What is Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace?

portrait of Meg Embry
by Meg Embry

Updated April 21, 2022

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What is Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace?

Employers have caught on to the importance of emotional intelligence: many told us it's one the top traits they look for in new job candidates. Companies are even finding ways to test for it.

Dr. Matthew Kane — an ex-spy, experimental psychologist, and business intelligence consultant is here to tell you how to get it.

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Ready to start your journey?

What is Emotional Intelligence?

Simply put, emotional intelligence is the ability to perceive, understand, and manage emotions, both your own and those of the people around you, said Dr. Kane.

It's all about recognizing the experience of the person in front of you, managing your own emotions in the moment, and creating a sense of ease and collaboration that generates positive results."

It's tempting to think the so-called soft skills like emotional intelligence are less important than technical skills. But when Kane was doing counterterrorism in Iraq, using emotional intelligence was sometimes a matter of life and death.

"It was crucial that I be able to quickly diagnose whether someone I was dealing with — be it a civilian or an enemy combatant — was angry, or scared, or curious, or anxious. I needed that data to manage potentially dangerous situations," he said.

Dr. Kane started his military career in deception detection, working alongside members of the CIA and MI6. Then he went back to school for a Ph.D. in psychology to help pioneer academic research on human microexpressions. Today, Kane works with other retired intelligence personnel to apply his unique expertise about emotional intelligence to the corporate world.

Why is Emotional Intelligence so Important in the Workplace?

In your own day job, lacking emotional intelligence won't ever be fatal (hopefully). "The office isn't a war zone — or it shouldn't be," laughed Kane.

"But the skill of reading emotions is just as relevant when it comes to hiring, conflict resolution, teamwork, communication, and becoming a collaborative leader who can make an organization more effective, efficient, and open," he said.

At the core of emotional intelligence is the ability to understand perspectives you don't share or that may even contradict your own, a key characteristic of strategic leaders. Practically, emotional intelligence will make you better at:

  • Creating a sense of trust and understanding, which contributes to organizational morale
  • Understanding what motivates your colleagues and helping them realize their potential
  • Managing conflict in a fair and even-handed way
  • Building connections with clients
  • Providing more personalized customer service
  • Knowing your target audience and how best to address their needs
  • Anticipating problems and understanding their root causes
  • Finding common ground and achieving buy-in among stakeholders

"Research has even shown that improved emotional intelligence has a direct correlation to improved performance reviews," said Kane. "In one study, customer-facing employees who received very basic training in recognizing emotions saw long-term performance improvements."

Using Emotional Intelligence in Job Interviews

Emotional intelligence can also help you excel during job interviews, said Kane.

"First, understanding your own emotional response to stressful situations puts you in a position to control that response. When I get anxious, I stutter. Other people may use filler words, like 'um.' Knowing this about myself, I intentionally power-down my anxiety response before stressful situations by employing deep breathing exercises to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. If I can put myself into a relaxed state, I will appear more confident and competent.

"Second, being able to read your interviewer means you can capitalize on that person's emotional state. You can build a sense of relationship much faster by speaking to their experience. Using words that correspond to their emotional state will generate a sense of rapport. It will give them a feeling of being understood and respected. As a result, they will feel good.

"When you make people feel good, they like you," said Kane. "And who is more likely to get the job? Probably the person who left the interviewer in a positive emotional state."

How Can I Develop Emotional Intelligence on My Own?

The good news is this is a skill you can learn. With just a little bit of training, Dr. Kane says 98% of his clients see dramatic improvement when it comes to recognizing emotions and connecting with others. Here are five things he says you can do on your own to develop better emotional intelligence:

1. Pay Closer Attention to Facial Expressions

"We look at the face so much, especially in Western Cultures. It doesn't necessarily provide the most information, but it will always be your first data point. Study the people you come into contact with. Learn to interpret their expressions. Categorize those expressions according to the seven universal emotions: anger, contempt, fear, happiness, sadness, disgust, or surprise."

2. Identify Tonality

"Detecting emotion in someone's voice is a little bit trickier," said Kane. "Do you notice sadness in someone's facial expression? Ok, now what does their voice sound like? Notice that information as it comes to you. Each person is going to be a little different, but if you pay close attention you will notice commonalities."

3. Practice With Friends and Family

"Start with friends and family first; you will already have a baseline for understanding how they feel, so you can be more confident in your analysis of their expressions and tonality. Check in with them to see if you've judged correctly."

That might be awkward at first, Kane notes, but moments of awkwardness are usually a good opportunity to analyze emotions, too.

"Remember that emotional intelligence isn't just about gathering data; it's also about gaining experience in how best to leverage that data. So as you learn to recognize the emotions of the people around you, you also have to learn what kind of responses put them at ease. You might mess this part up a lot, initially, but that's okay. Consider every mistake as more data to help you respond better next time."

4. Practice with Strangers

"The next step is to take your research on the road. Practice reading strangers in low-stakes situations: Strike up conversations, ask for directions, interact with people at the grocery store. Pay attention to their reactions and emotions. Notice patterns. This will make you more adept at understanding what other people are feeling when it really matters."

5. Keep Learning

"A key element of emotional intelligence is curiosity about yourself and about other people. What makes someone or a group of people feel safe? Included? Respected? Heard? How do your own emotional responses affect your ability to manage the responses of those around you? I did six years of postgraduate study on this topic and I still learn more about it every day."

Featured Image Credit: Willie B. Thomas / Getty Images

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