Throughout much of the modern business era, one’s success in business has been attributed entirely to one’s skill set: Those who are better at their work, smarter and more knowledgeable are the ones who will succeed in their work. Promotions have been based on technical knowledge and success, elevating those who were good at their job into new positions. It’s also favored the bold, the loud and the risky; those who are willing to make a challenge, make big statements and follow up. Businesses have only recently turned to a new key component identified for success in the workplace: emotional intelligence.

Soft Skills vs. Hard Skills

There’s become a new focus on what the industry calls soft skills as opposed to hard skills. The hard skills are the traditional metrics: industrial knowledge in one’s area of specialty, performance on projects, ability to hit targets and so on.

The soft skills — which are not meant to seem any lesser, although the word soft can have that kind of connotation — are things like communication, collaboration, teamwork, interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence. These soft skills have been overlooked previously, but more and more studies show that they’re exceptionally important skills to have for the success of a workplace overall.

Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace

The emotional intelligence definition is considered the level to which one is aware of one’s emotions; the ability to understand, control and express said emotions; and the capacity to handle one’s personal relationships with empathy and awareness. People with high emotional intelligence — sometimes referred to as EQ, as a partner to the generally known IQ — are able to master their emotions and identify feelings in themselves, as well as others.

In the workplace, teammates with high emotional intelligence bring several benefits to the table. First, they’re much more likely to be able to work with people, in groups or on team projects. Emotional intelligence gives them ways to connect with others, build trust and form friendly professional bonds that help projects succeed.

They’re also more likely to deal with conflicts in a positive, helpful manner, which can help avoid the negative toxic behavior that can happen when someone’s work is criticized or when interpersonal problems arise. Finally, they’re much more self-aware, meaning they’re more capable of admitting when they’ve made a mistake, opening themselves to other opinions and more likely to accept responsibility. Their understanding of their own feelings allows them to be gracious and respectful, which builds feelings of trust and respect within a team.

5 Characteristics of Emotional Intelligence

Current theories have identified a set of core characteristics that define individuals with emotional intelligence. Some are born with it, while others develop these traits over time. When looking for employees with a high EQ, consider an emotional intelligence appraisal looking for the following:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self-regulation
  3. Motivation
  4. Empathy
  5. Social Skills

Emotional Intelligence and Self-Awareness

This is the ability to understand and identify emotions as they happen. Self-awareness introduces an understanding of one’s strengths and weaknesses, which leads to internal confidence about their worth as an individual and an employee. Teammates with high self-awareness are more likely to be gracious about criticism and conflict, both giving and taking.

Emotional Intelligence and Self-Regulation

Emotions happen with little input from outside; the emotionally intelligent person understands how to control their reaction to this emotion. They have the ability to manage their feelings so that they can be expressed in healthy, regulated ways, and have developed a set of tools to deal with negative emotions before they have an impact on others. This self-control helps develop positive work relationships.

Emotional Intelligence and Motivation 

Emotionally intelligent individuals have an inner drive for achievement that’s tied to their personal feelings about accomplishment. They’re not motivated by simple ambition or money and are able to remain optimistic in the face of challenges. This positive attitude encourages others around them to find satisfaction in their work as well.

Emotional Intelligence and Empathy

This is the capacity to understand and relate to the emotions of others. Emotionally intelligent individuals can identify how a teammate is feeling, and change their approach based on their understanding of those feelings. In the workplace, this allows for a better approach, a greater connection and an improved ability to provide service the teammate will respond to.

Emotional Intelligence and Social Skills

The ability to have good interpersonal interactions, to positively communicate with individuals and to build rapport and respect with teammates is critical to emotional intelligence. These individuals are able to read a room and determine the best approach to a situation. They understand the cultural and environmental social expectations and can negotiate within the setting to make everyone comfortable.

Importance of Soft Skills

These five pieces form the foundation of emotional intelligence. And while the importance of these soft skills may not be obvious at first, they’re critical to success within an organization. For example, individuals with high EQ will be more successful in customer service type roles. They’re better able to connect with customers, read their emotional responses and manage the situation to ensure everyone leaves happy. They’re also skilled at mediating conflict within a team; their level of control over their own emotions allows them to gently empathize with and advise teammate disagreements.

Measuring Emotional Intelligence

How do you know whether you have high emotional intelligence? How does one measure EQ in their employees? There are several questions to ask — all of which are related to the five foundation pieces above — to examine one’s level of emotional intelligence, as well as to start understanding what it really means.

Question 1: Self-Assessment

Does the individual in question show an understanding of themselves that agrees with the understanding of others? Are they aware of their emotional responses, able to identify the emotions and capable of acknowledging them? Do they have an understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses and self-confidence in their own abilities? Individuals who develop high emotional intelligence are those who continually reevaluate themselves to be comfortable in their own skin.

Question 2: Self-Regulation

Is the individual able to control their emotional reactions, even negative ones, so that they don’t affect those around them in the workplace? Does criticism or challenge result in negative outbursts, or in calm acknowledgment?

For leaders, do they stay calm, or do they express frustration and anger? High emotional intelligence comes from teammates who can manifest their emotions in healthy, professional ways.

Question 3: Empathy and Compassion

Do teammates respond to interpersonal cues? Is this individual able to change their approach based on the feelings of others? It isn’t just about empathy — understanding the feelings of others — either; it’s executing empathy by way of compassion.

Do leaders have the ability to put themselves in the other employees; shoes and understand their side of the story? Do they respond with kindness?

Question 4: Relationship Management

Does the individual seek out good professional relationships with others? Do they actively listen to others, pay attention to what they’re trying to communicate and acknowledge that they’ve understood? Is this teammate more of a loner, preferring to do their work themselves, or are they able to connect with other teammates and build trust?

Question 5: Effective Communication

Can this teammate clearly express themselves to others? Are they able to use their emotional awareness to modify communications in a way that increases understanding? Do they take the time to inform other teammates of changes and progress, or do they fail to reach out? Individuals with high emotional intelligence will be aware of the teammates around them and will want to encourage mutual understanding of ongoing work.

Identify Emotionally Intelligent Employees

Look for answers to these questions among existing employees. Within any team or department, it should be easy to identify the employees that are happy to work with others, and the teammates that prefer to work alone. Keep in mind that emotional intelligence doesn’t always mean teammate socialization: Some employees may be introverts who prefer to spend emotional energy on their work rather than in conversation. Meanwhile, other teammates who seem overly friendly may, in fact, be spending their time (and others’ time) on things completely unrelated to work. It’s up to the manager to have an understanding of the role each employee plays and the level of emotional intelligence required for that position.

In fact, many elite technical roles (researchers, engineers, etc.) may be designed for independent work; emotional intelligence is still required for these teammates to collaborate and communicate their work, but the importance of EQ is likely to be lower than that of a customer service rep or a sales employee. Employees who prefer to work alone can still have emotional intelligence; one of the keys is self-awareness, and if the employee knows they work best with good but non-interactive social relationships, it’s up to the manager to trust that they understand themselves.

Emotional Intelligence and Leadership

It’s incredibly important for potential leaders and managers to understand that even with a high level of technical know-how, an intelligent critical mind and a resume full of successful technical work, they won’t be able to become a good leader without a good understanding of emotional intelligence. If technical expertise were all it took to be a leader, the industry would be entirely different; genius minds do not necessarily make good managers. The definition of management is developing and working with a team to meet a set of common goals; it’s critical to understand the people in a department personally as well as technically.

Leaders who can relate to their employees, who recognize their emotions and change their approach accordingly and who can manage conflicts and challenges while staying calm and focused can effectively build a team that can trust management. They will understand how to react to situations on an emotional level, not just a logical one, and have empathy for employees in hard situations.

Leaders who display these traits are also setting good examples for their teammates; it means their employees are equally more likely to develop emotional awareness and a sense of compassion. Their employees are more engaged and often more stable, allowing the department to bond together to ride out upsets.

A Balance Is Required

Like all things, a balance is required. Management must be effective and efficient as well as empathetic; teammates need to be smart and innovative, as well as emotionally aware. Strategic thinking and rational decision-making are still critically important for leaders. Most roles require a delicate balance of EQ and IQ, depending on the job responsibilities and their place in the overall business culture.

That being said: even the brightest of leaders is unlikely to succeed unless they work to develop their emotional intelligence. Leaders who lack these traits are more likely to have unsatisfied employees, which leads to poor performance and higher turnover. Whether the field is technical, service-related, production or interpersonal, it’s time to take a step back and evaluate emotional intelligence in the team and in management. Being able to understand and connect with teammates will help them feel comfortable and appreciated, and ensure they are getting satisfaction and joy out of producing the best work they’re able to do.