Your essential guide to improving emotional intelligence at work

Emotional intelligence is a set of essential life skills that you can apply in the workplace to resolve and prevent conflict, support team members, and motivate yourself and others.
Written by Matthew Sweeney, Contributing Writer

Have you ever wondered what kinds of habits and behaviors might benefit your work life? Is there a quality common amongst inspiring and helpful team members and leaders? Enter emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence is a way of keeping yourself in check and cultivating mindfulness that you can apply to your work environment.

The following page will teach how to develop emotional intelligence and explain how it can help you in everyday situations.

What is emotional intelligence?

Originally coined in 1990 by psychology professors John D. Mayer and Peter Salovey, the term "emotional intelligence" has entered the public vocabulary in recent years. It is a concept we casually reference in everyday speech or discuss in popular culture. But what is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is awareness of both one's own emotions and those of other people. People with high emotional intelligence possess strong communication, listening, and conflict resolution skills. 

Emotional intelligence is useful in everyday situations where emotional management and awareness are at play, such as helping a friend mourn personal loss, listening to your partner talk about a frustrating work conflict, or communicating your emotional needs to a family member.

You might want to improve your emotional intelligence skills if …

Low emotional intelligence can create problems in your life and relationships with others. Some indicators that you may have low emotional intelligence might include:

  • Frequent conflicts with other people that originate with your or their emotional responses
  • Difficulty accepting or receiving feedback that may be meant to be helpful
  • Struggling to move forward due to feeling down on yourself
  • Frequently becoming agitated by unimportant or petty matters

Why does emotional intelligence matter at work?

Emotional intelligence can significantly influence many aspects of your work life, including your:

  • Concept of self as a professional
  • Professional/work relationships
  • Performance on the job
  • Feelings of fulfillment from your work

Cultivating emotional intelligence can have a positive impact on these aspects of your daily work life. In contrast, letting your emotional intelligence go by the wayside can negatively impact your work life.

Emotional intelligence is an essential element of self-fulfillment, both on and off the job.

Benefits of improving emotional intelligence skills at work

Higher emotional intelligence can reap high returns in the workplace. The potential benefits of improving your emotional intelligence may include:

  • Improved skills at de-escalating and resolving conflicts
  • Stronger professional relationships with team members and superiors
  • Better skills at defining and enforcing professional boundaries in the workplace
  • More focused on work and better time management

Setbacks of having low emotional intelligence skills at work

Conversely, low emotional intelligence skills can unnecessarily complicate your workplace life, causing you to miss out on opportunities or even get in trouble. Examples of negative consequences you may experience include:

  • Conflicts with coworkers over unimportant matters
  • Coworkers avoiding you or feeling disinclined to collaborate with you
  • Difficulty getting those working under you to complete important tasks
  • Missed opportunities for advancement or high-profile projects

How to practice emotional intelligence during your workday

The important thing about emotional intelligence skills is that they represent a constant process rather than attaining perfection. It is through practice in real life rather than detached understanding that you can refine your emotional intelligence skills.

The present moment is the best time to practice emotional intelligence skills because it constantly offers opportunities where you need to use emotional intelligence to troubleshoot certain situations or problems. And there are five main components to emotional intelligence skills:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-regulation
  • Intrinsic motivation
  • Empathy
  • Social skills
5 components of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-regulation, intrinsic motivation, empathy, and social skills
Tori Rubloff/ZDNet

1. Self-awareness

Self-awareness is the ability to take ownership of your mental and emotional state. This is an important emotional intelligence skill because it allows you to:

  • Understand your side of an emotional exchange with another person
  • Recognize the connection between your actions or words and your emotions
  • Stop for a minute to take stock of how you are feeling

In a way, self-awareness is the ultimate tool for living in the present because it allows you to understand what is happening internally. You will find it easier to communicate clearly and calmly what you are feeling when you are self-aware.

ZDNet to Divya Robin: What strategies and practices can you use to have greater self-awareness throughout your workday?

  • "Be aware of your emotions. They help you identify your triggers. When you are feeling triggered, it will impact the way you engage with others or your ability to focus. Common emotional triggers in the workplace are feeling criticized, rejected, unheard, unwanted, or questioned/challenged. Self-awareness on an emotional level will help you identify when you are feeling triggered so you don't impulsively react (e.g. with rage, passive aggression, the rude email), but thoughtfully and intentionally respond. 
  • "Embrace being human. Being human innately comes with being imperfect. Trying to be perfect at everything is a form of denying your reality as a human. Self-awareness comes with understanding the inevitabilities of being human, and one of them is messing up. Use times that you fall short as an opportunity to activate your growth mindset (using your flaws as a way to grow and develop vs. remaining stuck and giving up) so you can continually strive to be the best version of yourself while acknowledging your humanness. 
  • "Check in with your energy levels at the start of every day before making your to-do list. We are a society that loves our 'to-do' lists. While I know that writing prioritizes can be helpful, we often don't incorporate the ebbs and flows in energy levels when doing this practice. Some days, you may need to take it slow (e.g. if you are in a bad mood, feeling anxious, or had a bad night of sleep) and your priority list should reflect this. Self-awareness of your energy levels leads to you setting realistic expectations about what you can accomplish that day, instead of setting yourself up for disappointment."

2. Self-regulation

Self-regulation is the ability to regulate your emotional responses to things. This emotional intelligence skill is important because it allows us to:

  • De-escalate conflicts and avoid unhealthy emotions such as resentment after they end
  • Prevent ourselves from becoming unnecessarily upset or unhappy by unimportant matters
  • Stop ourselves from becoming physically or emotionally violent with others

To understand self-regulation's importance, think about how much we take it for granted. What if you flew off the handle whenever someone took your parking spot or gave you an odd look? Self-regulation keeps us grounded and therefore better equipped to handle workplace conflicts composedly.

ZDNet to Lisa Bahar: What strategies, and practices can you use to self-regulate your emotions and thoughts throughout your workday? 

"Emotions are connected to thoughts, meanings, and interpretations of an event. Be aware of what you are thinking. 

"Practice observing your thoughts as thoughts, rather than your thoughts as facts. Often, our thoughts aren't factual to what's actually happening in the moment. Check the facts of your thought to confirm they're accurate. Many times, one may find themselves reacting to a situation that's prompted by a thought that isn't a fact. 

"If you are reacting to a situation in a disproportionate way, there is most likely more to the situation that is triggering you to react. Take a step back and observe what's going on inside yourself and outside yourself that's prompting the strong emotional reaction."

3. Intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation is a crucial element of emotional intelligence that relates to how we set goals for ourselves. When you are extrinsically motivated to do something, you do it out of fear of the external consequences of not doing it, such as your boss becoming upset with you. In contrast, intrinsic motivation comes from within and our sense of needing to do things for ourselves rather than others.

Practicing intrinsic motivation essentially develops self-motivation. When you feel self-motivated, you find it easier to set goals and hold yourself accountable to them. Learning intrinsic motivation makes you a natural achiever.

ZDNet to Divya Robin: How can you tap into your intrinsic motivations for working?

  • "Understand your passions and values in the workplace. When you allow your passions to drive your energy in the workplace, you will feel purposeful and more positive. Tuning in to your values can be a way to create motivation where you're working toward things that are important to you.
  • "Tap into your altruism. Human beings feel good helping others, and altruism is a universal experience. Try to make decisions for the greater good to support those around you instead of trying to bring them down or be 'better' than them. Doing this can also increase positive relationships in the workplace and in turn influence your overall well-being.
  • "Be creative and step out of your comfort zone. The more you practice curiosity, the more you're breaking your internal beliefs of 'doing for a reward,' and shifting it to 'doing to learn more.' The former is rooted in accomplishment and praise, and the latter is rooted in going out of your comfort zone and embracing your humanness."

4. Empathy

Becoming more emotionally intelligent absolutely requires you to cultivate empathy. Empathy comes from a shared feeling of humanity.

To feel empathy for someone else, you must take a moment to not only sympathize with their perspective but to try to understand their emotional state as another person. It is easier to stop yourself before saying something unkind or inconsiderate when you feel empathy for someone.

Practicing empathy can make it easier to:

  • Help coworkers during personal difficulties
  • Be a supportive team member or leader when your organization is experiencing difficulties
  • Facilitate conflict resolution between two or more team members

ZDNet to Divya Robin: What practices can you implement to become more empathetic toward coworkers and managers?

  • "Check in on how your co-workers are doing. Especially over the past two years, people have experienced more stress, anxiety, and depression than ever before. Mental health has been hard to manage for many, but in the workplace, people are often expected to "function as normal." This can lead to feeling burnt out and depleted, especially when keeping this all to yourself. Ask your co-workers or managers how they are doing. If you notice that they are overwhelmed, normalize their experience and if you have the capacity, ask them if you can help them with some tasks.
  • "Normalize talking about feelings. Everyone has emotions, but due to stigma (especially in the workplace), people hide their emotions. Many people think that sharing something like "I'm feeling overwhelmed with my workload right now" or "Tomorrow's presentation is giving me anxiety" is unprofessional. People can't "turn off" being human for the 40+ hours they work weekly, so instead of pretending to not have natural human emotions, start normalizing your emotions."

5. Social skills

Social skills refer to our ability to follow social conventions and use tools such as levity, politeness, and friendliness when interacting with others. Good social skills allow us to remember what is off-limits or irrelevant in our interactions and what would instead help us get along with others effectively.

Good social skills can encompass some of the following positive acts you can practice in the workplace:

  • Making small talk with team members and asking them how they are doing
  • Using appropriate humor at meetings to make communicating easier
  • Organizing outside social events or work parties with team members

ZDNet to Lisa Bahar: What social skills can you practice in order to have more productive, thoughtful interactions at work?

  • "Self-disclose mindfully, and keep it balanced to what the other person is sharing. 
  • "Avoid interrupting. 
  • "Read, study new ideas, and be engaged in life with new information you can share when you speak to someone."

In conclusion

It can feel difficult to discuss emotional intelligence. No one has perfect emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is and of itself a humbling concept. Practicing it well means recognizing that you are never truly "done". But remember: emotional intelligence is just as much the art of checking in on yourself as it is of showing consideration for others.

Divya Robin, MHC-LP

divya robin, a woman with long black hair, smiles at the camera

Divya Robin, MHC-LP, is a psychotherapist, media contributor, mental health advocate, and educator in New York City who holds two master's degrees from Columbia University. She specializes in working with adults who are feeling stuck — dealing with anxiety, depression, self-esteem, relationship issues, and life transitions. Her mission is to talk about mental health in an applicable and real way to encourage others to prioritize their mental well-being. She is the founder of @mindmatterswithdiv, an Instagram platform with 40k+ followers where she posts daily about emotions, relationships, and transitions in a real and digestible way.

Lisa Bahar MA, LMFT, LPCC

Lisa bahar, a blonde woman with medium length hair, smiles at the camera

Lisa Bahar is a licensed marriage and family therapist, licensed professional clinical counselor, and a student at Pepperdine University's Graduate School of Education and Psychology, Ph.D. in Philosophy and Global Leadership and Change program, Cohort 2020. Lisa Bahar provides psychotherapy to individuals, couples, and families and specializes in treating addiction, mood, and personality disorders.

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