Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace

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Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace

Conventional measures of intelligence – such as the IQ test – typically focus on logic and reasoning in areas like math and reading comprehension. The idea that this form of reasoning supports general success in the workplace is persuasive, and certainly seems intuitive: It measures the ability of the individual to grasp and synthesize facts in his or her environment.

In recent years, however, the idea that there is only a single form of intelligence has come under increasing scrutiny. In the classroom, many educators have embraced the Theory of Multiple Intelligences, developed by Dr. Howard Gardner. Gardner considers verbal-linguistic intelligence and logical-mathematical intelligence, the two areas measured by standard tests, to be only two of nine different intelligences with a plethora of characteristics.

Not all of these intelligences have found widespread acceptance in the world of business. For example, what Gardner calls “bodily-kinesthetic intelligence” may have applications for athletes, dancers, and some forms of skilled physical labor, but it has comparatively little to offer most business professionals. The value of Gardner’s work for modern executives is largely found in this fact: He opened minds to the possibility that there are many ways to think and succeed. Others, such as Daniel Goleman, have developed the ideas further and explored their applications in business.

It may be years before further research into multiple intelligences and learning styles percolates fully from the academy into the world of work. However, the two intelligences Gardner calls interpersonal and intrapersonal have already attained great currency under the name “emotional intelligence.” Trends in the U.S. workplace suggest that success in 2016 and beyond will depend to a great extent on emotional intelligence and how it is integrated into working relationships.


What is Emotional Intelligence?

Ideas about rational intelligence derive from the Enlightenment, when scientific thought was being codified for the first time. An important precept of early “natural philosophers” was the idea of rational objectivity – that individuals should strive to see the world not as they wish it to be but as it actually is. While this idea seems sound on the surface, and has been used to great effect in scientific and technical realms, it can also divorce its adherents from using intuition, tact, and even emotion in finding solutions to shared problems.

Rational intelligence focuses on “hard facts” and tight logical reasoning that can result in unproductive “win-lose” scenarios. While such a turn of mind can be useful for building systems, once they are in operation, solutions are often found in the toolkit of emotional intelligence.

What can we say emotional intelligence is? Gardner’s classifications offer some insight:

Interpersonal Intelligence – Detecting and responding to others’ moods, motivations, desires.

Intrapersonal Intelligence – Being self-aware and attuned with values, beliefs, and thinking.

Combining these concepts provides a good overview of emotional intelligence and its relation to business leadership. 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. Harnessed and used correctly, however, it is key to driving internal collaboration and external alliances.

Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace: A Key to Communication

In its most refined form, emotional intelligence provides empathy necessary to fully understand another’s perspective even when it contradicts one’s own. Research has shown women, who traditionally rate higher on tests of emotional intelligence, tend to have a more collaborative and inclusive leadership style than men. Practiced by persons of any gender, 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 the leader 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 your own thought processes, emotions, and biases can help you make 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.

Emotional Intelligence and Hiring

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 career. Proactively vetting these hires for their state of emotional development may help companies maximize their contribution and optimize future development investments.

Emotional Intelligence in 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

  • Rational intelligence focuses on rational, “objective” analysis of facts and figures.
  • Emotional intelligence consists of insight into others’ emotions as well as your 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.


Building the most productive business environment requires a sophisticated understanding of employee behavior and motivation. Our online Master of Science in Applied Psychology at the University of Southern California is uniquely structured to explore human behavior in great depth to inform real-world business decisions that affect both organizational and consumer behavior.


Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Howard Gardner’s Theory on Multiple Intelligences

The Importance of Emotional Intelligence at Work

What is Emotional Intelligence

Are You Emotionally Intelligent? Here’s How to Know for Sure