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Emotional Intelligence at Work | 5 Reasons Why it Matters

A person holding fairy lights in the shape of a heart.

Our lives are pretty of full these days. We move quickly, juggling competing demands from work and home, all the while wondering if we are managing well enough to do a good job.

But with all of our lists and apps, we can often underestimate the importance of emotional intelligence in considering how we are to manage all of these competing demands at work and at home. Nurturing and growing our emotional intelligence better equips us to keep our footing and find new ways to sustainably contribute to the organizations we support.

Daniel Goleman, the psychologist and science journalist who first introduced the idea of emotional intelligence in 1995, identifies these elements as key to emotional intelligence:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-regulation
  • Motivation
  • Empathy
  • Social skills

Here’s how to recognize which of these elements fall on your list of personal and professional strengths, and where there may be room to grow.

1. Self-awareness encourages flexibility

We need to be flexible enough to change when something isn’t working. But what if we don’t notice that something needs changing in the first place?

I’m always telling my ten-year old to “read the room.” When she’s dancing and singing while someone is making a phone call? Read the room. She wants quiet to start her homework just when I am starting dinner and her two-year old brother is busy spreading toys from one end of the house to the other? Read the room.

Reading the room is simply being aware of what is going on in any given moment and understanding your impact on your surroundings.

This is a useful skill to apply in your personal life, but it’s also a critical “soft skill” to develop in terms of your career.

Self-awareness means:

  • Knowing your strengths and weaknesses
  • The ability to make good decisions that support your goals
  • The ability to be flexible and adjust to change
  • The ability to recognize and acknowledge mistakes, and an interest in learning from them

Strengthen your self-awareness skills by:

  • Keeping long-range goals in mind when applying for new positions. Ask a trusted colleague for honest feedback about where they think you could grow, as well as what strengths you could highlight for future work.
  • Noticing when an idea falls flat in a meeting and stepping in to help pivot the group. Learn to let go of seeing your way as the only way. Practice being flexible when there is less at stake—let your partner load the dishwasher, a friend choose the location for your next hangout, someone else at work set an agenda for your next meeting, etc.
  • Anticipating your stressors. Do shifting deadlines drive you wild? Figure out how to stay on top of a project’s progress so there’s always room for surprises. Do you have a specific co-worker who pushes your buttons? Learn what works for you in the moment—taking a deep breath, a walk around the block, pausing before reacting—folks who are self-aware use all of these tactics.

2. Self-regulation keeps us calm under pressure

From learning to deal with a co-worker who moves at a different pace than we’re used to, to figuring out how to stay open and engaged when we’re feeling burned out, knowing how to regulate our emotions at work is crucial to our success.

Self-regulation at work means:

  • Using challenging situations to your advantage—accepting feedback thoughtfully
  • The ability to express feelings and responses with care and control
  • Learning to respond after calming down instead of reacting negatively
  • Staying positive when things don’t go as planned
  • Setting reasonable expectations

To strengthen your self-regulation muscles:

  • When emotions are high, try waiting. Give yourself a few days, or even just a few hours before you respond or make a decision. Allow yourself time to let the emotions settle.
  • Don’t participate in office gossip. Brené Brown has a great TED talk on how easy it is to build bonds and friendships quickly by tearing others down and how this ultimately hurts our integrity. Keep your integrity and professionalism, even when you’re tempted to join in.
  • Practice stress management. Exercise, meditate, hang out with friends, make time for your interests. Finding time to engage in things we love can help us keep our perspective at work when we need to.

3. People who are emotionally intelligent are motivated regardless of their circumstance

We will all face obstacles at some point during our career. Being motivated to do well helps us keep going when circumstances are less than ideal because we’re driven by something bigger than ourselves. Motivation helps build resiliency that will carry us over hurdles and drive the creative process toward finding solutions.

Being motivated includes:

  • Being internally driven to take initiative
  • Being motivated by outcome instead of by title or praise
  • Motivation to inspire others and work toward common goals

Need to boost your motivation?

  • Make a list of what drew you to your work in the first place. Seeing the things that inspire you written down can help you to recommit, and new ideas will often surface through writing.
  • Look to other areas for inspiration. Volunteering is a great place to start when you need inspiration. Check out for hundreds of volunteer opportunities.
  • Discover SMART goals. Learning to break larger goals into small, attainable steps can help you stay motivated to continue and also help you to feel accomplished.

4. Empathy helps us grow into effective leaders

Empathy is about looking beyond our own perspective and concerns, allowing us to make meaningful connections with other people.

Empathetic leaders:

  • Can move others to care about the big picture
  • Help others reach common ground by respecting all viewpoints and skillfully facilitating conversation
  • Choose the right course of action, even if it is not the easiest
  • Build others up instead of cutting them down
  • Are solution driven, rather than punitive, when there is a problem

To put empathy into action:

  • Remember, we’re all doing our best. Repeat this phrase: "Just like me, they want to be happy." We don’t know what colleagues are bringing with them to work every day, and most of us could use some extra kindness.
  • Help others. Look for moments in your day where you can step in and do something kind for a co-worker. If you see someone struggling with something you could easily help with, do it!
  • Take breaks. It’s easy to lose sight of our intentions when we’re moving fast. See what it feels like to take a break from online media once a day; put your phone down and go check in with a co-worker in person.

5. Happy, communicative workers get things done

We know from our own experience that folks with strong social skills make for a happier work environment. It’s easy to develop trust and rapport with people who communicate well. and when we feel good at work, we have the energy to be creative because we aren’t spending time on worry and stress.

People with strong social skills:

  • Make others feel good at work
  • Pay attention to body language and its impact on others
  • Are usually respected by others
  • Don’t get pulled into power struggles or backstabbing
  • Understand how to resolve conflict with compassion and openness

To strengthen social skills:

  • Work on clearly expressing yourself. Try setting a few goals. Ask more questions if you tend to observe; try to listen more if you tend to be a more verbal member of the team; work on strengthening your written communication.
  • Be polite and respectful. It’s not up to everyone else to make sure your needs are met at work. Keep this in mind when you need to communicate frustration.
  • Show you are willing to change. If, for example, you’re always arriving late to meetings it may not seem like a big deal to you, but you’ve heard from others that it feels disruptive. Take this opportunity to show the team that you value their input by trying to arrive earlier than expected. Being willing to take feedback and grow from it goes a long way.

Social-impact work asks us to show up for the greater good, and if we can show up for ourselves and our co-workers with these five skills, the impact of our work will be felt.

If you’re interested in learning more about emotional intelligence, remember that we can all learn to strengthen these skills.

About the Author | For nearly two decades, Jeannette Eaton has been working for nonprofits and helping people identify their strengths. She has experience as an advocate for women and girls in crisis, a volunteer coordinator for adult literacy, and a family literacy instructor.

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