Utilizing Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace

Emotion psychology at work

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Emotional intelligence, sometimes referred to as EQ ("emotional quotient"), refers to a person's ability to recognize, understand, manage, and reason with emotions. It is a critical ability when it comes to interpersonal communication—and a hot topic not only in psychology, but in the business world.

The term was coined by psychologists in the 1990s. Its use quickly spread into other areas including business, education, and popular culture.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

Psychologists Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer, two of the leading researchers on the topic, define emotional intelligence as the ability to recognize and understand emotions in oneself and others. This ability also involves using this emotional understanding to make decisions, solve problems, and communicate with others.

According to Salovey and Mayer, there are four different levels of emotional intelligence:

  • Perceiving emotions
  • Reasoning with emotions
  • Understanding emotions
  • Managing emotions

In the past, emotions and intelligence were often viewed as being in opposition to one another. In recent decades, however, researchers exploring emotion psychology have become increasingly interested in cognition and affect.

This area explores how cognitive processes and emotions interact and influence the ways that people think. Consider how emotions and moods such as happiness, anger, fear, and sadness influence how people behave and make decisions.

Why EQ Is Important for Success

Interest in emotion psychology and the concept of emotional intelligence really caught fire with the 1995 publication of Daniel Goleman's book "Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ." In the book, Goleman argued that emotional intelligence was critical for predicting success in life. Emotional competencies, he argued, also played a particularly important role in the workplace.

The concept quickly attracted the attention of the public, including human resource managers and business leaders. Researchers have suggested that emotional intelligence influences how well employees interact with their colleagues, and EQ is also thought to play a role in how workers manage stress and conflict. It also affects overall performance on the job. Other studies have linked emotional intelligence with job satisfaction.

Studies have shown that employees with higher scores on measures of EQ also tend to be rated higher on measures of interpersonal functioning, leadership abilities, and stress management.

Goleman suggested that while traditional intelligence was associated with leadership success, it alone was not enough. People who are successful at work aren't just smart—they also have a high EQ.

But emotional intelligence is not just for CEOs and senior managers. It's a quality that's important at every level of a person's career, from college students looking for internships to seasoned employees hoping to take on a leadership role. If you want to succeed in the workplace and move up the career ladder, emotional intelligence is critical to your success.

Why EQ Matters in the Workplace

Why is emotional intelligence such a valued workplace skill? According to one survey of hiring managers, almost 75% of respondents suggested that they valued an employee's EQ more than their IQ.

Emotional intelligence is widely recognized as a valuable skill that helps improve communication, management, problem-solving, and relationships within the workplace. It is also a skill that researchers believe can be improved with training and practice.

People With High EQ
  • Make better decisions and solve problems

  • Keep cool under pressure

  • Resolve conflicts

  • Have greater empathy

  • Listen, reflect, and respond to constructive criticism

People With Low EQ
  • Play the role of the victim or avoid taking responsibility for errors

  • Have passive or aggressive communication styles

  • Refuse to work as a team  

  • Are overly critical of others or dismiss others' opinions

How to Become More Emotionally Intelligent

While emotional skills may come naturally to some people, there are things that anyone can do to help improve their ability to understand and reason with emotions. This can be particularly helpful in the workplace, where relationships and business decisions often rely on the interpersonal understanding, teamwork, and communication.

Factors such as upbringing and personality tend to play a large role in the development of emotional intelligence, but it is a skill that can be improved with effort and practice.

One 2011 study found that participants who trained in key emotional competencies showed lasting improvements in emotional intelligence. They also experienced improvements in physical and mental well-being, better social relationships, and lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels.

If you are interested in improving your emotional intelligence skills to benefit your workplace performance, take steps to improve your skills in the five categories of emotional intelligence: Self-awareness, self-regulation, social skills, empathy, and motivation.

Become More Self-Aware

One of the first steps toward utilizing emotional intelligence skills in the workplace is to practice recognizing your own emotions. Self-awareness involves being aware of different aspects of yourself, including your emotions and feelings. It is one of the foundational components of emotional intelligence. In order to recognize your emotions and understand what is causing these feelings, you need to first be self-aware.

  • Pay attention to how you are feeling. How do these emotions influence how you respond? Do the things you are feeling have an impact on the decisions you make or how you interact with others? As you reflect on these questions, you may find that you become much more aware of your own emotions and the role that they play in your daily life.
  • Take stock of emotional strengths and weaknesses. How well do you communicate with others? Do you find yourself experiencing impatience, anger, or annoyance often? What are some ways you can deal with these feelings effectively? Recognizing weaknesses allows you to look for ways to deal with them.
  • Remember that emotions are fleeting. A co-worker might irritate you or your boss might give you a frustrating task to complete. Before you react, remember that these things are temporary. Making rash decisions based on intense emotions can be detrimental to your long-term goals and success.

Practice Self-Regulation

Goleman identified self-regulation as a critical part of emotional intelligence. Being aware of your emotions is an important first step, but you also need to be able to manage your feelings.

People who possess good self-regulation are able to adapt well to changing situations. They don't bottle things up; they wait for appropriate ways to express their emotions rather than reacting impulsively.

To improve your self-regulation skills in the workplace:

  • Find techniques to release workplace stress. Having hobbies outside of work is a great place to start. Physical exercise is also a healthy way to release stress.
  • Keep your cool. Accept the fact that you cannot control everything. Look for helpful ways to respond that don't add fuel to the fire.
  • Think before making decisions. Emotions can overwhelm you in the heat of the moment. You can make a calmer, more rational choice if you give yourself time to consider all of the possibilities.

Improve Social Skills

Research on emotion psychology suggests that people with high EQs also have strong social skills. Because they are adept at recognizing other people's emotions, they are able to respond appropriately to the situation. Social skills are also highly valued in the workplace because they lead to better communication and a more positive company culture.

Employees and leaders with great social skills are able to build rapport with colleagues and communicate their ideas effectively. People with good social skills are not only great team players, but they are also able to take on leadership roles when needed. To boost your social skills:

  • Listen to what others have to say. This doesn't mean just passively listening to other people talk. Active listening involves showing attention, asking questions, and providing feedback. Whether you are a manager or a team member, active listening can show that you are passionate about work projects and willing to work with others to help the group reach its goals.
  • Pay attention to nonverbal communication. The signals that people send through their body language can convey a lot about what they really think.
  • Hone your persuasion skills. Being able to carry influence in the workplace and convince team members and supervisors to listen to your ideas can go a long way in advancing your career.
  • Avoid office drama. Do your best to stay out of the petty office politics that sometimes take over the workplace, but be aware that conflicts are not always avoidable. Focus on listening to what others have to say and look for ways to solve problems and minimize tensions.

Become More Empathetic

Emotionally intelligent people are good at stepping into another person's shoes and understanding how they feel. Empathy is more than just recognizing how others are feeling. It also involves how you respond to these emotions.

In the workplace, empathy allows you to understand the different dynamics between colleagues and supervisors. It also allows you to recognize who holds power and how it influences the behaviors, feelings, and interactions that flow from such relationships.

  • See things from the other person's point of view. It can be challenging at times, especially if you feel like the other person is wrong. But rather than let disagreements build up into major conflicts, spend time looking at the situation from another's perspective. It can be a great first step toward finding a middle ground between two opposing points of view.
  • Pay attention to how you respond to others. Do you let them have a chance to share their ideas? Do you acknowledge their input, even if you disagree? Letting others know that their efforts have merit often helps everyone feel more willing to compromise.

Work on Your Motivation

Another key component of emotional intelligence is intrinsic motivation. People who have strong EQ tend to be more motivated to achieve goals for their own sake. Rather than seeking external rewards, they want to do things because they find them fulfilling and they are passionate about what they do.

Money, status, and acclaim are great, but people who are highly successful in the workplace are usually motivated by something more than that. They are passionate about what they do. They have a commitment to their work, they love taking on new challenges, and their enthusiasm can seem contagious. They don't give up in the face of obstacles and they are able to inspire others to work hard and persist in order to achieve goals.

  • Focus on what you love about your work. There are probably things about your job that you love and things that you hate.Try focusing on the aspects of your job that you enjoy, such as the feeling of accomplishment you get when you complete a big project, or helping your clients progress toward their own goals. Identify those components of your job and take inspiration from them.
  • Try to maintain a positive attitude. Notice how optimistic people in the workplace tend to inspire and motivate others. Adopting this kind of attitude can help you feel more positively about your work.

A Word From Verywell

Emotional intelligence plays an important role not only in well-being but also in your success in the workplace. Fortunately, there are a number of lessons you can take from emotion psychology that will allow you to improve your EQ and foster greater emotional competencies to improve your work performance and career success.

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  1. Kotsou I, Nelis D, Grégoire J, Mikolajczak M. Emotional plasticity: Conditions and effects of improving emotional competence in adulthood. J Appl Psychol. 2011;96(4):827-39. doi:10.1037/a0023047

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