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What is emotional intelligence (EQ) in the workplace?

Posted by Celene Robert

April 26, 2021

Once considered a buzz phrase relegated to HR circles, emotional intelligence—also known as EQ for emotional quotient—has emerged as one of the hottest topics among employers and recruiters. That’s because a growing body of research has emerged showing that IQ isn’t everything when it comes to hiring, and that job performance, job satisfaction and emotional intelligence are strongly correlated. 

After all, humans don’t leave their emotions at the door when they come to work. And globalization has made emotional intelligence even more important, requiring teams to work cross-culturally and entailing much more complexity.

Emotional intelligence, defined

So what, exactly, is EQ? The most widely accepted definition of EQ is that it comprises an individual’s ability to understand and manage their own emotions. 

But drilling down a bit, EQ further comprises what acclaimed behavior scientist Daniel Goleman describes as the five pillars of emotional intelligence, which are shown below. A description of each of the pillar is accompanied by an example of how that trait manifests in the workplace.

  1. Intrinsic motivation:

    Enjoying achievement for its own sake. An intrinsically motivated employee shows enthusiasm and energy.
  2. Social skills:

    The ability to build relationships with others. An employee with good social skills is apt to exert a positive influence on others at work.
  3. Self-awareness:

    The ability to understand one’s own strengths and weakness. A self-aware worker appears confident and accepts constructive feedback.
  4. Self-regulation:

    The ability to control and redirect one’s disruptive moods and impulses. An employee with good self-regulation avoids the urge to yell at teammates in the wake of a problem and instead explores solutions.
  5. Empathy:

    The ability to understand others’ emotions. A worker with high empathy shows an ability to develop their colleagues’ skills and an awareness of cultural differences.

Researchers show EQ matters at work

Emotional intelligence accounts for roughly 90 percent of what sets high performers apart from their peers with similar abilities and education at work, according to Goleman, who also authored The New York Times bestseller “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ” and is one of the foremost authorities on EQ. Employees that possess high EQ work better in teams, are more flexible and adjust to change better, Goleman’s research finds. No matter how many degrees or other on-paper qualifications a person has, if they don’t have certain emotional qualities, they are less likely to succeed in the workplace. 

Other researchers have repeatedly found that employees with a higher EQ tend to be rated higher on stress management, leadership and interpersonal skills. For example, a Harris Interactive study with 2,662 hiring managers, run in conjunction with CareerBuilder, found that about 71% of hiring managers suggested emotional intelligence was more important than IQ. Further, a 2008 study found that emotional intelligence training boosted productivity and resulted in better employee evaluations from management.

The hallmarks of high versus low emotional intelligence skills

As previously described, high emotional intelligence skills separate the best leaders and workers from the average. High EQ is also strongly correlated with job performance and with higher job satisfaction. And employees who work with or are managed by those with high EQ tend to have higher job satisfaction as well, according to Goleman.

A high-EQ person tends to:

A low-EQ person tends to:

apologize when they are wrong.

need to always be “right.”

be curious about others.

behave insensitively.

accept criticism without denial or hostility.

blame others when things go wrong.

roll with the punches.

have poor coping skills.

not expect perfection.

struggle with relationships.

be a good listener.

redirect conversations toward themselves.

let go of mistakes.

have emotional outbursts.


Low and high EQ individuals are prone to miscommunication in the workplace:

A high-EQ person will likely find it a challenge to communicate effectively with a colleague who is not as strong in the EQ area, and vice-versa. Behaviorists advise that lower EQ individuals are apt to fall into the “thinker” category of the Myers-Briggs personality system, whereas higher EQ individuals tend to fall into the Myers-Brigg system’s “feeling” counterpart. This does not mean that low-EQ individuals are cold; rather it means they typically approach interaction starting from their head and not the heart. It is a difference in how they apprehend the world.

Behaviorists advise that in such conversations, the higher EQ person should listen closely, stick to logic and get right to the point, steer the conversation back to the topic if things get heated and avoid taking things personally.

How EQ skills can being taught in the workplace:

 A briskly changing business environment necessitates skills in self-awareness, trust building, conflict management, listening and empathy—all the traits that are associated with high emotional intelligence. Since we know EQ is the foundation for success at work, developing these skills can be a game-changer and make the difference between a mediocre and a top-tier performer. 

Researchers believe that EQ is a set of skills that can be improved with training and practice, and that what distinguishes leaders is often their level of emotional intelligence. But it’s not just important for CEOs. Given the importance of emotional intelligence, some HR departments are adding psychologists and offering training on employee-employer relationships.

In strengthening on-the-job EQ, experts recommend working on each of its five pillars:

Improving intrinsic motivation:

To improve this skill, employees should learn to focus on what they enjoy about work and try to maintain an optimistic outlook that inspires others. Avoid negative “water cooler” talk.

Improving social skills:

At work, employees can strengthen their social skills by listening closely to what others have to say, by paying attention to nonverbal communication cues and by sharpening their skills of persuasion. Those with good social skills typically steer clear of office drama as well.



Employees can boost self-awareness by reminding themselves that emotions are fleeting and by taking honest stock of their emotional strengths and weaknesses. By paying attention to how you they are feeling, employees can come to understand how their emotional state may affect their decisions and how they interact with others. 

Improving self-regulation:

Workers must learn to find effective ways to release workplace stress, stay calm and think before making a decision or lashing out in anger.

Improving empathy:

Employees can build this trait by trying to see things from others’ point of view and by paying attention to how you respond to others. They should be reminded to let others know their ideas have merit, even if they don’t agree with us.

Harvard study illuminates the best way to teach emotional intelligence

A 2019 Harvard University study on the importance of emotional intelligence for businesses found that the EQ teaching component of the leadership program offered at Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University was the best approach. The school’s program focuses on conversation and interaction with peers and coaches rather than on lectures and data. Students found that this led to stronger level of self-awareness, empathy and the ability to understand others’ viewpoints, which in turn informed better relationships with others. On the other hand, presenting students with information and facts but without dialogue seemed to stir up people’s defensiveness, which caused stress and kept them embracing new concepts. 

How high EQ employees benefit the workplace:

Workers who have high emotional intelligence are more attuned to the cause-and-effect relationship between emotions and events and can plan accordingly. They tend to stay calm under pressure and to respond well to constructive feedback. Employees with a high EQ also practice restraint and understand that acting negatively will only cause a situation to escalate. 

Perhaps one of the most consistently positive aspects of emotional intelligence in the workplace is that their leaders usually don’t feel the need to micromanage such employees.  In sum, employers get better teamwork, a better workplace environment and greater self-control among employees with high emotional intelligence, which in sum makes their organization stand out among competitors that ignore the importance of high EQ employees. 


Celene Robert
Celene Robert

Celene heads up the marketing at Escalon. Passionate about helping companies grow their business, she spends her days finding new ways to bring essential business services to startups, SMBs, and growth-minded companies. Based in the PNW, she’s the proud owner of 8 pairs of Birkenstocks and a sassy, cuddly cat.

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