Life & Work Skills

Leadership Skills: Why It’s so Important to Develop Emotional Intelligence at Work

Emotional intelligence — sometimes called your emotional quotient or “EQ” — is a powerful set of skills that’s necessary to develop throughout our careers. Strong EQ is the ability to identify and manage our emotions in a positive way. In the same way practice makes us better at the technical aspects of our jobs (using financial models, writing new code, or learning about our companies products and services), practice can also help us develop more sophisticated emotional capabilities as well.

While it can be difficult to put your finger on exactly what high EQ looks like, it’s one of those aptitudes where you know it when you see it.  What does a “high EQ” person look like in the real world? An applied EQ researcher found that they are strong communicators, able to spot early warning signs of conflict, show empathy to others around them, and can dole out and take thoughtful feedback. All of these skills are critical at every stage in our careers, and become even more important as we move up to take responsibility for teams and more senior projects.


Why EQ is Important for Everyone

EQ isn’t a ninja skill that you only start developing as a manager. In fact, landing a leadership role is much more likely if you’re already actively working toward sharpening these aspects of engagement with yourself or others.

EQ is made up of five areas: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills, according to several leading academics in the field. These are essential in all aspects of our career. I tend to think each skill here builds on the previous to bring a new level of impact to your work relationships.

Successful EQ starts with thinking about our emotions, not just feeling them. For example, it’s being able to tune into when we feel ourselves get a little irritable in a meeting, and instead of throwing an edgy comment across the table, asking ourselves, “Why am I feeling like this? Am I taking this too personally? What else could this feeling be about?” That next step of self-regulation shows up when you actually reign in the crummy comment and find a constructive way to express or work through that emotion.

Motivation is important because it’s the piece we have to learn to create for ourselves. The more we advance at work, the more autonomy we’re likely to be given, and that means it’s less likely that there will be someone dictating the next steps of our every day. Empathy and social skills go hand in hand. Our ability to acknowledge what others are feeling is key to building productive, trusting relationships in a team, both as a manager or colleague. When these relationships are in place, studies have shown teams simply work better. Further, trust is the basis for delivering and receiving constructive feedback, which is essential if we’re going to continue to ascend in our careers.


How Do I Build EQ?

There are a few easy steps we can put into practice in our everyday work routines to help build our emotional intelligence.


Practice Being an Observer

Like any skill, we’re not going to build it without practice. Thankfully, a million moments in our day offer an opportunity to analyze ours and others’ emotions. Observing starts with the commitment to being mindful in our own interactions. Spend a day with a sticky note at your desk that says “Mindful EQ,” or set that timer on your phone to go off every hour. When it comes up, take a few minutes to reflect on your recent interactions.

Did you take that extra moment to ask a co-worker how her weekend was before diving into your request? Did you smile and make eye contact with the barista instead of mindlessly shuffling through your phone? Or maybe you noticed an exchange between two colleagues got a little tense. How did that escalate? What do you think they each could have done differently to diffuse it? While it seems simple, these cognitive exercises about emotion are the very things that start building new EQ habits and get us in tune with people’s emotions around us.


Ask For Feedback

Feedback is sometimes tough to take, but it is essential to growth. Even trickier is asking for it around tough subjects that are harder to measure. Start in small doses with a trusted work friend and even transparently tee up what you’re after. “I’m polishing up my EQ! How do you feel like it went when you watched me answer those client’s questions? Do you think they felt heard on their pain points with our product? How could it have gone better?” It takes courage to ask for these ideas, but asking also creates a space for your friend to think proactively about their EQ too!

Normalizing these discussions are an important part of being a manager. Consider breaking up feedback to your team into the substantive or technical parts of their work. Separate how they do their work — essentially the EQ. “Kim, you did an amazing job highlighting all the features of our new software in the sales brief. At the end of the presentation, the client seemed like he was still feeling frustrated about part of our service and I think you could have explored that further. The way I noticed it was he crossed his arms and leaned back, grumbling about connectivity. Did you catch that? How could we have worked through that conversation?” Give both the EQ signals you observed and an open-ended question for your employee to think through. It shows them that as a manager you prioritize EQ and can help them develop it.


Slow Down… And Question

One of the most powerful tools I’ve been bringing to my own EQ development is slowing down in conversations. I’m also practicing allowing silence for just a moment longer than I typically do in exchanges over challenging topics. It sounds so simple, but that extra second of pause is when some really thoughtful observations (your side) and comments (their side) show up.

For example, I was talking to a colleague and we were running down some usual work gripes, but as I slowed down the conversation, I realized he seemed grumpier than usual. He was using a lot of hand gestures. Rolled his eyes a lot, put his face in his hands for a second. After one of his comments I stopped talking; just paused, resisted that urge to fill the space and waited, “I’m really struggling balancing some work and family stuff right now.”

It was a powerful and vulnerable moment, and it took our conversation in a more constructive, compassionate direction about those shared challenges. It’s these types of conversations that can change our working relationships to those that feels a little more collaborative, friendly, and productive.