Got EI? Why Emotional Intelligence Matters at Work


Does it ever feel like some people are just “easy” to get along with at work: the boss that really “gets” you, and goes out of her way to develop you; the colleague you love brainstorming with, or the employee who always anticipates what you need from him, almost before you know yourself? 

…While others seem to just rub you the wrong way, no matter what they do, such as: the co-worker who always interrupts; the boss who never seems to be satisfied with your work; or the employee who seems to not to be able to get along with their team members?

Should you just chalk it up personality differences, or is there something else involved?

Much of what makes our working relationships work – or crumble – is emotional intelligence.

The impact of EI at work

Championed by Daniel Goleman, emotional intelligence (EI) is increasingly shown to be the key differentiator between average and exceptional performance on the job.

Research has shown that 80% of difference between outstanding and average leaders linked to EI, and that EI is twice as important as IQ and one’s technical expertise combined.  

What typically derails leaders and teams is also EI related:

       Unsatisfactory team leadership during challenging times

       Inability to handle interpersonal challenges

       Inability to adapt to change

       Inability to elicit trust

What EI is

The good news is that EI can be developed through practice.  EI consists of 4 components that build upon each other: 

  • Self awareness (the ability to recognize our emotions and their effect on others)
  • Self- management (the ability to manage emotions in ourselves)
  • Social awareness (the ability to recognize emotions and experiences of others)
  • Relationship management (the ability to effectively relate to others)

Starting with understanding our own emotional landscape, and the way our actions impact others, we can learn skills to better understand and self-manage our emotions.  When we understand our own patterns, we can be more aware of and in tune with the experiences of others, and ultimately be able to interact  and relate with others more effectively.  

Why EI matters at work

It’s said that people don’t leave organizations, they leave bosses. When one person is emotionally reactive to stress, there is a cost to everyone. Studies have shown emotions can become contagious, even when there is no verbal communication.  Work environments with a culture of emotional reactivity lead to higher turnover, lower levels of employee engagement, and lower productivity.  

Our emotional reactions happen fast (10-15 seconds typically) and have side effects.  It can take 5-6 hours to recover from the adrenaline and cortisol rush in our bodies that follows. In the meanwhile, while the emotional stimulus is happening, our thinking capacity is reduced.  

By becoming more familiar with our own internal states, preferences and resources, we can slow down our automatic responses to stress, and can regain or maintain our thinking capacity more quickly.  

Developing awareness of our own emotional habits and tendencies, and learning self-management skills to de-escalate our own tension helps us better to engage with and work with others.

Even when under stress and organizational change that is beyond our control, we still can make choices to  understand and work with our own emotional landscape in order to be the best we can be at any given moment, and lead by example.

Cultivating EI

To practice cultivating more awareness about your own emotional patterns at work, try this:

Think about a stressful situation that happened at work, when you became emotionally reactive – that is, you didn’t handle it as well as you could have.

Think about another stressful situation at work, when you weren’t reactive – that is, you were able to handle the situation well.

In each situation:

What was happening inside you?  What were the thoughts, emotions, beliefs that showed up?  

What did you do in response to the stress?

What do you notice about these two scenarios?  

What do you know about what helps you when you’re under stress?   

Taking a break, or a breath – anything that creates a pause, to regain our thinking capacity – can often help stop the inner escalation.

Now, think again about the situation where you were reactive.  How could creating some type of pause have helped you regain more self-management?

Your turn

In the comments below, I’d love to hear your experience with using emotional intelligence in the workplace.

1) How has emotional intelligence helped you in your work?

2) How have you used self-awareness and self-management tools to be more aware and effective in your relationships with others at work?

Hanna Cooper is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Becky Latka

Good article, Hanna! We discussed EI during my leadership class, and did a few exercises to discover more about ourselves. I agree that EI is an important trait to have and develop.

Christina Smith

Awesome article, Hanna! The nonprofit consultant trainers who I work with are about to start a new training series focused on EI….it is so important, like you said! Thanks for sharing.


I’ve actually read Daniel Goleman’s book. I’ve also taken classes, whether for college or self, on EI. It’s changed my way of thinking and reacting tremendously. It has also made me a better employee and peer. Am I perfect at it? No, not in a long shot. When situations are personal, such as not getting a promotion when I should have, I’m still reacting in a negative manner. However, now I don’t put that negativity out for all the world to witness. I channel it instead to create an atmosphere of professionalism; or at least try to.

Hanna Cooper

Great points, Jocelyn! Like many things in professional development, there is no “end” with EI – we can always keep learning and developing more. The times when we are reactive are actually places for us to get very curious about – like mini-workshops themselves! Seeing the impact of what we do, and making choices that line up with who we are and who we want to be in the world – that’s it! Congrats on your many successes, and thanks for sharing your insights here!

Cheri Neal

I am so excited to have EI be conversation in government. EVERYTHING is about relationships. Being able to not take things personal and focus on solutions instead of the drama is critical to turning things around. Thanks for sharing your article, Hannah! Keep them coming! 🙂

Hanna Cooper

Thanks, Cheri! It is exciting to see EI coming to government, I agree! And, yes, I also believe that everything is about relationships, and the ability to be conscious and intentional in how we work together. Definitely, no drama, not taking things personally and aiming towards solutions helps us all get the big important stuff done, with less emotional effort. Thanks for your encouraging words and taking the time to comment!

David Carr

Great article. Being in the tech industry for over 18 years I have worked with different types of people and some (like me) are calm no matter what and others blow up over simple things. Having been a supervisor of a team of six people it was a challenging position that I addressed using EI before I knew what it was. I am very good at reading people and it has been helpful to avoid placing a team member on a task above their abilities which could have led to frustration. I’m not perfect but I know what works for me and my approach is just to be positive and not let work stress me out because a lot of the time there is nothing I can do that will change the situation. I do not take work issues home.

Hanna Cooper

David, sounds like you have a lot of natural emotional intelligence to begin with! And, as you say, we can all improve and gain more emotional intelligence through focus and practice. I like your point that knowing what we can change and what we can’t in any situation is super helpful to manage our own stress as well as to try to have the impact we intend. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to read and comment!