that can make it challenging for staff members to maintain top performance.

Research by Gallup shows that almost 85% of employees worldwide aren’t engaged at work while Bain & Co reported that engaged employees are 44% more productive than a merely satisfied employee.

When it comes to improving employee engagement, productivity, teamwork and collaboration, emotionally intelligent leaders lean on their relationship management skills to address people’s fundamental emotional needs for affiliation, involvement, recognition and accomplishment.

RocheMartin’s Executive Chairman Martyn Newman (PhD, Dr Psychology) recommends that leaders improve working conditions, and in turn employee engagement, teamwork and collaboration, by providing psychological safety, support and a sense of possibility. He says leaders should “demonstrate that [they] cherish relationships, foster trust and empower people to be creative and take responsibility for decision-making. In these conditions businesses spring to life”.

2. Conflict management and resolution

Many people find conflict can be a difficult experience as it triggers an acute stress response which can lead people to slip into fight or flight mode. As such, conflict is often viewed as a negative experience that should be avoided. However, it simply means there is a difference of experience, perspective, interests or opinion – which need to be thoughtfully considered and effectively managed.

Conflict is inevitable and unavoidable in the workplace and leaders are responsible for management and resolution. Drawing on emotional intelligence is a constructive way for leaders to support an engaging, productive and ultimately positive conflict resolution process.

When managing conflict, leaders with high emotional intelligence draw in their social awareness to practice active listening and demonstrate empathy which ensures the different perspectives and needs of direct reports and stakeholders are heard and understood. Armed with these insights, leaders can tactfully navigate tense situations and disagreements and devise solutions that everyone can support.

Inkling insight: Leaders with high emotional intelligence are socially aware and take time to understand different perspectives and experiences that could be contributing to conflict, disagreement or difference of opinion.

Further reading: Skills that make a great leader in the workplace

3. Inspiring and influencing others

The ability to inspire and influence in the workplace is pivotal to leadership success, and developing EQ capabilities is essential to increasing influence at work.

When it comes to increasing their influence, leaders with strong emotional intelligence take time to practice active listening when engaging in conversation and collaboration with their direct reports and stakeholders.

Influential leaders also deploy empathy as a conduit to build trust, strengthen connections, and increase their reputational capital which, in turn, increases their ability to influence decision making and direction.

Emotionally intelligent leaders are extremely important in the workplace as they motivate, inspire and in general bring out the best in their teams.

Inkling insight: Practice active listening to ensure each person feels heard and understood which will help them be more willing to engage and align with desired outcomes.

4. Communication and connection

While communication sounds like it should be instinctive, all too often things go awry between employees in the workplace when working under high demands and time constraints where communication can become rushed.

Whether sending an email update or making a keynote presentation, effective communication is crucial to ensure that ideas and concepts are heard and understood and that people are engaged with them and acting on them.

Leaders seeking to communicate their ideas effectively and build strong connections in the workplace need to tap into the relationship-building and social awareness aspects of their emotional intelligence which ensures their ideas are heard and acted upon.

5. Personal and professional development

According to psychologist and author Daniel Goleman, self-awareness is one of the five key components of emotional intelligence. And it’s self-awareness that helps leaders identify gaps in their skills and carve out learning and professional development opportunities.

Leaders with strong self-awareness have a clear picture of their own strengths and weaknesses as well as the ability to recognize opportunities for growth and development. They use this awareness to seek out support, mentoring, sponsorship and training to hone their personal and professional development. This results in improved leadership skills and better outcomes on both an individual and organisational level.

Leaders who develop self-awareness as part of their emotional intelligence capability strengthen their individual performance and that of the organisation as well.

How can I improve emotional intelligence in the workplace? Build emotional intelligence capabilities

With so many benefits, it’s easy to see why emotional intelligence is fast outpacing technical knowledge as a core capability that’s in demand for leaders of high-performing organisations.

At Inkling, we partner with you to build learning experiences and emotional intelligence training programs that drive mindset and behaviour change. We measure and benchmark emotional intelligence so you can see the direct impacts of our work together and know you’re making progress towards developing emotional intelligence capabilities in your leaders and team.

Get in touch today to learn how our high-impact, flexible and evidence-based leadership development programs and learning experiences drive human-centred, adaptive, and inspiring leadership.

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