Is Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace More Important Than Ever?

Last updated: Jan 17, 2023

The job of a leader is to create the environment in which the people they manage can be at their best. That often means adapting, using different behavioral styles, and leaning into behaviors that are uncomfortable.

Those skills and behaviors take a high degree of emotional intelligence, which was all the more challenging in 2020. Keep reading to see how the past year tested us all and why strong communication, emotional control, work-life balance, and empathy will be key as we continue to recover.


Communicating Clearly

I am typically careful in my communication style. So, when I give feedback, it is meant to be tactful and full of context.


My direct report may or may not “hear” what was intended. She may perceive me as evasive and question my motives. Her expectation might be if people have something to say, they should say it. As her leader, I have to adapt my communication style and speak in a way that meets her needs so she can hear me.


Managing Emotions

Now, think about emotion. Often, we consciously or unconsciously avoid speaking about our emotions. Our society has a bias against their display. Consider, for example, the line “there’s no crying in baseball.” Unfortunately, the human brain is hard-wired to respond emotionally before it responds rationally.


Everything we experience passes through the amygdala, the part of our brain that processes emotion, before it travels to the neocortex, the part of the brain that controls rational thought. If we accept that emotion is part of who we are as human beings, regardless of whether we show it on the outside, the question then becomes can we learn to effectively manage emotions in ourselves and in others?


Discover how the Birkman Method can reveal important aspects of your personality so you can better manage the emotions and actions that dictate your behavior.



Maintaining Work-Life Balance

This past year, the pandemic was a shared global emotional experience. In 2020, I facilitated virtual leadership programs with participants from around the world. Regardless of whether they were in the U.S., India, Japan, Kenya, or Singapore, everyone was working from home.


As the physical barrier between who I am in the workplace and who I am in my personal life came crashing down, separating the two became more and more difficult. Work was happening slap in the middle of our personal lives, and everyone on the screen became part of it. As remote work has and likely will continue for many of us, balancing our work and personal lives will be an ongoing challenge.


Showing Empathy During Hard Times

The global social justice movement was an emotional experience that was shared by many but not understood by all. It was another layer on top of an already emotionally charged pandemic year. Many leaders rose to the challenge of 2020 and created an environment that said it was OK to be human and to have emotion. Many, though, did not.


The manager who, on the morning after the announcement that no charges would be brought in the case of Breonna Taylor, started her weekly one-on-one touch base with her young black female direct report by asking “How are you feeling?” acknowledged the whole person on the screen in front of her. The manager who launched straight into agenda item No. 1 sent a different message — whether she intended to or not. 



Emotional Intelligence in 2021 and Beyond

Post 2020, emotional intelligence in the workplace is more important than ever. However, I believe there are two primary reasons some leaders consciously avoided, or unconsciously failed to have, the critical conversations they should have had this past year.


The first could be attributed to the discomfort to start a conversation on a potentially emotionally charged topic. I don’t feel comfortable with emotion, so I focus on tasks. The second reason was feeling ill equipped to start a conversation on an uncomfortable topic. I don't have the answers. 


Many leaders are driven to “fix” problems, and the issues of 2020 didn’t have simple answers. However, a leader has to have the courage to start a conversation without being in control of where it will lead. I may not be able to share your emotional experience, but I acknowledge your emotion and am willing to listen because that’s what you need from me. As Brené Brown so eloquently put it when interviewed on 60 Minutes in March 2020, “…don’t tap out...stay uncomfortable, stay in the cringy moment. Lean into the hard conversation and keep leading.”


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