What is emotional intelligence?

The importance of emotional intelligence in the workplace (and how to cultivate it)

Emotional intelligence is critical in teams because it allows members to recognize, understand, and act on both their emotions and the emotions of others. Ultimately, it controls how team members work together, communicate, and treat one another.

While emotional intelligence (EQ) is a well-known trait of those in management positions, the same holds true for teams. Emotionally intelligent teams are more efficient, collaborate more effectively, and communicate clearly. Therefore, actively working to encourage and develop EQ within workplaces can help to maximize team productivity and motivation. 

Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace

  • 1. What is emotional intelligence?
  • 2. Why emotional intelligence is important in the workplace
  • 3. Emotional intelligence in leadership
  • 4. How to improve emotional intelligence within your team

1. What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence (also known as emotional quotient or EQ) is the ability to identify, understand, and manage emotions in helpful ways. This includes both our own emotions, as well as the emotions of others.

Emotional intelligence can be defined by four key elements:

  • Self-management: the ability to control impulsive emotions and behaviors, manage feelings in beneficial ways, and adjust to shifting circumstances
  • Self-awareness: being able to acknowledge your own feelings and how they influence your thoughts and actions; understanding your own strengths and weaknesses
  • Social awareness: the ability to have empathy, identify emotional signals, and understand the feelings, wishes, and concerns of others
  • Relationship management: knowing how to build and nurture good relationships, inspire others, perform well in a team, and manage tensions

The term emotional intelligence was coined in 1990 by researchers Peter Salovey and John Mayer in their journal article titled “Emotional Intelligence.” In 1996, American psychologist Dan Goleman popularized the concept in his book of the same title.

On a day-to-day basis, EQ means being aware that emotions can directly impact behavior, either positively or negatively. It’s about learning to control and influence not only our own emotions but the feelings and behavior of people around us too.

If emotional intelligence didn’t exist, you wouldn’t be able to identify when a coworker is sad or understand why you are angry, for example. This would make navigating life extremely difficult.

2. Why emotional intelligence is important in the workplace

Emotional intelligence increases a worker’s ability to make good decisions, develop and maintain collaborative relationships, cope well under pressure, and handle constant change, all of which are important skills to possess within the workplace.

Emotional intelligence is also vital within the workplace because it helps employees to:

  • Understand non-verbal communication. When a worker can pick up on the subtle cues of a coworker’s emotions, it gives them the opportunity to resolve a situation before it becomes a problem. Someone showing nonverbal signs of sadness, for example, can be given the opportunity to talk privately about what’s troubling them. The ability to understand non-verbal communication also goes hand-in-hand with empathy. When a worker recognizes the emotional states of others, they can also adjust their behavior accordingly. If a coworker is feeling disheartened, for example, one might adjust their tone to be positive and uplifting when addressing them to try and boost their emotional state.
  • Be aware of their own feelings. Self-aware individuals not only recognize their emotions, but are also aware of the effect their actions, moods, and emotions have on others. Being self-aware also involves being able to monitor one’s own emotions and distinguish emotional reactions. Individuals who are self-aware realize the links between how they feel and how they behave.
  • Regulate their emotions. Being able to self-regulate emotions means waiting for the appropriate time and place to express them. Workers who can self-regulate in this way are more flexible and adaptable to change. Additionally, they are able to diffuse tension among coworkers and manage conflict that arises. This element of emotional intelligence is also linked to professionalism. A worker having a terrible day but pushing their frustration aside to behave appropriately in a client meeting, for example, is self-regulating their emotions.
  • Make decisions with ease. When a worker understands the emotions of those around them, it also assists them in their decision-making. Because they have the innate ability to determine how someone feels regarding particular outcomes, they have more confidence in the choices they make.
  • Advance their career. EQ and leadership skills, such as patience, active listening, optimism, and compassion, go hand-in-hand. Possessing these skills can fast-track an employee to a leadership position or assist them in earning a promotion.
  • Set a good example for others. When a worker showcases strong interpersonal skills, they encourage others to do the same. Emotions are contagious, so exhibiting positive emotions such as motivation, understanding, responsibility, and cooperation can rub off onto others and encourage them to behave in this positive manner.

3. Emotional intelligence in leadership

For leaders, having emotional intelligence is crucial for successfully leading a team. Emotional intelligence can help a leader to meet goals and targets, as well as create a happier and healthier working culture.

According to the emotional intelligence theory of American psychologist Daniel Goleman, there are five components of emotional intelligence in the workplace: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills.

The more you manage each of these areas as a leader, the greater your emotional intelligence will become. Let’s take a closer look at each component and see how you can grow as a leader.


Self-aware leaders know how they feel and how these emotions affect those around them. They understand their strengths and weaknesses and are humble.  

To improve your self-awareness as a leader:

  • Write down your thoughts: Keep a journal each day and take the time to reflect on your thoughts and feelings.
  • Think first, then act: When experiencing strong emotions like anger or frustration, slow down and truly examine the situation. Think about how you can healthily express and control these emotions.


The goal of self-regulation is to maintain control, especially in stressful situations. Effective leaders rarely shout or offend people, make rash or emotionally charged decisions, stereotype others, or compromise their values.

The ability to self-regulate means a leader holds themselves accountable and is flexible to adapt to changes in the workplace.

To improve your self-regulation as a leader:

  • Know what values are important to you: Spend time thinking about your own code of ethics. When you understand what you will never compromise on, you’re more likely to make the right choice when faced with moral or ethical decisions.
  • Admit to your mistakes: When you make a mistake at work, don’t blame others. Instead, face up to your mistake and be prepared for whatever consequences may come your way. This is a great way to earn the respect of your peers too.
  • Accept critique well: The ability to handle criticism is a crucial aspect of growing your emotional intelligence. Rather than becoming defensive, take a few moments to consider where the criticism is coming from, how it’s affecting others, and how you can address this constructively.
  • Practice being calm: Take notice of how you usually react under pressure. Do you become aggressive toward others? Or do you panic? Instead, try practicing deep-breathing techniques to calm your emotions and thoughts. If you find yourself feeling negative emotions, privately write down the things you want to say first. Then, rip up the piece of paper and throw it away. This helps you think twice about your reaction and prevents you from saying things to your team you’ll regret.


Leaders who are self-motivated constantly set and strive toward their goals. They also expect a high standard of work from themselves. This motivated attitude is infectious and inspires those around them.

To improve your motivation as a leader:

  • Reflect on your role: What do you really love about your career and why did you strive toward this position? This helps you look at your situation in a new light and reignites your passion. Reflect on your goal statements too to ensure you’re constantly striving toward something exciting.
  • Determine your motivation: Do you remain motivated in your role as a leader? Successful leadership requires the desire to lead others toward a shared goal. Reflect on this motivation, as well as how you might improve it moving forward.
  • Adopt a positive mindset: Motivated leaders are also optimistic, even in the face of adversity. With practice, you can easily adopt this mindset. When you and your team experience a setback, think about the lesson learned or any positive elements to come out of it.


Building a respectful and loyal team begins with empathy. Leaders with empathy can put themselves in the situation of others. This is important to managing a successful team, as leaders must challenge those behaving unfairly, provide constructive feedback, and listen to those who require it.

To improve your empathy as a leader:

  • Look at situations from other people’s perspectives: It’s hard to learn things if you only ever support your own point of view. Consider what others have to say and reflect on where their opinion is coming from.
  • Learn to read body language: Understanding the subtle cues of body language can be a real asset in a leadership role because it helps you to establish how someone truly feels—even without them saying so. This gives you a chance to respond appropriately. Arms folded across the chest can indicate unhappiness, for example, while fidgeting can signal boredom or nervousness.
  • Respond to emotions: Often, a coworker will say one thing, but the emotion in their voice will indicate another. An assistant agreeing to work late, for example, may try to hide a tone of disappointment. Acknowledge their true feelings and offer assurance. How might you help the situation?

Social skills

Leaders with great social skills are also great communicators. This element of emotional intelligence lends itself well to this position, as it allows leaders to encourage excitement and support among their team. Excellent social skills are also vital for conflict resolution and managing change. They help leaders to set a good example, help out where needed, and influence the positive social habits of others.

To improve your social skills as a leader:

  • Learn conflict resolution: Conflicts between team members, clients, or vendors will arise from time to time. Knowing how to resolve these conflicts diplomatically is vital for succeeding in a leadership position.
  • Enhance your communication skills: Learn how to communicate clearly and assertively. This allows you to express your opinions in a respectable manner while avoiding confusion.
  • Learn how to give praise: Giving praise when it’s earned can help you encourage the loyalty of your team. When complimenting team members, be sincere, specific, and realistic.
  • Utilize active listening skills: Instead of simply waiting for your turn to speak, listen to what someone is truly saying when talking to you. Before responding, ensure you grasp what’s being stated.

4. How to improve emotional intelligence within your team

To build emotionally intelligent teams, you must first create the three conditions necessary for team members to strengthen their emotional intelligence:

  • Trust among members
  • A sense of group identity
  • A sense of group efficiency

Here are the seven things you can do to nurture these conditions and improve emotional intelligence within your team:

1. Identify team members’ strengths and weaknesses

Your team members have a wide range of skills, talents, and knowledge that can help you and your organization achieve its overall objectives. Start by getting to know each team member better if you want to get the best out of them. You should discover more about them outside of a project if possible, so you can understand what they can contribute beyond their usual work position or title.

Encourage them to teach you elements of their skill set, as this can reveal what they are most passionate about, as well as encourage innovation.

When a team member makes a mistake or their weaknesses become obvious, offer practical feedback and advice to encourage them to do better. Rather than being reprimanded, you want your team members to know that you have respect for them, as well as belief in their abilities.

2. Spark passion

As a leader, it’s vital that you select the right team members. This goes beyond qualifications or experience and relates to those that fit into the company culture. The right team members will be passionate about what the business has to offer, as well as the role they have within it.

Even if you’ve hired team members which fit this mold, you can’t guarantee they won’t lose motivation and interest every now and then. To prevent this, you can spark their passion in the following ways:

  • Recognize your team members’ achievements and hard work
  • Have a work atmosphere that is both flexible and interesting, with a strong emphasis on teamwork
  • Make sure your organization or project has an objective that everyone is striving toward, so everyone feels driven

3. Build team standards

Small acts that make a huge impact are what group emotional intelligence is all about. It’s not only about harmony, lack of conflict, or everyone like one another all the time. Emotional intelligence also involves recognizing when harmony isn’t genuine and when tension isn’t addressed, as well as treating others with dignity.

Therefore, make sure that any team standards you set are in line with your values. When these principles align with both your company’s and your employees’ ideals, they’ll be more likely to support and follow them.

4. Develop creative ways to manage stress

Employees can become burnt out as a result of stress, and their general health may suffer as a result. Therefore, your team should be able to deal with issues like deadlines and disputes in a healthy manner.

Try the following strategies to help keep your employees’ stress levels at lower and more manageable levels:

  • Maintain schedules: Rushing or prolonging projects might have a negative impact on your team’s time management abilities.
  • Advise team members to take breaks and unplug from work: Help them find time regularly to practice activities that allow them to relax and unwind.
  • Encourage employees to focus on one task at a time: Multitasking is an ineffective strategy in the workplace. In fact, it has the potential to increase the time required to finish a task.
  • Resolve conflicts: It’s unrealistic to expect everyone within a team to get along all the time. Addressing any conflicts before they disrupt the overall team morale is the best way to prevent added stress and tension.
  • Be compassionate: Aim to pay attention to what inspires your team, as well as any obstacles they face. Let’s say a team member has just lost a loved one, for example. You should be sympathetic and accept that their focus is elsewhere, and ask how you can help them.

5. Allow team members to have a voice

It’s essential to have great communication skills among team members. To help your team build stronger communication skills, encourage them to work on active listening and obtain a better knowledge of body language. Provide your team members with a dedicated avenue to express their frustrations or worries.

Rather than letting these frustrations or worries affect the mindset of the entire team, encourage everyone to work together to solve these issues and determine the best course of action. You should also provide a chance for your employees to express their views and ideas. You can do this through the process of story-boarding, where each team member designs a poster to represent their suggestions. Don’t forget to ask and encourage your quiet team members to share their thoughts too.

6. Encourage employees to work and play together

Employees who spend time together outside of the job can actually be an advantage to the company. It makes teamwork more pleasurable and helps coworkers stay motivated during times of stress. Culture is formed outside of your company’s four walls as well, whether it’s Friday afternoon drinks together, attending a sports match a few times each season, or supporting each other in a corporate fitness challenge.

The most successful teams aren’t just a collection of individuals who gather in an office. Instead, they’re a true community cheering each other on for group success.

Connections outside of the workplace promote open communication, a strong work ethic, flexibility, and a greater understanding of each person’s obligations. Plus, if you hire workers who seamlessly get along together, it minimizes office drama.

The bottom line: Yes, teamwork makes the dream work

Emotional intelligence improves a worker’s capacity to make sound judgments, form and sustain collaborative relationships, function well under pressure, and deal with rapid change—all of which are valuable abilities to have in the workplace. Therefore, actively working to encourage and develop emotional intelligence within teams can maximize team productivity, boost motivation, and unite everyone through mutual respect, empathy, and a shared goal.

There’s no denying that teamwork makes the dream work. After learning about the importance of emotional intelligence in the workplace and how to cultivate it, you too can turn your group into a high-functioning team.

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