Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace: What is it, And How Can it Help?

What is emotional intelligence and how can it help?

If you’re feeling emotionally drained, you’re not alone. We’re still grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic and navigating economic uncertainty. Change and upheaval are stressful to manage, causing us to feel more pressure than usual. Not only are we preoccupied with our own worries, but we also have to consider that we may not have full insight into the unique challenges our co-workers face. In addition to regular work and home responsibilities, many people are caring for young children or ill family members. Others may be coping with feelings of loneliness and isolation. 

Each person’s lived experience during this crisis is different — that’s why emotional intelligence (EI) matters. Managing emotions and practicing emotional intelligence in the workplace are critical skill sets to learn as we begin to rebuild the world of work. 

But What is Emotional Intelligence?

You’ve likely seen or heard of the term “EI,” but what does it actually refer to? Author and psychologist Daniel Goleman — who popularised the concept of EI in his 1995 best-seller “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ” — defines EI as “the ability to recognise, understand and manage our own emotions as well as to recognise, understand and influence the emotions of others.”

Goleman outlines EI in four quadrants as follows:

Graph explaining emotional intelligence

Let’s break down each quadrant to illustrate how you can practise emotional intelligence in the workplace in today’s unique environment.

Be aware of your emotions and values

The first quadrant of EI is self-awareness, which involves recognising your emotions and their impact, and knowing your strengths and limitations. With the heightened stress that we’re currently experiencing, it’s even more important to pause and cultivate self-awareness. 

In addition to being honest with yourself about how you’re feeling, use this time to reflect on your most important values. Even if you’ve done this exercise before, a crisis can be a unique opportunity to reevaluate what’s important to you. Think about your core values. Have they evolved over time? Which ones resonate most right now? Write them down to help you recall what matters most to you. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, your core values can be a benchmark to help you prioritise how to best focus your time and energy.

Utilise mindfulness when dealing with strong emotions

You can practice self-management, the second quadrant of EI, by cultivating positive reactions when faced with strong emotional triggers. Think about a time you experienced an overwhelming emotion — for example, maybe you received harsh feedback from a colleague that made you feel angry and hurt. To cultivate a positive reaction in this situation, you would first pause and take a moment to identify how you feel. Simply recognising the emotion brings you into the present moment and helps you begin to process it. 

Once you’ve identified the emotion, take a few deep breaths to reset — you’ll feel more calm and clear-headed as you decide the best way to respond. While this all sounds simple enough, it takes practice to manage strong emotional reactions. Just remember that it’s normal to feel a wide range of emotions during these challenging times.

Connect with your team regularly — and don’t just ask about work

“How are you doing? How can I help?” The third quadrant of EI, social awareness, relates to how you handle relationships and your ability to feel empathy for the needs and feelings of others. When asked sincerely, these types of questions can be used as powerful tools for connection and social awareness.

With so many of us still working virtually right now, we have to be even more thoughtful about how we communicate with our teams. Reach out to co-workers individually to see how they’re feeling, and learn where they could use support — and genuinely listen to their responses. Use virtual tools to encourage team members to foster connections, create a sense of belonging and build resiliency. Colleagues that have a better understanding of each other are more likely to be empathetic.

Be empathetic toward your team — especially during conflict

The fourth quadrant, relationship management, refers to your adeptness at inducing desirable responses in others, being a catalyst for change and negotiating conflicts. When you’re trying to resolve conflict during a stressful situation, there’s always potential to overreact when emotions are running high, so it takes practice to maintain a clear head and calm demeanour. 

Think about a time you were in a stressful situation — maybe you were working to meet a tight deadline and a co-worker turned in an assignment late. In reflecting on your experience, what was your knee-jerk reaction? What would have been the best response? Having open and honest conversations with your colleagues is especially important in today’s environment. 

This not only helps you diffuse tension and resolve conflict — it allows you to productively brainstorm solutions when you have to adapt to changed circumstances (like the ones we all now find ourselves working in). No matter the situation, empathy is key to overcoming interpersonal conflicts and building stronger relationships, all of which contribute to having emotional intelligence in the workplace.

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