Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace: Why Empathy Matters Now More Than Ever

Emotional intelligence in the workplace was a popular topic long before COVID-19 bore down. After a year marked by crises, it’s not surprising it continues to be in the spotlight.

Many of us have learned how empathy cultivates more humane and understanding workplaces. And empathy is a crucial aspect of emotional intelligence. A 2019 survey by Businessolver found that 82% of staff would think about leaving their organization for a more empathic company. 

Psychologist and New York Times bestselling author Daniel Goleman popularized emotional intelligence in his groundbreaking 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence. “By teaching people to tune in to their emotions with intelligence and to expand their circles of caring, we can transform organizations from the inside out and make a positive difference in our world,” Goleman says.

You can draw from Goleman’s teachings and tap into your emotional intelligence as an employer. Then, you can cultivate these qualities within your team. This guide will help you build emotional intelligence within yourself and your workplace.

Why Emotional Intelligence is Important in the Workplace

What is emotional intelligence?

Psychologists Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer, leading researchers on the topic, define emotional intelligence as recognizing and understanding emotions in oneself and others, according to Verywell Mind. Furthermore, they note that emotionally intelligent people use this understanding to make decisions, solve problems, and communicate with others.

Why does it matter?

Emotional intelligence is vital in the workplace. It can help you manage everything from conflict and stress to interpersonal communication. A culture of emotional intelligence can help build psychological safety and ultimately improve your workplace culture and productivity.

People with high emotional intelligence excel at the following:

  • Making better decisions and solving problems
  • Keeping cool under pressure
  • Resolving conflicts
  • Having greater empathy
  • Listening, reflecting, and responding to constructive criticism

Meanwhile, people with low emotional intelligence tend to:

  • Play the role of the victim or avoid taking responsibility for errors
  • Have passive or aggressive communication styles
  • Refuse to work as a team  
  • Are overly critical of others or dismiss others’ opinions

(From Verywell Mind)

Improve Your Emotional Intelligence Through Training and Practice

There’s a common adage that you should put your oxygen mask on first before helping others. Even if emotional intelligence doesn’t come naturally to you, there are simple ways to build it into your life. The Muse even created a flowchart to measure your emotional intelligence and discover the benefits of cultivating it.

Start by practicing self-awareness, noticing your emotions and how you regulate them in the workplace. You can follow exercises like those TED Ideas shares for how to build more empathy. Or delve into Career Contessa’s guide to empathy at work.

Then, express curiosity in your employees’ lives. Take the time to know how they’re doing and offer your support if they’re going through challenges. By practicing active listening and taking note of a team member’s body language via video chat, you can gain a fuller understanding of the circumstances and stressors that are affecting their work. 

If you need to deliver feedback or have a difficult conversation with someone who is struggling, find the right time to express these thoughts constructively. Afterward, you can review these interactions and ask yourself what you could improve on in the future.

Show Moral Support and Adaptability During Transitions

Many organizations are determining how and if they will return to in-person offices. Your empathetic leadership can make a world of difference for employees as they continue to navigate workplace uncertainty.

Fast Company notes that we look to our leaders to provide us with guidance, hope, and support during times of crisis and fear.

Poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou famously said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

As you continue to adapt during workplace transitions, don’t assume your team members are OK. Solicit their feedback and check in regularly. Being authentic and vulnerable about your own struggles and concerns will help employees better relate to you. 

You can also demonstrate emotionally intelligent leadership by offering employee assistance programs or workgroups. To further boost morale, consider hosting virtual celebrations to mark work or personal milestones.

Carry Empathic Leadership Forward After the Pandemic

As Sunil Prashara writes for Fast Company, “The ability to perceive and relate to the felt experiences of others is at the heart of empathetic leadership. Regardless of the issue, we need to bring that empathetic perspective to all we do — and not just in connection with the COVID-19 crisis. While the pandemic may have opened our eyes to the importance of empathetic leadership, it’s a skill that we all must practice long after the last vaccine has been administered.”