Emotional intelligence is a top skill in the workplace. But can it be taught?

Top performers and the best leaders usually have one skill in common: a high level of emotional intelligence.

The bulk (90%) of top performers have high emotional intelligence and 58% of job performance is impacted by emotional intelligence, according to research from TalentSmartEQ, which provides training services to businesses.

That’s backed by the Word Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs 2023 report that found qualities associated with emotional intelligence, such as resilience, curiosity, lifelong learning, motivation, and self-awareness, are highly prized by businesses and will continue to be for the next few years. A recent report from the Service Desk Institute found that emotional intelligence will be the most needed skill for service desk professionals in the next two to three years, with 73% of respondents saying so. It topped problem-solving (67%), analytical thinking (62%) and adaptability (49%).

But this skill isn’t something that everyone has in spades. And experts say that it’s hard to teach and usually requires several changes over time to become adept at. So while it may come to one person naturally, another might struggle to really understand how to be emotionally intelligent and apply it to their roles. 

We spoke with experts to break down exactly what emotional intelligence is, how it shows up in the workplace and whether it can be taught. 

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and manage your own emotions, as well as the emotions of others. It comprises self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills. High emotional intelligence empowers individuals to manage emotions, their own and those of the staff they manage or work with effectively. 

“In the most plainly put way, it is simply our ability to interact effectively with other human beings and all of what goes into that,” said Sylvia Baffour, motivational speaker and executive coach who specializes in emotional intelligence. “I think about [it as]: how aware are you of your own emotions at any given moment of the day and how much do you care about the impact your emotions are having on the people around you.”

Having a high emotional intelligence leads to meaningful connections, happiness and fulfillment. Baffour says that some people are naturally more empathetic and self-aware than others, but the good news is that everyone can work on it. Claiming you can’t, or that it doesn’t come naturally, is a cop-out.

“We can grow our emotional intelligence, and we do it one moment at a time,” said Baffour. “If you’re a human being who cares about wanting people in your presence, then you do the work and grow those skills.”

How do you enhance your emotional intelligence?

Some people might recognize their emotional intelligence isn’t where it could be, which might come from signs like blaming others, often feeling misunderstood, having difficulty coping, not being self-aware, and having difficulty reading the room. 

But that doesn’t mean that’s where it needs to stay. There are several ways to become more skilled in emotional intelligence. In fact, Kandi Wiens, a researcher on executive performance, emotional intelligence and resilience, works with leaders to do exactly that. While there have been training programs on emotional intelligence since the early 90s, she’s seen a significant surge lately. She works with people to provide an emotional intelligence assessment to better understand why exactly someone is low and from there they work on a development plan together.

“As a coach, when we work with clients, we will have them describe to us an upcoming situation and we would roleplay it out and how they might approach the meeting with intentionality,” said Wiens. “It could be something like a leader needs to work on their inspiration skills or influencing other people. We work through it with them to see what’s holding them back from approaching the situation or going into a conversation that is working against them.”

Working with an executive coach is one way to start. However, if you don’t need as big of an intervention, there are other smaller things to do to improve your emotional intelligence. There are other ways that include listening with intent, practicing self-reflection, cultivating empathy and leading with authenticity. Each of them require fostering deeper connections, improving communication, being self aware and building trust. 

Baffour, who has delivered keynotes and workshops for organizations like Capital One, The World Bank, Wells Fargo and the U.S. Department of Defense, doubled down on what Irvine suggested when it comes to habits to increase emotional intelligence. 

“This is an important skill to have and I see more and more organizations understand the value of having a leader who’s really skilled at what they do and people want to be around them,” said Baffour. “I’ve never been positively influenced by somebody I cannot stand to be around.”

For someone who isn’t quite there yet, she recommends “shifting phrases” to better manage responses and emotions in tough situations. Instead of reacting right away, that might mean taking a minute to gather your thoughts to respond appropriately with an empathetic response. 

“One reaction might be rude, condescending, slamming the phone, or sending an email you wish you could unsend,” said Baffour. “But the shifting phrase reaction is a way to see things from a different perspective and buys a calmness that opens curiosity.”

She also thinks a lot about what she calls an “emotional aftertaste,” helping leaders remember that once an interaction ends, someone will be left feeling a certain way so it’s best to be mindful of how you interact.

“If I’m a leader having to give a difficult peer evaluation to someone who I want to be part of the team but to step up and tighten a few things, in advance of the conversation, I think about wanting to leave them feeling hopeful and inspired,” said Baffour. “It’s going to influence the words I use in the conversation. If I don’t care how they feel, I’m going to say whatever I want.”

Hiring for emotional intelligence 

Knowing that emotional intelligence is a growing top skill, more and more people are focusing on it from the get-go during recruitment to avoid having to be tasked with teaching it later.

“At the end of the interview process, everyone is talking about cultural fit, how they’ll fit in with the team, and [whether] they will gel with everyone else,” said Jen Brown, senior director at IT support company GoTo, who is an advocate for improving emotional intelligence skills at work. “All of that is about the EQ. EQ enables us as managers to have the privilege to access the IQ.”

In fact, Wiens has noticed that more organizations are including emotional intelligence in their hiring or promotion criteria. 

Baffour agrees that emotional intelligence is critical to stand out in the workforce. “When you’re being compared to others at the same skill level as you, what helps you stand out the most comes down to your emotional intelligence,” said Baffour. “It’s vital now more than ever.”

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