The Williamson Difference: HR Answers That Work

How to Improve Emotional Intelligence at Work

August 13, 2019

By Stijn De Groef

Emotional intelligence is crucial in the modern workplace. It’s the secret to happier, more engaged employees who work better together. Which means it’s the secret to higher performing teams that drive fast n’ furious business growth.

Improving emotional intelligence in the workplace isn’t some fluffy, sounds-nice people goal. It’s a business-critical strategy that helps unlock maximum value from your biggest competitive asset – your people.

But emotional intelligence comes more naturally to some folks than others and improving your workforce’s EQ is easier said than done.

But the following eight ways to improve emotional intelligence in the workplace will put you on the path to get the most from your people. 

#1 – Define what emotional intelligence in the workplace looks like

Your people can’t be more emotionally intelligent if they don’t know what emotional intelligence looks like.

Here’s the textbook definition: ‘EQ refers to someone’s ability to perceive, understand and manage their own feelings and emotions’ (Chignell, 2018).

That’s all well and good but textbook definitions and real-life understanding can be two very different things. What’s more useful is sharing examples of emotional intelligence in the workplace, so your people can understand how the concept relates to their day-to-day.

Like...

People with high emotional intelligence are attuned to colleagues’ moods, empathize and offer compassion where appropriate.

So, say Jane’s colleague, John, snaps at her. If Jane has high emotional intelligence, she notices that something’s wrong but understands John’s snappy behavior reflects on him, not her. Instead, she recognizes he’s having a bad day and asks what else she can do to help.

Or...

People with high emotional intelligence are good listeners, who recognize everyone’s need to feel heard. They’re comfortable accepting and expressing conflicting opinions and have constructive, positive disagreements.

So Katie and Kanish are debating whether they should hire the person they just interviewed. High emotional intelligence means they listen attentively to each other without interrupting, react sensitively to the other person’s opinions, and share their own opinions in a balanced, non-aggressive way. 

Share examples relevant to your own workplace to model the emotionally intelligent behaviors you want. That’s a much more powerful tactic than sharing lifeless definitions.

#2 – Make space for creativity

Sometimes emotional intelligence in the workplace can be a chicken and egg question. Take creativity.

Workplaces with high emotional intelligence are creative hotspots, where imagination knows no silos and good ideas come from all angles. That’s fantastic for the business because it means you solve problems and innovate faster. 

A workplace like that might be the natural outcome of having lots of highly emotionally intelligent employees, sure. Hyper-creative people will find ways to be creative without your help.

But you can also reverse engineer it. Because for one hyper-creative person, you might have ten kinda-creative-but-also-a-bit-reserved people. Setting up your workplace to empower those people means you unlock and encourage their creativity. To improve their emotional intelligence.

Ask yourself:

  • Where can we loosen-up our policies and processes?

  • How can we encourage employees to add ideas across silos?

  • What other opportunities for collaboration are there?

  • How can we boost diversity, so we get different perspectives?

  • Do we have a micromanagement problem, and how can we fix it?

  • What else can we do to support experimentation?

  • How can we communicate that failure is OK?

Build a workplace that promotes creativity, and your people will have a better framework to express themselves authentically. And that’s a crucial part of emotional intelligence.

#3 – Offer diverse social events (not just ones you like)

Another chicken and egg example, your workplace social scene. If your workplace has high emotional intelligence, your people have strong relationships which likely means they spend time together socially, inside and outside work.

Like with creativity, if your employees already have high emotional intelligence this probably already happens. But you can reverse engineer it too, by creating opportunities for your people to socialize, and strengthen their bonds.

Think inside and outside work, within and across teams, catering to the diverse spectrum of your employees.

Because Sally might love a cocktail but Mesut might not drink. Or Suvish might struggle to find childcare while Sam can’t wait to escape the kids.  

So hold the team night out, sure. But also hold the family BBQ, the company activity afternoon, the sponsored walks, the bowling evening, the painting class, the cookery lesson, the lunch date, the brunch date and the charity blowout gala.

So everyone in your workplace finds something for them, where they can form bonds and improve their emotional intelligence.

#4 – Encourage flexibility

Flexibility is a crucial aspect of emotional intelligence.

Managers who adapt their management style for different team members, for example, have a high EQ. And they’ll be better managers because they’ll get more from those team members than a one-size-fits-all approach.

Also, people with high emotional intelligence seek out (and perform best in) flexible environments, because they feel their unique needs are understood and accommodated.

Which means cultivating flexibility in your workplace empowers your people to act with higher emotional intelligence. And it’s how you create an emotionally intelligent workplace that attracts more emotionally intelligent people. Win, win.

Think about how you can introduce flexibility into your business, so people can work in a way that best suits them. Like focusing away from strict processes onto results, and offering remote working or flex-hours options. 

#5 – Run an EQ workshop (but make it fun)

Improving emotional intelligence in the workplace shouldn’t be a chore. So, sure. An EQ workshop could be a great idea but for everyone’s sake, make it fun and actionable.

Nobody wants to sit through a day’s dry box-ticking lecture about the definition, history and theory of emotional intelligence. 

Instead, think about ways you can bring emotional intelligence in the workplace to life. Think role plays. Quizzes. Videos. Debates. Collaborative discussions. Games.

An engaging, inspiring and memorable EQ workshop is much more likely to drive change.

#6 – Hire and onboard for EQ

To improve emotional intelligence in the workplace, you need to work with your current workforce.

But you also need to make sure the people you’re bringing into the business reflect this new emotionally intelligent vision. And you need to make sure your workplace empowers them once they’re there, so they don’t leave. 

That means hiring and onboarding for emotional intelligence. 

Some pointers:

  • Don’t over-rely on personality tests to assess EQ. Only a person with high emotional intelligence themselves can accurately assess emotional intelligence.

  • Design interviews to specifically assess emotional intelligence. Group interviews and behavioral questions are both worth inclusion. Plus check out these six questions from HubSpot.

  • Get interviewees to meet prospective team members, so you get a read on how they’d work in their new team. Interviewees with high emotional intelligence are likely to make a good impression fast.

#7 – Communicate your purpose

Emotionally intelligent people tend towards intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation. That means they’re more driven by personal rewards (like feeling a sense of achievement) than external rewards (like salary). 

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Say Thomas attends training because he needs the certificate to be eligible for a promotion. That’s extrinsic motivation. But say Juliette attends training because she relishes the challenge and wants to improve. That’s intrinsic motivation and a sign Juliette likely has higher emotional intelligence than Thomas.

Or another example...

Ferencz joins your business because you offer a 5% salary raise over your competitor. But Victoria, on the other hand, joins despite taking a 5% salary drop because your mission and values resonate with her. Long-term, Victoria is the better hire. Not only because she represents a salary cost-saving, but because she’s a brand evangelist who loves what you stand for. So she helps boost your brand, cement your culture and she’s much less likely to jump ship for a competitor offering a raise.

Because when you stand for something, you’ll attract other people who stand for the same. And they’re the emotionally intelligent employees you want in your workplace.   

#8 – Level-up your workplace support offering

To improve emotional intelligence in the workplace, you need to build a culture where you empower emotionally intelligent people to thrive. Or they’ll leave, and the bucket will keep emptying even while you’re trying to fill it.

That means creating a workplace where employees are empowered to handle stress. A workplace where employees have access to the support to overcome personal and professional challenges. A workplace where employees have a voice and trust that voice will always be heard.

Don’t just say “we’ve got an open-door policy”. Think about actionable ways you can create a transparent, emotionally intelligent culture. Like...

  • Mentor schemes

  • Buddy schemes

  • Anonymous feedback

  • 360-degree reviews

  • Community spaces

  • Mental health support

  • Mental health days off

  • Forums and discussions

  • Radical transparency

Over 70% of hiring managers value EQ over IQ, and 75% would be more likely to promote an employee with high emotional intelligence. Plus, 90% of top performers have high emotional intelligence. In other words, boosting workplace EQ is a massively important business strategy – not ‘just’ a people strategy.


Stijn de Groef, a passionate HR professional, entrepreneur, cyclist and CEO at Talmundo. Prior to starting his own HR tech company, Talmundo, in 2012, Stijn worked in senior Talent Management roles at EMEA and Global level at multinational companies like Swarovski and Goodyear. Stijn now travels the world spreading the word about Talmundo's employee onboarding software and the strategic importance for businesses to get onboarding right.

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