Emotional Intelligence: What Is It and Why You Need It
Emotional Intelligence: What Is It and Why You Need It

Emotional Intelligence: What Is It and Why You Need It

Introduction: Emotional Intelligence (EI)

 I don’t know what’s caused the recent upturn in management buzzwords. (Forbes? Corporate culture? HR? Ourselves?) Regardless of who’s to blame, it’s impossible not to acknowledge that these words constantly surround us. Examples include “leadership”, “creativity”, and “passionate”. (I’m not particularly fond of the last one.)

One term, however, really grabs my attention: emotional intelligence (EI). EI refers to a collection of skills that allow an individual to recognize and manage his or her emotions as well as those of others. We’ve come to realize that good leaders are not just people who are talented, smart, and qualified; they must also have “good EI.”

“What the heck does that mean, ‘good EI’?” you ask me. We have ways of measuring someone’s potential for learning, and that’s called “intelligence quotient (IQ).” However, because EI is still relatively new, we don’t have many ways of measuring it, leaving psychologists and HR managers unable to determine how much “EI” a given staff member has.

We should ask ourselves: how far have we come in exploring EI’s impact on organizational success? What does the data say about it? Do we even need reliable and valid data – can’t we just use experience and case studies? In this blog entry, we will explore everything about EI: its history, the data and research on it, and how you can use it to make your staff more emotionally intelligent. That should be our goal, right?

The History and Development of EI

 EI really became a “thing” when Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer coined it in 1990. They described it as “‘a form of social intelligence’ that allows an individual “to perceive, use, understand, and manage emotions.” (Practical Emotional Intelligence, n.d.; Koubova & Buchko, 2013, pp. 702–703). (If you’re interested in seeing their original work, check it out here.) They initiated research to explore the concept and made some pretty useful findings.

They showed a group of people an emotionally upsetting film. This group was able to “recover” more quickly because they scored highly on emotional clarity, “a skill…that…[helps] to identify and name a mood experienced.” Apply this finding to an organizational setting: A stressed manager can handle workplace disturbances more quickly and effectively if he or she scores highly in emotional clarity. He or she also can “recover” quickly and with ease, too.

They also found that individuals able to read others’ emotions were able to respond to changes in their social environments. HR managers are often responsible for notifying employees about layoffs, which translates into handling angry responses. Would you prefer someone in this role to be able or unable to read others’ emotions? An HR manager with this skill can handle resistance to change (RTC), workplace politics, counterproductive work behavior (CWB), and complaints during this stressful period.


Goleman built upon Salovey and Mayer’s research. In his seminal work, Emotional Intelligence, published in 1995, he organized EI into four components. This breakdown serves as the foundations for our understanding today:

  • Self-awareness – The ability to recognize how you are feeling, identify and name that feeling, and evaluate why you’re feeling that way.
  • Self-management – The ability to handle and control your emotions in all types of situations, particularly stressful ones.
  • Social awareness – The ability to recognize social cues, identify how others are feeling, and evaluate why they’re feeling that way.
  • Relationship management – The ability to handle and control how others respond to all types of situations, particularly stressful ones.

    his list shows the skills that go along with each component. (Note: The term “domain” is synonymous with “component.”)

Why EI Is Important

 Still, you may ask yourself, “Why is EI important? As long as the employee or manager has the qualifications and gets the job done, why should I care?” And that makes sense. If the job gets done; there is no need to concern yourself with EI, even if it sounds interesting.

Let me tell you, it surely does matter. Let’s look at it from a case perspective: Nurses are typically responsible for terminally ill patients. Family members and friends get very stressed about the situation (rightfully so), and the nurse, not the doctor, is expected to handle the emotional response. In addition, they interact with the patient the most during this period. A nurse who shows concern about the patient’s comfort level may be the difference between him or her passing away happily or depressed. The nurse can minimize the pain and struggle. Nurses need to be empathic, showing genuine concern.

Additionally, this NPR story details how Theresa Brown served as “bridging the gap between patients who know they are dying and family members who are still expecting a cure.” Empathy and the ability to handle conflict prepare nurses like Theresa Brown to calm the family down and reassure them that, although their loved one will unfortunately pass away, they will pass away comfortably.

The need for EI in preparing customer service representatives for success is another convincing example. It’s no surprise that they interact with angry and disgruntled clients every day. Clients are frustrated that their Verizon Wi-Fi isn’t working or that their Bank of America check still hasn’t cleared. They may additionally mention that this isn’t the first time they’ve had issues with your company’s services.

A representative may want to yell right back at them and say, “It’s not my fault!” But the representative must remember that if he or she “screws up,” they’ll lose their job. Representatives need to control their temper and be able to build rapport. And if they continue to handle situations like these well, they may even get promoted, since managers will be impressed by their work habits.


Finally, consider construction work. It’s physically tiring and often requires more than just a college degree. Construction engineers usually have a graduate degree in civil engineering and are delegated to site engineering. They oversee the completion of a project: divide the labor, give directions, and continuously evaluate the plan’s execution. A construction engineer who recognizes his or her subordinates’ attitudes is better able to motivate them, thereby getting work done on time. They can also control their frustration on days when subordinates aren’t interested in listening to directions or instructions.

Data to Support Use of EI

 Still not convinced? Let’s look at some of the research behind EI’s impact:

  • A study conducted by Fujino, Tanaka, & Yonemitsu (2014) found a positive correlation between EI and nurse performance. They state that “Nurses with high EI reported more professional development activities, suggesting that they continue learning, attain licenses and actively improve their nursing skills.” In other words, nurses high in EI continue bettering themselves, which contributes to organizational success.
  • Koubova & Buchko (2013) present a model showing how EI affects employees’ work/life balance. High EI “positively influences well-being and serves as an important factor when facing work–family conflicts” (p. 708). When individuals can handle the stress involved with maintaining work/life balance, HR does not have to spend as much time focusing on assisting employees in managing work/life balance. It also affects social interactions: “males with lower EI reported having poor quality peer relations…[and] find it difficult to establish and maintain meaningful social interactions” (p. 708). Individuals with high EI create a more positive and cohesive workplace culture.
  • Chang, Sy, & Choi (2011) studied the influence of EI on team performance. Based on a study of 91 teams, they found that “average team member EI and leader EI are positively associated with intrateam trust, which in turn positively relates to team performance.” The study makes it clear that high EI equals high intragroup trust and, therefore, higher group performance.
  • San, Anantharaman, & Kin (2015) looked at how environmental factors, job satisfaction, organizational citizenship behavior, and EI affected an organization’s performance. Using regression analysis, they concluded that the better employees are “at using their gut feelings to decide, the better will be the performance of the organization” (p. 40). You wouldn’t expect that intuition helps an organization’s performance, but employees high in EI are better at making important organizational decisions.

Whether it be through improving nurse performance, better handling work/life balance, increasing intragroup trust, or making better decisions, EI has a positive influence on organizational performance. Additionally, as we continue to collect more data and conduct more experimental studies, the clearer it will be just how impactful EI is on an organization’s success.

Becoming More Emotionally Intelligent

 What remains is how we make our employees and managers more emotionally intelligent. Can someone become more intelligent? Isn’t it fixed?

That’s what we should first clarify. As Psychology Today states, “Unlike IQ, which does not change significantly over a lifetime, our EQ can evolve and increase with our desire to learn and grow.” If you make it a priority, you can help your employees increase their EI.

That’s where self-reporting and self-evaluation come in. The best way for employees and managers to improve their EI is for them to first know their EI. While there aren’t a ton of ways to measure it, there are a few. Goleman, an EI researcher aforementioned, provides a toolkit. Paul Mahopel also provides a few resources here and here.


Have your employees assess themselves through self-reporting. After completing a self-report, pair them up with other employees and have the pairs complete a report on each other (without disclosing the self-reports to each other). Once done, have each speak openly to their partner about their self-reports. The partner will then know how to compare the self-report to their reports. Then, have the partner provide constructive feedback. Partners will give feedback by telling the other to base answers on their self-reports. Have the one self-reporting answer the following questions:

1. Tell me five things you think you’re doing well and give me examples of how you’re doing them well.

2.Tell me five things you think you’re not doing well and give me examples of how you can improve upon them.

3.Name five missteps you’ve had in the past three months and tell me why you think they’ve occurred.

Make sure the partners ask for specific answers while guiding them through the introspection and self-reflection process. Instead of allowing the self-reporter to give a vague answer, partners should make sure that they are clear and detailed in their responses. Partners also shouldn’t expect the self-reporters to provide exactly five things; it can be more or less. In addition, the partners can build upon what the self-reporter is saying by saying things like, “Have you considered…” or “What about…” Throughout the process, both should know that as long as the self-reporters show they’ve done in-depth introspection and self-observation, they can improve upon their EI.

Additionally, consider workshops. Have employees do an EI self-report beforehand so that they’re prepared and primed. Again, put employees in pairs. Have them complete a stressful and difficult task in only five minutes, such as having partners come up with as many action verbs as possible within that time frame. If they cannot write at least 50 within five minutes, they lose the “game.” Whichever task you come up with, make sure that it requires collaboration and creativity; is high-stress, under pressure, time-bound, and numbers-based; and tests how each person handles themselves under stressful situations.

After the situation is over, carry out the same introspection and self-observation mentioned in the first method.

Even consider seminars. Have employees talk about what they have and haven’t done well in the past three months and why they think this has been the case.

Of course, evaluation apprehension can be a real risk. Evaluation apprehension is not as much a concern in the previous two methods because individuals are working with a partner. However, when in a large group, it can be frightening to have people look at you, waiting for you to “mess up.” That puts the onus on you to get individuals to speak up, so you need to start the dialogue and guide it. You state what you have and haven’t been doing well and why you think this has been the case.

Afterward, provide individuals with useful words to so they know how they can evaluate themselves. Even better, you can have individuals walk into the seminar already having completed a self-report with the three directives above, asking that they use guiding words like “inconsiderate,” “self-absorbed,” and “unfocused.” Regardless of whether they complete a self-report beforehand, make sure they use guiding words when talking to the group so that they can identify what they’re doing right and wrong.


After the seminar, ask them to write down five new things they learned about EI and themselves in addition to one paragraph on how they’re going to use the information to improve their EI and job performance.

Regardless of whichever method you choose, the goal for your employees is to be introspective, learn, and apply what they have learned for immediate and long-term self-improvement.

Conclusion: Next Steps

 “What now?” you may ask. Effecting change in any organization, promoting a culture of continuous organizational transformation, and taking next steps is difficult, costly, and sometimes even unnecessary.

You may not be rushing to improve your staff’s EI. In the end, it’s your decision. You now know what EI is and how it can help your organization, but you also need to decide if it’s something that is necessary at the moment. Ask yourself, “Do you think the employees and leaders are already emotionally intelligent? Will they benefit from workshops and/or seminars?” Think about and determine your organization’s needs.

Consider the following as a first step: have each member of your staff take an EI self-report, collect the data, and do a statistical analysis. If you think the statistical analysis doesn’t align with how you perceive your staff members’ EI, consider trying one of the methods above. If, instead, the analysis reaches or goes beyond your perception and/or what you consider the necessary standard for EI, keep this knowledge and the methods in mind in case something changes. Perhaps provide the same EI self-report several months later and review any changes in the data.

Regardless of what you do, always equip yourself with the knowledge and tools that can make your staff better at their work, more cohesive as a culture, and willing to try new things.

alex-dubroAlex Dubro, an aspiring writer and organizational development (OD) consultant, is passionate about anything and everything relating to organizational behavior (OB). A recent graduate from Cornell University, he plans on growing his blog to become one of the Internet’s eminent and most well-known in the field. He covers topics ranging from personality and job fit to organizational design.

In addition to his love for all things OB, he is a strong advocate of environmental stewardship. While at Cornell, he was Director of the Cornell Waste Council (CWC), a student-run club that improves communication between the school’s administration and environmental-related clubs on-campus. His work in waste management includes restarting a volunteer activity that employs waste monitors to direct students how to dispose of waste properly. Using his knowledge and skills in OB, he strengthened the Environmental Collaborative (ECO), a club that connects student-run clubs and improves collaboration among them.

Alex is eager to share his knowledge and has shared 14 posts on his blog in the last 6 weeks. If you’d like to connect, he can be reached LinkedIn or Twitter. To read Alex’s work, check out his blog here.

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