Why Engineers Should Upskill Their Emotional Intelligence

Last updated: May 9, 2023

You’ve worked hard to launch your engineering career. But in order to do your best work — and rise to the top – it’s time to develop your emotional intelligence. Although “emotional intelligence” (EQ) may sound touchy-feely, it’s actually a data driven set of competencies that are vital to both personal and professional success. Take a look at some of these numbers: 

By strengthening your emotional intelligence, you can navigate your workplace challenges more effectively, improve both your physical and mental health, and create a more positive environment for you and your colleagues. Ready to get started? Let’s look at why (and how) engineers should upskill their emotional intelligence. 


Wait! What's Emotional Intelligence? 

One of the most valued competencies in today’s workplace, emotional intelligence (EQ) distinguishes “the best leaders in the corporate world,” according to this New York Times article by psychologist and EQ expert Daniel Goleman. But what does it really mean? 

Emotional intelligence can be defined as “the ability to accurately perceive your own and others’ emotions; to understand the signals that emotions send about relationships; and to manage your own and others’ emotions.”  

You may think that EQ doesn’t factor into your engineering job. But in fact, in this Forbes article, the C.O.O. of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Asia Pacific, says that his “main pointer” to young engineers is to foster their emotional intelligence, “a critical skill that will help engineering newcomers succeeded in both their careers and their personal lives.” The best engineers know how to combine their technical proficiencies with the “soft skills” that lead to:  

  • Better health 
  • Stronger relationships (both professional and personal) 
  • Enhanced job performance 
  • More effective decision-making  
  • Improved creativity 

If you want to level up your career — or improve your quality of life — work on Goleman’s short list of key EQ competencies: 

  • Self-awareness 
  • Self-management 
  • Empathy 
  • Relationship skills 

Let’s start from the top. 



Understanding yourself is the first step to emotional intelligence. It has two parts: realistic self-confidence and emotional insight. 


Realistic Self-Confidence 

Realistic self-confidence means “you understand your own strengths and limitations; you operate from competence and know when to rely on someone else on the team,” according to Goleman.  Plus, when you know yourself better, you’ll have a solid grasp on your values and goals: empowering you to make career choices that align with them.  


 Try This  

Write down what you think are your: 

  • Strengths 
  • Weaknesses 
  • Interests 
  • Values 
  • Goals 

Then get some outside perspectives. It turns out most of us think we are self-aware, but only 10 to 15 percent of people actually are. That’s why 360° feedback is a gamechanger: compare your self-evaluation with feedback from your boss, colleagues, and direct reports. Use constructive criticism as a chance to pursue one of the goals you’ve already identified. That way, you’ll be less likely to feel defensive and more likely to make positive changes. 

Two professionals having a conversation.

Emotional Insight 

Emotional insight includes:  

  • understanding your emotions. 
  • what causes your emotions. 
  • how to manage emotions appropriately. 


Try This

The next time a strong feeling comes over you, practice identifying it by name. Be as specific as possible. Instead of saying that you are “upset,” can you pinpoint whether you are confused, stressed, irritated, unmotivated, embarrassed? What do you think triggered this emotion?  

You can also use tools such as this free How We Feel app, which helps you understand your feelings and how to regulate them. 



In Goleman’s model, self-management has three parts: resilience, emotional balance, and self-motivation. 



Being resilient means you can adapt to difficult experiences. This is especially important for engineers, because problem-solving and engineering solutions is a big part of your job. Resilience empowers you to keep going. “As an engineer, what are you going to do when you fail multiple times trying to solve a problem?” says Russell Clayton, co-facilitator of USF’s Emotional Intelligence and Leadership for Engineers program. It may be tempting to give up by the 10th try — but what if the solution comes on the 11th try?  


Try This

Use positive reframing. Instead of catastrophizing about your perceived failure, reframe your thoughts. When you find yourself thinking, “This is the end of the world because I messed up today,” remind yourself of the reality: you get another chance tomorrow, Clayton suggests. Stress management techniques like mindfulness can also help you have a more balanced response to setbacks. A benefit to mindfulness: Not only will it help you regulate your anxiety, it may also help you come up with more creative solutions to your problem. A study of 92 Stanford engineering students showed that a 15 minute meditation improved divergent thinking, leading to more original ideas.  


Emotional Balance 

Also known as emotional regulation, this can be defined as “‘the thoughts’ and ‘actions’ we use to prevent, reduce, initiate, maintain or enhance emotions in order to promote well-being, build positive relationships, make sound decisions, and attain goals,” according to this 2020 webinar by Marc Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. He lists seven strategies to improve your emotion regulation in difficult circumstances: 

  1. Try physiological regulation (mindful breathing). 
  2. Practice self-care. 
  3. Develop healthy relationships. 
  4. Manage your thoughts (e.g., positive self-talk: What would you tell a loved one in your situation?). 
  5. Create healthy life routines. 
  6. Do what brings you meaning and happiness. 
  7. Forgive yourself when you fail. 


Try This

The next time you feel overwhelmed by a problem at work, take yourself on a walk. “Our creative ideas come when we give ourselves freedom,” explains Brackett. Your brain’s default mode network, which fosters creativity, “is not activated when we are under a lot of pressure. It becomes activated when we are at ease.” 



A hallmark of self-motivation in the workplace is that you’re driven by more than your paycheck. You have the skills to overcome obstacles in pursuit of your goal. Because you know how to motivate yourself, you can mentor and inspire others to succeed. “Self-motivated leaders care more about hitting organizational milestones than monetary awards,” explains this Harvard Business School blog. “They set goals, take initiative, rise to the challenge, and stay optimistic during turbulent times.” 


Try This

Make an effort to coach and empower others. This process will actually help you find more motivation, as well. “Interestingly, giving advice rather than asking for it may be an even more effective way to overcome motivational deficits, because it boosts confidence and thereby spurs action,” according to this Harvard Business Review article on self-motivation. “In a recent study I found the people struggling to achieve a goal like finding a job assumed that they needed tips from experts to succeed. In fact, they were better served by offering their wisdom to other jobseekers, because when they did so, they laid out concrete plans they could follow themselves.”  



Empathy is one of the most vital skills in leadership. If you cultivate empathy, you will also help create a more diverse, inclusive work atmosphere, communicate more effectively with colleagues, and expand your own perspectives. Plus, it will help you deliver a more user-friendly solution, suggests Clayton. When you are problem-solving, try not to only look for a solution through your own lens. Instead, “look at it through empathy for the end user.” For example, if you’re a civil engineer solving a bridge issue, put yourself “in the shoes of the people who are going to cross that bridge.” 

A female professional smiling with her arms crossed.

Cognitive Empathy, Emotional Empathy and Empathetic Concern 

Empathy comes in different forms. Cognitive empathy means you can deeply understand what someone else is experiencing and take their perspective. Emotional empathy means you actually share their feelings (whether grief over a job setback or Joy over that promotion). Empathetic concern means you care about the other person and have compassion for them and their circumstance. 

A quick note on emotional empathy: don’t take on other people’s emotions at the expense of your own well-being. When you feel overburdened by someone else’s emotions, take a step back: “your goal isn’t to be the sufferer, but to be the caregiver,” explains the American Psychological Association. That’s where  “cognitive empathy” comes in. 


Try This 

Encourage empathy in others. In meetings, “recognize the people on your team whenever they help others achieve their goals,” suggests Jamil Zaki, director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Laboratory. This can lead to “kindness contagion,” spreading more empathetic behavior throughout your organization. 



Although listening is a key part of empathy according to Goleman, we are going to address it more in the next section. 


Relationship Skills 

“Emotional intelligence is the foundation of relationship building,” explains Clayton. Let’s take a look at how you can develop your relationship skills even further. 



Good communicators know how to set expectations and boost motivation. But remember that being a good communicator isn’t the same as being a good public speaker. In fact, according to this Washington Post article, many executives focus on being better speakers, when they really need to become more active listeners.  


Try This 

Give your full attention to your conversation partner, and don’t try to formulate your answer until they are done talking. If you are worried that you won’t know what to say, remember that it’s okay to tell them, “Thank you so much for sharing. You’ve given me a lot to think about. Can I get back to about this in an hour?” 


Be a Good Team Player 

Social skills empower you to be a good team player or manager. You’ll understand how to motivate colleagues; how to build your network; how to make others feel safe and supported working with you; how to be effective in “leading change” and how to resolve conflict. In addition, you’ll gain some of the EQ skills needed to create an inclusive workplace.  


Try This  

Take stock of your colleagues’ emotions before you approach them with a difficult subject. For example, if you have to tell them that the code they wrote doesn’t work, it’s probably not the best time to do it if “they’re talking about how rough of a morning it was because their four-year-old threw a temper tantrum,” says Clayton. Knowing how to read other people’s feelings can help them have a more positive response to you, leading to a healthier relationship and work environment.  


Take the Next Step 

Developing EQ takes work, but it pays off. “Although IQ and cognitive skills such as big-picture thinking, long-term vision and analytical ability are necessary, they are not sufficient,” says Goleman. “It’s the EQ that is the sine qua non of leadership.”   

Are you ready to pursue a leadership role in engineering and upskill your EQ? Consider USF’s Emotional Intelligence and Leadership for Engineers program. This convenient online workshop will foster your resiliency, innovation, empathy, and leadership skills - leading to better outcomes for your engineering solutions, your workplace culture, and your career. 

Download our Guide