The Importance of Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace

Smiling co-workers meet around a conference table.

Some employers measure applicants’ intelligence with tests designed to assess their ability to grasp and synthesize facts, which may provide insight into their potential for success. While conventional measures of intelligence focused on logic and reasoning have been the standard, there’s an increased interest in expanding this to include measures of emotional intelligence. While a relatively new term, emotional intelligence is increasingly recognized as a critical component of an individual’s skill set.

In fact, the World Economic Forum’s “Future of Jobs Survey 2020” projected that emotional intelligence will be one of the top skills needed in business in 2025. Employers are considering the importance of emotional intelligence in the workplace because it can be a crucial indicator of a prospective employee’s capabilities, including how well they would function as part of the company’s culture. An advanced degree such as a online applied psychology masters can help those in human resources and people analytics positions understand and identify emotional intelligence, which can aid in hiring and other leadership decisions.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence describes a person’s capacity to recognize and contextualize their emotions and the emotions of others. The concept stems from Dr. Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Developed in the 1980s. The theory suggests that people possess intellectual capacity in different forms that correlate to specific attributes such as music or athletics. The work of people such as psychologist Dr. Daniel Goleman has helped to shape our understanding of emotional intelligence by focusing on two of Gardner’s theoretical intellectual forms:

  • Interpersonal Intelligence — Detecting and responding to others’ moods, motivations and desires
  • Intrapersonal Intelligence — Being self-aware and attuned with one’s own values, beliefs and thinking

Emotional intelligence differs from rational intelligence in its focus. Rational intelligence involves facts and tight logical reasoning. On the other hand, emotional intelligence concerns how facts and reasoning are applied. This leads some to theorize that high emotional intelligence (quantified by EQ) is more important in business than high rational intelligence (quantified by IQ).

Ideally, the two work in concert — without the guiding influence of rational intelligence, emotional intelligence has the potential to become deeply subjective in a way that isn’t conducive to business goals. Used effectively, however, it can be key to fostering internal collaboration and external alliances in professional contexts.

Why Is Emotional Intelligence Important in the Workplace?

In its most refined form, emotional intelligence provides the empathy necessary to fully understand another’s perspective even when it contradicts one’s own. Emotional intelligence has much to offer the modern workplace and stakeholders across all functions:

  • It helps leaders motivate and inspire good work by understanding others’ motivations.
  • It brings more individuals to the table and helps avoid the many pitfalls of groupthink.
  • It empowers leaders to recognize and act on opportunities others may be unaware of.
  • It assists in the recognition and resolution of conflict in a fair and even-handed way.
  • It can produce higher morale and assist others in tapping their professional potential.

Like rational intelligence, emotional intelligence can be cultivated through dedicated effort and study. The first step to developing greater emotional intelligence is often to strengthen one’s powers of introspection. Recognizing thought processes, emotions and biases can lead to more well-rounded decisions. Exercising emotional intelligence often requires one to act with confidence, rise above worries about status and question or bypass knee-jerk reactions.

Here are some reasons why emotional intelligence is important in the workplace:

It Helps in the Hiring Process

Although technical skills can be imparted through training, it is far more difficult to inculcate emotional intelligence in new hires. Enterprises can integrate theories of emotional intelligence into their hiring and professional development processes at all levels. For example, entry-level hires may be tested for their “EQ” when in competition for a new role or a promotion. Stakeholders who are identified as having high leadership potential might deliver better results if emotional intelligence is made part of their development process.

Although all roles might benefit from emotional intelligence, not all roles require highly developed emotional intelligence. However, the higher one climbs in the typical organization, the more valuable it may be — even as its absence may make high-stakes failures more likely. Professionals in some areas, such as human resources or public relations, benefit from emotional intelligence throughout their careers. Proactively vetting these hires for their state of emotional development may help companies maximize their contribution and optimize future development investments.

It Eases Navigation of the Globalized Economy

As the global economy has developed into a system characterized by collaboration, negotiation and communication — with all the conceptual ambiguities those denote — emotional intelligence has grown to play a bigger role in the public sphere. Emotional intelligence is correlated with traits like perseverance, self-control and performance under pressure. It provides leaders, no matter their skills, with the emotional fortitude to adapt to change and deal with setbacks.

No matter how the economy transforms, “conventional” intelligence will always be immensely important. However, even the most highly technical roles now include increasing contact with diverse stakeholders, advocating for positions in complex environments and investing mental and emotional capital to deal with uncertain situations. Both rational intelligence and emotional intelligence are here to stay, and well-rounded leaders exhibit and develop both of them.

Key Takeaways for Management

With the emerging emphasis on emotional intelligence in the workplace, managers should remember these points:

  • Rational intelligence focuses on rational, “objective” analysis of facts and figures.
  • Emotional intelligence consists of insight into others’ emotions as well as one’s own.
  • High emotional intelligence drives collaborative leadership and win-win outcomes.
  • Emotional intelligence is correlated with confidence, resilience and perseverance.
  • Testing for emotional intelligence can help with hiring and leadership development.
  • Both rational and emotional intelligence have roles to play for “whole” leaders.

Bring a New Perspective to the Office

Being mindful of emotional intelligence in the workplace does more for business leaders than provide them with a greater understanding of current and prospective employees’ skills and capabilities, it also gives them a broader perspective on their business as a whole.

USC's online Master of Science in Applied Psychology (MAPP) degree  can help you develop a sophisticated understanding of employee behavior and motivation. The program is uniquely structured to explore human behavior in depth, which can help you develop the tools you’ll need to make informed real-world business decisions that affect both organizational and consumer behavior. Learn how you can help shape the future of business.


Recommended Readings

Change and Organizational Adaptability: Three Challenges

How Cultural Competence in the Workplace Creates Psychological Safety for Employees

Why a Healthy Team Culture Is Important in Hybrid Work Environments



Bloomsbury Publishing, “Emotional Intelligence: 25th Anniversary Edition”

Business News Daily, “Emotional Intelligence Skills: How to Spot Them in Hiring”

Howard Gardner, “Frequently Asked Questions: Multiple Intelligences and Related Educational Topics”

International Journal of Engineering and Applied Sciences, “Importance of Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace”

Journal of Management and Organization, “Building Collaboration in Teams Through Emotional Intelligence: Mediation by SOAR (Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, and Results)”

SpringerLink, “Understanding and Developing Emotional Intelligence”