How to Develop Your Emotional Intelligence at Work

You Can Learn & Strengthen Your Emotional Intelligence Skills at Work

Two employees sitting across a table from each other speaking and building emotional intelligence which leads to efficiency.
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Can managers and other employees develop emotional intelligence (EI)? While some researchers believe that emotional intelligence is an inborn characteristic, others believe that emotional intelligence can be learned and strengthened.

The "can be learned and increased club" is my choice because I have experienced many individuals who have enhanced their emotional intelligence when they put their minds to it.

In fact, in coaching and consulting with organizations, one area of focus has been to help leaders further develop their emotional intelligence. This is the most important dichotomy, noted by Kendra Cherry, in her description of emotional intelligence and its history.

Managers and Emotional Intelligence

Have you ever known a manager who had poorly developed emotional intelligence (EI)? This manager has difficulty understanding the emotions that are communicated in every message by employees. 

With the amount of the meaning of the message that employees communicate via nonverbal cues, facial expressions, and tone of voice, this manager has a serious disadvantage. He will have difficulty receiving the whole message that the employee is trying to communicate.

A manager with a low EI capacity is also ineffective at understanding and expressing his own emotions. This includes recognizing the fact that he has underdeveloped EI. A common reaction is to say that he is completely open to feedback, but that the communicator is wrong about this issue.

But, the primary problem with a manager with low EI is the manager's inability to realize and understand the impact of his or her actions and statements on coworkers in the workplace.

A second major problem for a low EI manager is that a coworker or reporting staff member who has highly developed emotional intelligence can play the low EI manager like a fine-tuned violin – for better, and for worse.

Emotional Intelligence in Action

Can managers do anything about this? Emotional intelligence can be learned and strengthened, but only when an employee understands how emotional intelligence is observable and useful in the workplace.

Cherry states that Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer, leading emotional intelligence researchers, recognize four aspects of emotional intelligence: the perception of emotion, the ability to reason using emotions, the ability to understand emotion, and the ability to manage emotions.

Examples of skills that a person with emotional intelligence might display in these aspects include:

  • Awareness of and ability to read body language and other nonverbal communication that includes facial expressions
  • The capacity to listen so intently that they can hear the words not spoken by paying attention to the tone of voice, inflection, pauses, and other cues
  • The ability to control and handle frustration, anger, sorrow, joy, annoyance, and other emotions
  • Recognizing and reacting to the impact that his or her words and actions are having on coworkers, whether they inform the manager of the impact, or not
  • Understanding the underlying emotion of a communication from a staff member and responding as effectively to the emotional aspects of the communication as to the stated needs
  • Effectively interpreting the cause of the emotion expressed by a coworker. That said, dejected posture can indicate a significant issue at home as well as an unresolved work issue.

Increasing Your Emotional Intelligence

Managers who are able to relate with their developed emotional intelligence, whether because of nature, nurture, or practice, bring an extra dimension of understanding and relationship-building to their work assignments. Several components of the interaction of an individual who has highly developed emotional intelligence were described.

These are nine ideas about how to strengthen your emotional intelligence in day-to-day practice:

  1. Practice deep and focused listening when communicating with another employee. Instead of rehearsing your response while the other person is speaking, focus your mind and attention on asking questions to clarify and understand what the person is saying.
  2. Summarize and feedback on what you think you heard the individual say to you. Ask if your summary is an accurate portrayal of the communication content.
  3. Ask questions to identify emotions and feelings. Ask the employee how he or she feels about the information provided to you. Ask for their gut feeling about how things are progressing.
  4. If you have difficulty reading how the employee is reacting to a situation emotionally, ask to discover. Most employees are only too willing to disclose an opinion when their manager indicates interest. You will further develop your emotional intelligence, too, by listening.
  5. Practice noticing body language or nonverbal communication. Stop your hurry long enough to recognize when body language is inconsistent with the words spoken. Get used to interpreting body language as a means to understand an employee's complete communication. With practice, you will get better.
  6. Observe your own reactions to an employee's communication. Make sure that you react on two levels. You need to react to the facts and to the underlying emotions, needs, dreams, and so forth that are expressed in most communications if you are observant. Again, if you don't get the second level that involves emotions, ask until you understand.
  7. Notice whether the employees with whom you relate most effectively are just like you. Explore whether you are receiving shared communication or just making assumptions that the employee will feel and react in a particular way, based on your experience. Ask questions, and notice responses. Note too, that you might attribute these employees with having more knowledge and insights based on your shared connection.
  8. Develop a sense of when you are being played. An employee with highly developed emotional intelligence is already analyzing your reactions and understands what you want to hear. This employee is skilled at building the relationship side of your connection—for good and for ill.
  9. Pay more attention to your own emotions. Analyze how you respond in emotional situations. Seek feedback from employees whom you trust to react with some degree of unbiased, unprejudiced response. Seek additional feedback from a boss or mentor who can describe your impact on others in a meeting, for example.

Developing Emotional Intelligence

You can develop your emotional intelligence, but it will take persistent focus and practice. Seek and use feedback to round out your own perceptions of your actions and behaviors.

Emotional intelligence is a hallmark of an effective manager or leader. They understand and appropriately react to both the content of a message and the underlying emotional and meaningful components that make a message live and breathe in an organization.

They are able to build sustainable relationships with peers and reporting staff. Without emotional intelligence, a leader is handicapped severely in their ability to perceive and react to the emotional component of communication and interaction with other employees. This inability will kill its effectiveness.