Emotional Intelligence: The Secret Ingredient to a Thriving Workplace
Daniel Goleman published his best-selling book Emotional Intelligence in the mid-90s, and wrote a Harvard Business Review article a decade later, which is still listed as a top HBR article today, entitled, “What Makes a Leader?” In the article, he describes the five main components of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill. In his research in the workplace, Goleman has established that emotional intelligence is twice as important to performance as technical skills and IQ, especially at more senior levels of leadership.
Goleman wrote this content two decades ago, but his research has remained highly relevant, and in the face of a global pandemic, the concept of emotional intelligence has once again moved into the spotlight. As early as March 2020, workplace experts were pointing to the duty of leaders to display emotional intelligence. They emphasized that empathy, respect, and a calm attitude were critical in helping their workforce cope with the crisis at hand.
By late 2021, a scientific study was published that reported on the impact of emotional intelligence on work performance and behaviors in the midst of COVID-generated stress. In this study, higher levels of emotional intelligence appeared to act as a buffer against stressful situations, enabling people to cope and adapt more effectively.
The Importance of Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace
The late Dr. Sigal Barsade, renowned organizational psychologist, deduced from her years of studying emotional intelligence that “emotions are not noise—rather, they are data.” This data describes a person’s moods, motivations, and behaviors and has a direct impact on their performance, teamwork, attendance, and job satisfaction.
Furthermore, a collective review of extensive studies from the last 35 years conclude that emotion has a deeply significant impact on decision making. Similarly, another study hypothesizes that higher emotional intelligence can help people make better decisions by allowing them to separate their anxiety for their thought processes.
An HBR article makes the case for building emotionally-supportive work environments that encourage employees to thrive in their levels of productivity and innovation. However, some leaders are not always aware of what an emotionally-supportive management approach looks like—and others outright dismiss the significance of emotions, insisting emotions don’t belong in the workplace. These managers fail to understand who their workers really are and why they make the decisions they make. This results in missed opportunities for growth that can be created by acknowledging the role of emotion in employee decision making and problem solving. Another HBR publication goes so far as to say that workplace cultures where emotional intelligence is not engrained are a liability in the evolving business landscape.
Emotionally intelligent leaders who do act empathetically in the workplace, accepting and supporting the emotional realities of their team members, are likely to see an increase in engagement and productivity, according to an Enst & Young survey. The study reveals that 89% of workers say empathy results in better leadership, and a further 85% say empathetic leaders increase productivity. Additionally, global thought leader Catalyst reveals that 76% of surveyed workers with empathetic senior leaders report higher engagement.
According to Catalyst, 61% of workers with empathetic leaders also self-report greater levels of innovation at work. The aforementioned HBR survey supports this data, reporting that companies with culturally ingrained emotional intelligence are more creative, empowered, and risk-tolerant, which spurs greater innovation.
Emotionally intelligent leaders are also a key driver of retention. As Ernst & Young reported, 54% of Americans have quit their job when their boss wasn’t sensitive to their struggles at work. Furthermore, 88% of workers say that empathetic leadership inspires loyalty in employees for their leaders. This is particularly useful information for employers who are seeking to overcome the challenges of the Great Resignation.
Embedding Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace
Despite all the data pointing to the positive impact of high emotional intelligence in the workplace, the HBR study points out that many organizations find it difficult to prove the business case for initiatives to build emotional intelligence in their company culture, particularly when processes or systems within the organization work against them. A high focus on efficiency, for example, can limit personal connection and inhibit the development of emotional intelligence. Understanding how to embed emotional intelligence into the workplace and, subsequently, how to measure it against business performance is critical.
In more emotionally intelligent organizations, HBR finds that the following areas present opportunities to develop and nurture emotional intelligence in the company culture: employee satisfaction surveys, coaching and mentoring, customer satisfaction surveys, 360 reviews, and classes, courses, or seminars.
To initiate enterprise-wide emotional intelligence development, however, organizations need leaders who are self-aware and lead from a place emotional intelligence. Leaders with high emotional intelligence are people-centric, focused on reading and processing both their own and others’ emotions in the workplace. They are empathetic, good listeners, and seek to make genuine connections with coworkers and peers.
For leaders who are looking to develop emotional intelligence in their workplace, experts and professors from the Wharton School offer some advice. Daniel Goleman recommends setting clear goals and expectations and then trusting employees to reach those goals, giving them room for innovation and creativity. Additionally, constructive feedback is critical to promote ongoing improvement. Lindsey Cameron highlights the importance of a sense of belonging and connections. Joe Loizzo points to an overall need for a shift in the cultural lens towards our “common humanity,” moving away from “glorifying stress” and instead empowering workers to contribute in meaningful ways.
The Role of Emotional Intelligence in a Thriving Workplace
Ultimately, emotional intelligence plays a significant role in the success of every business. It leads to better decision making as well as higher levels of engagement, innovation, and productivity. Recruiting the right leaders and professionals is critical to embedding emotional intelligence into the fabric of a corporate culture.