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Embracing emotional intelligence in HR: A guide for leaders


Talk of emotional intelligence, or EQ, and its importance for business success has been around for years, but some leaders still think it is touchy-feely nonsense.

The problem with this train of thought? Nothing could be further from the truth. EQ can actually make or break a person’s career, and that means every leader needs to be smart about emotional intelligence. Still not sold?

According to Emotional Intelligence 2.0, those with high EQ earn an average of $29,000 more annually compared to their low-EQ counterparts. Other studies have found when companies hire for EQ, sales go up and turnover goes down.

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is a competency. It includes the ability to recognize, understand and manage our own emotions. It’s also the ability to recognize, understand and influence the emotions of others.

Individuals with high EQ tend to be less stressed and communicate better than their low EQ peers because they empathize with others and manage their reactions to their own and others’ emotions.

More specifically, emotional intelligence in HR looks like a supportive and inclusive work environment where employees feel valued, heard and understood.

Components of emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence in human resource management can be broken down into these four areas:

  • Self-awareness – The ability to recognize your emotions, strengths and weaknesses, and how your emotions affect your thoughts and behavior. Self-confidence is an important aspect of self-awareness because you have to trust yourself to judge your own emotions.
  • Maturity – The ability to manage your emotions in healthy ways, control impulsive behaviors, take initiative, follow through on promises and react with flexibility to change. Maturity refers to your ability to manage yourself and translates into others perceiving you as trustworthy, adaptable and conscientious.
  • Social skills – The ability to understand others, recognize emotional cues and body language, feel comfortable socially, and recognize the dynamics of a group. Social skills allow you to communicate clearly, influence others and manage conflict constructively.
  • Rapport – The ability to develop and maintain healthy relationships, communicate clearly, influence others, work in a team and manage conflict. In the workplace, relationship management helps you build bonds with co-workers, work toward goals cooperatively and coach effectively.

What does an employee with high emotional intelligence look like?

Team leader Jennifer is highly frustrated about a project and wants to yell at someone (self-awareness). However, she recognizes that wouldn’t be productive or reflect well on her ability to manage the project or her team (maturity and social skills). So, she takes a walk around the building to clear her head and focus on potential solutions (maturity). When she gets back, she discusses these solutions with her team, guiding them back into productivity (rapport).

EQ vs. IQ vs. personality

It’s common to confuse EQ with intelligence (IQ) or personality traits. However, these are all separate pieces of the self.

Think of IQ as your hardware. Your IQ is the ability to internalize information, process problems, and think critically. Personality traits are more hardware – whether you function as an introvert or extrovert, avoid conflict or react easily to change.

EQ is the software. Your emotional intelligence guides how you interact, empathize and handle those around you – and yourself – as you process problems or react to change. Like software, EQ can be learned and adjusted to suit new business situations. This means that EQ can also be unlearned if those skills aren’t continuously practiced.

Just one example: Your IT manager, Ken, tends to be a quiet guy (personality) who learns new software incredibly fast (intelligence). He’s quite passionate about IT security, which is an asset to your company, but if you get him going on the topic he doesn’t know when to stop (EQ). Ken can learn to recognize others’ body language and tailor his behavior to fit his surroundings (EQ).

Emotional intelligence in HR processes

By infusing emotional intelligence in HR operations, you can foster a culture of empathy, collaboration and resilience, which cultivates work environments where employees can thrive and excel. Here’s what that looks like in practice:

1. Recruitment and hiring

Incorporating emotional intelligence into the recruitment and hiring process helps identify candidates who have the ability to thrive in a team environment and contribute positively to the organization’s culture.

  • Develop job descriptions that emphasize the importance of emotional intelligence traits such as empathy, communication skills and teamwork.
  • Use behavioral interview questions that assess candidates’ emotional intelligence, such as asking about their experiences working in teams, handling conflicts, and adapting to change.
  • Consider emotional intelligence as a key factor in the final hiring decision, alongside technical skills and experience.

2. Onboarding and training

Focus on helping new employees develop their emotional intelligence skills and integrate them into the organizational culture effectively.

  • Provide resources and training sessions during onboarding that focus on enhancing self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy and social skills.
  • Encourage mentorship or buddy programs where new employees can learn from more experienced colleagues and receive guidance on navigating workplace dynamics.
  • Foster an inclusive and supportive environment where employees feel comfortable expressing their emotions, asking for help and giving and receiving feedback.

3. Performance management

Use emotional intelligence to facilitate constructive feedback and support employee development.

  • Provide training for managers on giving feedback in a way that is constructive, empathetic, and supportive.
  • Encourage regular check-ins between managers and employees to discuss goals, progress, and any challenges or concerns.
  • Offer resources and support for employees who may be struggling with stress, burnout, or other emotional issues impacting their performance.
  • Recognize and reward employees who demonstrate high levels of emotional intelligence in their interactions with colleagues, clients, and stakeholders.

4. Leadership development

Develop the emotional intelligence skills necessary for effective leadership and managerial roles.

  • Offer coaching and training specifically focused on enhancing emotional intelligence competencies for leaders.
  • Provide opportunities for leaders to receive feedback on their emotional intelligence skills and areas for improvement.
  • Encourage leaders to role model behaviors that demonstrate empathy, authenticity and inclusivity.

EQ mistakes in business

Managers with good EQ inherently understand the need to be cognizant of others. These high-EQ managers understand that:

  • Emotions play a tangible role in the business world. The manager skilled in EQ can guide and encourage her employees to have pride in the company, feel satisfaction in a job well done, or be thankful for and have loyalty to a supportive boss.
  • Body language and other nonverbal cues need to be read and understood. We’ve all worked with someone who stands too close and makes everyone uncomfortable. This is just one example of a lack of self-awareness and social skills. Being able to “read the room” pays off for employees at all levels because they can gear their communication for the situation at hand, fostering greater productivity.
  • Getting to know your team is critical for success. On a micro level, a manager who doesn’t know who is striving for a promotion and why, or who is overwhelmed at home is unable to optimize the performance of his team. This can lead to missed targets, lost opportunities and productivity, inefficiencies, frustration and turnover.
  • Adapting to your company culture is essential. At the macro level, misunderstanding corporate culture can get a manager in trouble fast. Say a new employee pushes acceptance of a vendor he used in a former job, not recognizing that his vendor will displace another company that’s an old favorite of the CEO. This lack of EQ may color the CEO’s opinion of the new manager for years to come.

Leading with emotional intelligence

How can EQ improve workforce engagement and productivity?

First, become more aware of your own strengths and blind spots when it comes to emotional intelligence. You can try this free EQ testing tool.

Learn to recognize stress or tension in yourself and others, and learn how to reduce it. Stress is not only unhealthy, which translates to absenteeism, but also leads to poor communication, causing mistakes and misunderstandings that lead to more stress.

Find ways to keep yourself calm and focused during stressful times, and encourage your team to do the same. Sometimes just acknowledging your team’s stress can improve everyone’s outlook.

Embrace the fact that conflict and disagreements aren’t always bad. It’s inevitable that team members will come at the same problem in different ways. Encourage creativity and employee engagement by pointing out the good ideas and the problems from both camps, and asking the groups to work as a team to resolve their issues.

Summing it up

Discover how a strong company culture can make your business more productive and profitable. Download: How to Develop a Top-notch Workforce That Will Accelerate Your Business.