How To Improve Your Emotional Intelligence at Work
Communication is an inherently emotional practice. It’s nearly impossible to communicate without some level of emotion — whether it’s intended or not.
Even the most laconic communicators emit and evoke some kind of emotion, depending on who they’re addressing. If you’re like me, that might create a sense of nervousness or feelings of doubt, or it might send me through a loop of anxiety — even if that was not the communicator’s intention.
Understanding how our words and actions impact or influence ourselves and others is called emotional intelligence (EI) or emotional quotient (EQ). EI helps you express your emotions while also serving as a guide to navigating difficult situations, whether in the workplace or your personal life.
Emotional intelligence may seem like a “soft skill” or something that cannot be improved, but I’m here to tell you that couldn’t be further from the truth. EI is a skill that can be strengthened — you just have to know where to start.
This article explores why managing emotional intelligence can be tricky, how this critical communication skill impacts the workplace, and how to practice mindful emotional intelligence in your daily life.
What is emotional intelligence?
According to the Harvard Extension School, emotional intelligence is “a set of skills that helps us recognize, understand, and manage our own emotions as well as recognize, understand, and influence the emotions of others.”
Emotional intelligence is a form of self-management which helps us connect with others in different ways — like diffusing problems, overcoming challenges, being empathetic, knowing how to deliver constructive criticism, and practicing active listening. Think about the last time you noticed a friend or coworker was acting differently. What did you do? How did you react?
However, the components of emotional intelligence go beyond trying to understand the feelings of others on an emotional level. More often than not, knowing when to communicate is just as important as knowing what to communicate.
Pausing to think, reflect, and determine how best to communicate or respond to someone is a sign of high EI. It’s not about responding quickly based only on gut feelings — it’s about mindful consideration of others' emotions.
Related reading: What People (Still) Get Wrong About Emotional Intelligence — HBR
Why is emotional intelligence important in the workplace?
For many, work is a significant part of life. Happiness at Work author Jessica Pryce-Jones found that the average worker spends — wait for it — 90,000 hours of their life working.
What’s more, according to a study from Kavita Singh, a Ph.D. scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, “as the pace of change is increasing and the world of work is making ever greater demands on a person’s cognitive, emotional and physical resources, this particular set of abilities [social skills] is becoming increasingly important.”
If we’re going to spend a large portion of our lives at work, it’s important to make it a place where people feel heard, seen, and understood. Emotional intelligence can bridge the issues commonly found in the workplace, like miscommunication, interpersonal conflicts, discrimination, and more.
That said, it’s no wonder high-performers at work also often have high emotional intelligence. A study from TalentSmartEQ found that company leaders who participated in their emotional intelligence training program saw a 63% improvement in the depth and quality of their relationships with their coworkers. The study also found that emotional intelligence training wasn’t only impactful for leaders but for “problem” employees, too. After the program, 64% of employees saw an improvement in their ability to handle conflicts.
Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., psychologist and author of Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships writes that “By teaching people to tune in to their emotions with intelligence and to expand their circles of caring, we can transform organizations from the inside out and make a positive difference in our world.”
But how? Let’s take a closer look at how strong emotional intelligence plays a role in effective communication in the workplace.
10 examples of emotional intelligence in the workplace
High emotional intelligence takes on various forms. It’s something that, like a muscle, needs to be used to get stronger.
Here are a few examples of emotional intelligence in the workplace:
1. Mary notices June is quiet during a meeting and sends her a video message to check in on her well-being. They schedule a one-on-one video meeting to talk through what’s been bothering June and figure out a plan to make things better.
2. Sam hears the nervousness in Kate’s voice during their last client presentation and offers to help her prepare for the next presentation.
3. Carla and Chris always bicker during staff meetings. Their manager, Rob, notices, and schedules time to chat with them together to work through the issue with better communication.
4. Rose remembers how well her team collaborated in the office, as their desks were close together. To recreate that productive atmosphere, Rose sets up a recurring meeting for the team to work “together” remotely.
5. Molly, who usually is outspoken and tends to cut people off in meetings, actively practices being quiet and listening during her recent team status meeting after receiving feedback from her manager.
6. Julie could not complete her part of the project on time after learning some devastating family news. Instead of telling her to “push through it,” her coworker Ben offers to help.
7. Deepti, the CEO of a technology company, works to build an open, honest company and a place where everyone feels safe to be themselves without fear of judgment or harassment. She also emphasizes the importance of emotional intelligence to hiring managers to ensure they're focusing on the right candidates.
8. Tom and Betty know they don’t always agree with one another, yet they find ways not to let their differences and biases negatively affect their work.
9. Medha has a tremendous professional relationship with everyone she manages on her team and knows their families. She recognizes that some of her team members may work better during different hours than her, so she encourages flexible work schedules.
10. Susan cares about her team’s professional development. As the manager of a new team, she’s creating a roadmap for professional development that empowers her team and inspires them to keep growing.
4 tips for improving emotional intelligence in the workplace
Emotional intelligence is no different from any other skill in that, to get better at it, you need to practice and work on improving. The key is to stay committed to doing better.
Here are four ways to improve emotional intelligence in the workplace.
1. Practice self-awareness.
Improving your emotional intelligence starts with awareness of your actions, reactions, and emotions. Practicing self-awareness or self-regulation consistently helps improve things like critical thinking skills, creativity, decision-making, self-control, and more.
After any interaction with your team — whether it be a meeting, virtual company event, or project kick-off — take some time to reflect on how the experience was for you:
What was great about the interaction?
What do you wish was different?
What emotions are coming up for you?
Take note of these observations and reflect on what could be better for next time.
It’s also essential to notice how you react to other workplace happenings, like stressful situations, big projects, promotions, etc. When you’re aware of how you respond to various matters, you can take the steps needed to take care of yourself.
For example, if change stresses you out — like a close employee leaving the company, a client taking their business elsewhere, etc. — make sure you prioritize your health by getting enough sleep and eating well. This also includes communicating to your coworkers about what you need so they can support you — and vice versa.
2. Focus on empathy.
Like self-awareness, a fundamental part of high emotional intelligence is empathy. Simply put, empathy is one’s ability to understand and share the feeling of another. Therefore, if you do not practice empathy, it will be challenging to relate to or understand your team members.
Empathy is not to be confused with sympathy, which is feeling sorry for someone rather than sharing or understanding their point of view.
There are a few ways to practice empathy:
Listen: Let the other person express their feelings without interrupting.
Put yourself in their shoes: Try to understand how they are feeling by asking yourself, “How would I feel if this was happening to me?”
Recognize their feelings: Let this person know you understand that they are in pain. Truly emotionally intelligent people will know when to say something and when to keep quiet.
Practicing empathy helps you connect to others and understand what’s going on in their world. You may not have all the answers — and that’s okay! Showing people you care about them instead of having a solution is, more often than not, the best way to provide comfort.
However, it’s not enough to be empathetic toward a coworker or a situation. To make impactful change, empathy must be backed by action — otherwise known as compassion. Compassion is different from empathy in that it includes the willingness to take action.
For example, if you see a coworker struggling, instead of just quietly noticing, take action. Invite them to a virtual coffee date to chat about things outside of work, or ask them if you can take anything off their plate to alleviate some of their stress. It’s one thing to notice and feel empathetic, but it’s the associated compassionate action that makes this a key component of emotional intelligence.
3. Improve your communication delivery.
Your team members are human beings first and foremost. Things happen in our personal lives that often carry into our work. You know those “this warrants a phone call and not an instant message” situations.
As I mentioned earlier, a significant part of strong emotional intelligence is understanding when and what you say, but what about how you say it? Strong emotional intelligence helps inform the mode in which you communicate — from your words to the channel you choose.
People with high emotional intelligence often have an easier time connecting with others because they are able to recognize and understand the feelings of others. A greater understanding of others — coupled with context — informs your word choice and the medium through which you choose to communicate.
For example, let’s say you owe a coworker feedback on a task they recently completed, but you notice they are strapped for time more than normal. Instead of sending a long-winded email, you could send them a short video message detailing your feedback in a concise way. This way, they can refer back to the video when they have time, and they know exactly what you’re saying due to the simplicity of your word choice.
Related reading: How to Give the Right Nonverbal Communication Cues — The Loom Blog
4. Build a culture rooted in emotional intelligence.
As a leader, your team looks to you for everything. You set the tone, and you’re expected to lead by example. If you want an emotionally intelligent workplace, it must start with leadership.
Company leaders can do several things to integrate emotional intelligence into their culture, like:
Encourage your team to practice self-regulation and empathy.
Trust your team, and communicate that to them.
Empower your team to speak up, be themselves, and respect one another.
Embrace and celebrate your coworkers’ differences.
Hold yourself and others accountable.
Practice emotional intelligence to better understand and be understood
“Let's not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives, and we obey them without realizing it.” -Vincent van Gogh
Developing high emotional intelligence competencies won’t happen overnight. It requires ongoing practice and dedication. If you start to shift your behavior and make space for your team to practice emotional intelligence in the workplace, the sooner you’ll see results from better problem-solving to more aligned teamwork.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in my emotional intelligence journey is to slow down and reflect. I often feel like I need to react or have the best answer at the snap of my fingers, but that isn’t the case. The importance of pausing, reflecting, and trying to understand your emotions and the emotions of others cannot be understated.
In addition to self-reflection, communication plays a significant role in strengthening EI. Concise communication makes it easier to empathize with others because their message is clear; you know what they’re trying to say.
Think about how you can improve the emotional intelligence within your company:
What can you do tomorrow — or even today — to foster a more EI-friendly work environment?
Where can communication be improved?
What barriers stand in your way?
Let us know how you’re integrating emotional intelligence into your company culture.
Get expert workplace communication tips delivered straight to your inbox.
Written by Kat Ambrose
Kat is a freelance writer for B2B SaaS companies and eCommerce platforms. Say hi and follow her on Twitter.