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Yes, Emotional Intelligence Still Matters in the Workplace. Here’s Why


At this point, I think it’s safe to say that virtually every business person has heard about emotional intelligence. First coined by psychologists in 1990, the term has become a big buzzword in recent years.

And for many, it’s kind of a big deal.

Fast Company once described emotional intelligence as one of the fastest-growing job skills. CEOs have been known to spend millions of dollars to train in this area, and many hiring managers have been encouraged to actively look for signs of emotional intelligence when interviewing candidates.

With so many companies prioritizing emotional intelligence in the workplace, you may be surprised to hear that these practices are starting to get some pushback.

Most notably, research from revered Wharton professor Adam Grant revealed there’s no real correlation between emotional intelligence and business results. Other surveys suggest that emotional intelligence takes a back seat to more cognitive capabilities than many might expect: Most people would rather work for a competent jerk than a friendly, but ultimately less competent, boss.

These seemingly conflicting messages — some experts say emotional intelligence is the biggest predictor of success; others say it should be just one of many factors — can make it difficult to know what to do. Do your people need to exhibit emotional intelligence before they can be successful at work? If the answer is “yes,” how big a role does it play? And what can you do help foster the right amount?

The evolution of emotional intelligence in the workplace

Before we get into the details, let’s first take a look at how emotional intelligence is defined.

UNH psychology professor John D. Mayer originally defined emotional intelligence as:

“The ability to accurately perceive your own and others’ emotions; to understand the signals that emotions send about relationships; and to manage your own and others’ emotions.”

Nearly a decade later, Rutgers psychologist Daniel Goleman established the importance of emotional intelligence at work:

“The most effective leaders are all alike in one crucial way: They all have a high degree of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence. It’s not that IQ and technical skills are irrelevant. They do matter, but…they are the entry-level requirements for executive positions. My research, along with other recent studies, clearly shows that emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership. Without it, a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great leader.”

Goleman went on to explore five core components of emotional intelligence that are critical to effective management:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-regulation
  • Motivation for work that goes beyond money and status
  • Empathy for others
  • Social skills, such as proficiency in managing relationships

The message was clear: To be effective at work, you’d need to be good at perceiving and managing emotions.

But then experts began to question just how prominently a person’s emotional IQ factors into actual ROI and outcomes. After the cornerstone study noted above, Adam Grant announced that cognitive ability was found to be five times more powerful than emotional intelligence:

“The average employee with high cognitive ability generated annual revenue of over $195,000, compared with $159,000 for those with moderate cognitive ability and $109,000 for those with low cognitive ability. Emotional intelligence added nothing after measuring cognitive ability.”

In other words: Emotional intelligence isn’t the only way to attain success as a leader. And in some cases, it may play more of a supporting role.

There is, however, one area where emotional intelligence is essential: employee engagement.

How emotional intelligence and employee engagement go hand-in-hand

While there are questions around how much importance should be placed on emotional intelligence in the workplace, there’s little doubt that it does indeed matter. Particularly when it comes to motivation and collaboration.

Talk to any people leader or executive about employee engagement, and they’re bound to have a story about issues like trust, authenticity, and fairness — engagement drivers that simply won’t develop based on competency alone. And then there’s the theory that employees leave bad bosses, not companies.

So even if it’s not the primary driver of business results, there are certainly times when emotional intelligence is highly beneficial. For example:

In one notable Harvard Business Review article, management experts point out that a company’s emotional culture can have a direct impact on everything from burnout and absenteeism to teamwork and financial performance:

“When people talk about corporate culture, they’re typically referring to cognitive culture: the shared intellectual values, norms, artifacts, and assumptions that serve as a guide for the group to thrive.”

However, this is only part of the story. Experts go on to explain that the company’s emotional culture is equally important: These are the shared values that dictate how well people collaborate and communicate.

When you factor in how many employees today are motivated by passion and purpose, and why they value culture more than compensation, the importance of emotional intelligence is undeniable.

It’s necessary to not only survive but thrive — as individuals, as teams, and as a company at large.

How to manage your company’s emotional culture

Emotional intelligence may not be the easiest to measure and quantify, but there is a way to make it a part of your ongoing processes.

At 15Five, we encourage companies to regularly ask questions about how people perceive their work, what’s going on with their teams, and what motivates them.

Best way to do that? Create a system for regularly collecting employee feedback.

Ask questions that will help reveal what most excites people about their teams and superiors. Then look for ways you can help create the emotional conditions they need to thrive.

When you embrace emotional intelligence as well as cognitive skills, you can really start to reap the benefits of a highly engaged, creative, and productive workplace.

Ready to start measuring your employees’ engagement and better understand your organization’s emotional culture? We’re here to help! Get in touch, and we’ll connect you to an engagement expert.

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