Emotional Intelligence-What It Means to Be Human at Work

Last Updated:Sunday, May 28, 2023

Emotional state drives so much in life. That includes our performance at work.

American psychologist Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book Emotional Intelligence has laid the groundwork for contemporary studies on emotions, teams, and company success.

These days, there’s an academia-linked Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations devoted to studying emotional intelligence in the workplace, and tons of accreditation programs to boot. The Harvard Business Review has published a sprawling four-book series on the subject.

In other words, emotional intelligence is real. It’s a skill set both inborn and learned, and may well be more important than IQ and other measures of intellectual classification. But what is it exactly, and where does it come from?

Ancient brains, modern times

Plainly defined, emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and take care of one’s emotions, as well as express them judiciously. Part and parcel to emotional intelligence is an awareness of the emotions of others around you, and the ability to develop and maintain interpersonal relationships rooted in empathy and mutual respect.

With that in mind, emotional intelligence can be broken down into the following five key components:

  • Motivation

  • Empathy

  • Self-awareness

  • Self-regulation

  • Social Skills

On a neuroscientific level, emotions are generated by the interplay of the brain’s three layers: the neocortex, the limbic system, and the brain stem.

To understand where emotional intelligence comes from, on its most essential level, we have to go to prehistoric times.

The human brain is about three times the size of non-human primates, our closest companions in the animal kingdom. Roughly three million years of evolution has gotten us to where we are today, our ancient brain functions gradually elaborating more sophisticated capabilities.

The brainstem, connected to the top of the spinal cord, is the site where our most primitive, elemental mental activity takes place. Here is where the brain and the body meet, where breathing, swallowing, blood pressure, metabolism, and other bodily functions are regulated, and primordial fight-or-flight reflex responses take place.

Recent research, making use of ever more sophisticated neuroimaging technology, has convincingly explored how the brainstem’s fixed-action pattern responses feed into more complicated emotions. It’s been determined that emotions are “activated” via the cardiorespiratory and automated responses of the brain stem.

Over time, the brainstem’s simple emotional responses, programmed as automatic behaviors, evolved to produce more complex structures. From this stumpy piece of brain grew the labyrinthine mass of tissue we call the neocortex, and with it the ability to add rationality to emotion. A lot of this happened around 100 million years ago during an evolutionary growth spurt.

On the way to developing the neocortex, the regions of the brain that controlled olfactory and tactile sensations were the first to become enlarged. They grew to form what is known as the limbic system, which encompasses, the hippocampus and the amygdala.

The hippocampus registers memory and makes sense of patterns in perception. The amygdala, meanwhile, preserves emotional memory, adding flavor to a piece of information with the same neurochemical reaction as the fight-or-flight response.

This helped with sniffing out food, danger, potential mates, and so on, as well as scurrying around rough terrain in the dark. The limbic system is the “nose brain,” and provides a rapid (yet imprecise) way to turn on and off emotions.

The neocortex developed to accommodate greater social intelligence. Tribal groupings and the complexity of relationship maintenance helped to enlarge cognitive capacity, as did competitive urges, and the need for more voluntary self-control of behavior across situations.

All this to say that the emotional responses wired in our brains are the product of a harsher time, that era prior to the historical record when human life expectancy was very low indeed. A quick rush of anger may have been useful for surviving the era of roving predators and prehistoric, inter-tribal warfare, but now it often produces negative consequences… most of the time.

We may think ourselves mentally superior to prehistoric humans, what with our New Yorker subscriptions and all, but over 32,000 years ago, our ancestors were already capable of drawing sophisticated figurative artwork on par with any Picasso, as seen in the Chauvet Cave in Ardèche, France (and Herzog’s doc on said cave).

The emotional and rational minds operate in concert much of the time, but they are semi-independent. The rational mind finesses, and occasionally overrides, the emotional mind; feelings and thoughts compliment one another with their unique flavors. But when something in life really goes off the rails, the emotional mind reigns supreme pretty much every time.

Nature, nurture, and the importance of an emotional environment

So are we born with emotional intelligence, or is it learned?

Perhaps not surprisingly, studies indicate that both nature and nurture interact in a push-pull relationship to determine an individual’s demonstrable emotional intelligence.

When it comes to inborn abilities, genetic research shows that it is neurotransmitters in the limbic system that are most important. That means that emotional intelligence is deeply embedded in our neurology.

Yet experience can take us away from our preternatural qualities, as we gain new habits from experience and write them into our mental circuitry. A happy child can turn into a sullen adult after a long bout of deprivation or tragedy, while a timid, shy, and “down” individual can come out of their shell when they find “their calling.” By our mid-20s, most of our cognitive patterns are set.

Our emotional realities are also gendered. This is probably not a revelation to you, but males and females are (still) socialized differently, and this leans towards creating adults who embody the stereotypical behavioral patterns of each gender: the former are by-and-large more overtly aggressive, competitive, and emotionally subdued; the latter are more strategic, cooperative, and emotionally aware.

A 2016 study shows women, on a whole, outperform men in the emotional intelligence category. That said, the authors of the study emphasize that “regardless of gender, our data shows that the most effective leaders within organizations are those who are able to demonstrate emotional and social intelligence.”

SATs, IQ tests, and any other number of aptitude-measuring devices do a decent job of predicting where in society someone will end up (i.e. in a low wage job or a high-paying one) but they categorically fail to predict who will actually succeed in life.

People with high intelligence can sometimes be emotionally dumb-as-a-board, and those who already have everything might keep pinching for more, making exceedingly poor gambles and one day throwing everything away.

Building emotional intelligence is not easy, and there’s no quick fix, shock therapy solution to overcoming a lifetime of internal resistance to awareness, empathy, social skills, and/or understanding. A bit like physiotherapy after an accident, the gains are baby-steps, incremental but one day very significant, and very much worth the time invested.

Why build your emotional intelligence? Because self-knowledge and self-awareness allow us to choose jobs that fit our innate, deeply held values and abilities, rather than overstretching or doing things antithetical to ourselves in the hopes of a big payday, social advancement, or clearing any other number of goalposts.

Social skills allow people to see the value of connections beyond prescribed roles, or the immediate hierarchy/social scene of which they are a part of. From the outside, someone “schmoozing” at their office with random people outside their department may seem vain, or even a bit dense, ditto for those making the rounds at a party and getting in-depth with someone working on an obscure technical project. But someone with high social aptitude can figure out the implicit-yet-obscure linkages between people and personal goals, and build up a network to see results through.

Humans are social creatures, and we simply cannot defy nature. Our physiologies intermingle as we interact with one another, producing legible results on every aspect of our lives, from happiness to health.

Baby-talking couples produce oxytocin in each others’ brains, lowering cortisol levels. Toxic people make us break out in stress rashes. Psychosomatic disorders caused by our social environment are very real.    

With that in mind, nurturing the emotional health of your entire team is important. And the best place to start… is the top.

Emotional leadership and team success

When it comes to leadership, Daniel Goleman notes, emotional intelligence is key to the success of an organization.

Goleman suggests that the overall mood of a team leader impacts that of individual members in a massively important way. Abrasive, negative bosses spread discord throughout the ranks, depressing team members and giving them no reason to stick their necks out and try new things; no motivation to overachieve and innovate for the company that’s paying their bills.

This is the result of “mood contagion,” which can spread like a debilitating virus or a seriously good vibe, depending on the leadership.

The antidote to negative leadership is not overbearing positivity and put-on sincerity. Laughing on the outside, crying (or at least wincing) on the inside is not a facade that can be maintained day-to-day throughout one’s career. Human beings have a way of seeing through any such BS smokescreen, so you won’t be able to fool your team for long anyway.

The three-fold path of sincerity, optimism, and realism is preferable by far, for your own sanity as a leader and the well-being of your team.

So how do you improve your emotional intellgience? To get better situated to scale up one’s emotional leadership qualities, Goleman suggests an ideation exercise, wherein you ask and attempt to answer the following five questions:

Who do you want to be?

Think about the leadership qualities you want to have. Visualize the type of leader you want to be.

Who are you now?

Attempt to see yourself as others do. Solicit honest feedback on your leadership.

How do you get from here to there?

Figure out a plan of action that will take you from where you are to where you want to be.

Easier said than done of course, but if you can identify your weaknesses, you can find a way to build yourself up in those areas. Goleman gives the example of a certain bitter, intimidating marketing executive who softened his attitude gradually by volunteering at a crisis center, coaching soccer, or hanging out with team members outside of work who were ‘below him’ on the corporate pecking order.

How do you make change stick?

Rehearse mental and physical behaviors until they become automatic.

Who can help you?

Find people who can coach you to meet your goals, and give you honest feedback premised on mutual respect.

Most of us have lived the infamy that is working for someone with an underdeveloped level of emotional intelligence. Whether you were once a teenaged gas station attendant suffering the puckering of Old Sour Grapes himself, or a freshly BFA’d graphic designer having all your good ideas stolen by a megalomaniacal team lead, you likely know the dread of answering to an energy vampire each and every workday.

Process fairness is important, and it’s what’s missing in the aforementioned scenarios. What it means, simply put, is that strategic decisions from the top are explained well, and higher-ups are available to rank-and-file employees to participate in an honest dialogue. When concerns are treated with respect, tensions defuse and company culture turns human.

Leaders with deficient emotional styles almost always get fired (eventually), according to Goleman. Yet when they do, the rationale given almost always relates to “the bottom line” and “poor results.” This practical assessment is simplistic and easy-to-digest, hiding the complexity of the leader’s negative-impact psychology, and how it got in the way of everyone else’s ability to do good work.  

Of course, we all know there are great examples of ruthless leadership with amazing results (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs…), but in almost all these cases the leader was: A. uniquely visionary, B. in an unassailable position (i.e. the company was ‘theirs’) and C. overseeing a highly motivated, highly skilled team that could be pushed hard.

On top of that, it’s clear that myth-making and media representations can sometimes fail to address the complexity of leaders who are publicly defined as ‘hardasses’ yet have many hidden qualities.

Emotional literacy, a prereq for the relationship era

“In work and in life, we’re all supposed to get along. We’re supposed to have so much fun, like puppy dogs with our tails wagging.”

- David Lynch

When your company becomes a chess board of friends and enemies, suspicion and vendettas eat into operations, then customer experience, and ultimately the bottom line.

On the other hand, when everyone on the team feels comfortable about speaking their mind, and emotionally intelligent leadership steers the ship, everything gets better internally and externally.

Emotional intelligence is a prerequisite to character-building, and unlocking the full potential of mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques. It’s also important for complex decision-making.

The social benefits of fostering a culture of mutual respect are there for everyone to see. Emotional intelligence makes work human. For a company to be successful in the era of relationships, it’s a must.