Emotional intelligence (EI) at work has always been important. But in these turbulent times, with a global pandemic, an economic downturn, social unrest over systemic racism, climate change and other stressors, interest in learning about emotional intelligence has never been greater, says Marc Brackett, Ph.D., founder and Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of “Permission to Feel.”

As an example, Brackett cites a recent global virtual conference he hosted on emotional intelligence at work that attracted an unprecedented 4,000 attendees — including senior leaders at major corporations and small businesses alike. Interest in emotional intelligence is increasing globally, too. As an EI trainer and consultant, Brackett says he’s busier than ever with clients in China, Italy, Spain, Australia and Thailand as well as the U.S.

“We’ve all been experiencing the ultimate real-life test of EI,” Brackett continues. But too many people aren’t passing the test. “They’re phobic in regards to talking about their feelings, especially in the workplace, where they think they’re supposed to ‘leave their emotions at the door.’ But you can only do that for so long.”

A predominant emotion these days is anxiety. Many people around the world are stressed as a result of the pandemic, with the majority in the U.S. followed by the U.K., Canada, France, Australia and New Zealand, according to one report. A Yale survey of more than 5,000 people globally conducted early in the pandemic finds that about 95% of participants used words like “anxious,” “fearful,” “worried” and “overwhelmed” to describe how they’re currently feeling.

Whether you’re an HR or talent attraction leader or a recruiter interviewing job candidates, you’re likely feeling more stressed than ever — and isolated. And the two seem to feed off one another. The sense of isolation that working remotely can trigger is exacerbating our stress levels, notes Richard Boyatzis, Ph.D., Case Western University Professor of Organisational Behavior. 

Increased stress levels in the workplace are often ameliorated through satisfying interpersonal exchanges, such as brief encounters when walking to a meeting, having coffee, or going out for drinks after work, Boyatzis says, all of which are missing due to remote work and social distancing. At the same time, because we’re communicating primarily through video chat, email and messaging, we’re not always able to fully perceive someone else’s empathetic response, so the isolation we experience can be intensified, he adds.

While there’s a surge of interest in learning about emotional intelligence, there’s also confusion about what it is and how it can be applied to work relationships. Indeed believes it’s important, especially now, for talent leaders, hiring managers and HR professionals to develop EI as a skill in their work. With this ebook, our goal is to give you a shortcut to understanding emotional intelligence at work — including the science of how our emotions work. We’ve also interviewed global EI experts such as Brackett, Boyatzis, and Michele Nevarez, the CEO and Chief Education Officer of Goleman EI to help you apply the nine steps to emotional intelligence we’ve outlined. Sign up below to access this ebook (and more) on Lead with Indeed.

Step 1: Understand what emotional intelligence is

When you’re emotionally intelligent, you can more easily identify your emotional triggers and better align your values with your actions. More importantly, you can begin to identify other people’s emotional triggers and values, thus improving your workplace relationships and, ultimately, how you perform your job — whether it’s managing your team, negotiating with candidates, collaborating with colleagues, advising hiring managers or leading C-suite-level hiring initiatives.

The concept of emotional intelligence goes back as far as the mid 1960s, though interest took off in the 1990s. Professors Peter Salovey (Yale) and John Mayer (University of New Hampshire) released a seminal research paper in 1990 on EI that laid the academic foundation. Author and psychologist Daniel Goleman popularised the concept of EI in his 1995 book “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ,” which is still a global best-seller 25 years later (as of October 2020 it was ranking fourth on Amazon’s list of personal psychology titles in Germany, for instance.)

Though interest in EI developed in the U.S., it has spread globally. In fact, at Goleman EI, the consulting company whose online training was co-developed with Daniel Goleman, participation in its EI training and coaching programs is even greater outside America and stretches across multiple industries and sectors, says Nevarez, the Goleman EI CEO. One client example she cites is the Switzerland-based European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology (EADV). In late 2019, Goleman EI provided intensive in-person and online training for physicians affiliated with EADV. “It couldn’t have come at a better time because soon after, many of these physicians were on the front lines in COVID-19 units within their respective countries,” she says. “Many of them told us how incredibly vital the training had been.”

Step 2: Learn to identify the "amygdala hijack"

The path to EI begins with understanding our emotions and gaining an awareness of how to manage them. But first, it helps to know a little bit about how the brain deals with emotions.

An emotional trigger is any event that makes us uncomfortable, causing reactions such as anger, fear or sadness. Our brains have a collection of cells near the base called the amygdala (pronounced “uh-MIG-duh-luh”) that control our emotions. The amygdala is where emotions are given meaning, are remembered and become attached to associations and responses. When our amygdala experiences what we perceive as a positive trigger, we have positive emotions. Conversely, when our amygdala perceives an event as negative, it sends a signal that there’s a threat to the rest of the brain and the body, thus activating a physiological response.

Emotional triggers can lead to what Goleman calls an "amygdala hijack" — an immediate, often overwhelming response that’s out of proportion to the emotional trigger that caused it.

Scientifically speaking, during an amygdala hijack, we lose the neural pathway to our prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls reasoning and helps us see the bigger picture. In practical terms, this means if you’ve ever been cut off suddenly in traffic by another driver and found yourself blasting your horn in anger, your amygdala has been hijacked.

Our ability for complex decision-making is often blocked during an amygdala hijack. Our memory is compromised; we can’t think of anything that’s positive about the situation or the person with whom we’re in conflict. We don’t remember how we felt just a moment earlier. Our brains are entirely focused on the perceived threat.

Simply put, an amygdala hijack can cause you to overreact, doing or saying things you’d never consider if you were calm, clear and otherwise thinking rationally. When you’ve developed EI, you can more easily identify triggers and the emotional reactions they stimulate. You’re able to counter the fight-or-flight reaction with a thoughtful response that’s appropriate to the perceived threat, rather than a response you’ll regret later. As Psychology Today puts it, EI helps you develop a strong inner voice with which to navigate conflict.

EI is the polar opposite of an amygdala hijack. Those who are emotionally intelligent have developed strong connections between the emotional centers of their brains and the executive (thinking) center. EI gives you the tools to identify and deescalate your emotions in real time so you can choose an appropriate, productive response rather than a knee-jerk reaction.

Step 3: Get to know EI's four quadrants

To achieve a deeper understanding of EI, get to know Goleman’s four quadrants of EI:

Self-awareness, which involves recognising your emotions and their impact, knowing your strengths and limitations and possessing a strong sense of self-confidence.

Self-management, which comes from using your self-awareness to regulate and manage your emotions.

Social awareness, which relates to how you handle relationships and your ability to feel empathy for the needs and feelings of others.

Relationship management, which refers to your skill or adeptness at inducing desirable responses in others through inspirational leadership, being a catalyst for change, wielding influence and negotiating and resolving conflicts.

Chart illustrating Goleman's four quadrants of EI.

Step 4: Identify your values

From there, identify your most important personal values within the context of Goleman’s four-quadrant model.

Values are important beliefs or ideals about what’s desirable or undesirable. Kindness, respect, responsibility, loyalty, competency and teamwork are all examples of a person’s values. Values have a strong influence on our behaviour and attitude and give us guidance to follow in most situations. They help us make decisions, determine priorities and interact successfully with others.

When we use our values to guide our lives, we’re effective and happy. However, when our values are compromised or challenged, we’re at risk of succumbing to the dreaded amygdala hijack.

The following steps can help you better understand the role that values play in conflict, and how values relate to Goleman’s four-quadrant model.

Step 5: Identify your key values to gain self-awareness

Because values can trigger both positive and negative emotions, the first step in becoming more self-aware is to identify your top values. Review the examples below and try to identify your personal top five.

BeautyFunMeaningful workSpirituality

Once you’ve identified your top five values, consider trying an exercise by yourself or with your team. Ask them to identify their top five values. Lead them through questions to help them gain better self-awareness, such as:

  • Do their top five values guide their decision-making and priorities?
  • How do these values manifest themselves in their work life?
  • Would their colleagues or direct reports agree on their top five values?

Some other exercises you could try:

  • Think back to conflicts you’ve experienced in recent months and how you reacted to them, both in your professional and your personal life. For example, if one of your recruiters rejected a perfectly qualified candidate for a hard-to-fill job, what did you say? If someone yelled at you for parking too close to their car, how did you respond? By thinking objectively about how you responded to past conflicts, why you reacted the way you did, and which of your values were involved, you can begin to find appropriate responses to future events.
  • In a similar vein, notice over the next 30 days when you experience a physiological reaction to an event. Which of your values were triggered, and why? Take a moment and think about how you might alter your reaction to the situation. You might also want to keep a journal of triggering events, your reactions to them, and how you might react differently in the future.

Step 6: Develop your self-management strategies

Once you’ve developed some self-awareness, the next step is to try and manage your emotions in a more positive way.

Think about the last time you experienced an emotional trigger at work. For example, you’ve just learned that your budget has been slashed yet again, forcing you to pause all hiring and achieve an ambitious set of objectives with fewer people. How did you react? Did you lose your temper and later regret it? Did you have a physical reaction such as a flushed face, racing heart or adrenaline rush?

If self-awareness is about knowing your most important values, self-management is about developing and employing a range of thoughtful, productive reactions when those values are challenged. The goal is to learn to rely on those positive reactions when faced with negative emotional triggers.

But how? Some self-management strategies include: Learning to identify your emotions in real time and the impact they have on you.

  • Taking deep breaths.
  • Practicing mindfulness.
  • Taking time out to gain control over your emotions before you respond.
  • Devising logical next steps to resolve a conflict.

Step 7: To gain social awareness, learn to identify others' values

Social awareness in the context of EI means that, in addition to knowing your own values, you try to understand the values of others. For example, when you’re in a conflict, employ social awareness to identify the values of others and empathise with them. Rather than feeling personally attacked, look at the current situation as a conflict of values. By doing this, you can more successfully navigate emotions that may arise from your interactions with others.

To heighten your social awareness, ask yourself these questions:

  • What are the other person’s values, as far as you can tell?
  • How does their behaviour reflect their values?
  • Do their values appear to guide their decision-making and priorities?

Try and identify the level of emotional intelligence others have, too. If you’re a recruiter or hiring manager, for example, you might (carefully) ask candidates how they deal with feeling stressed or overwhelmed, Brackett suggests. The goal isn’t so much to identify anxious candidates — chances are, a candidate is already anxious because they’re in a job interview. Instead, you want to assess the candidate’s EI. You might consider asking what their feelings are about emotions in the workplace: Do they belong? Or should they always be ‘checked at the door’?

When interviewing candidates, strive to understand their self-awareness and self-management, Nevarez adds, for that can help you gauge their EI. For example:

  • Provide real-world scenarios candidates would likely encounter in the job and ask how they’d handle them, Nevarez suggests. Not only can this give you an idea of how they might react, you’re also giving the candidate a realistic sense of what the job experience might be like.
  • Try to get candidates to reflect on the skills that come naturally to them and which would help them handle those scenarios, as well as the skills they have worked to improve.
  • In addition, ask candidates how others who know them well might assess their skills for handling the scenarios you provide, Nevarez says. How candidates answer this question can provide clues to their self-awareness or how they believe others perceive them.
  • You’ll also want to ask candidates about situations in which their reactions were different from what they’d hoped, and how quickly they were able to recover, Nevarez says. Their answers can help you understand how easily they’re triggered and how resilient they are in bouncing back.

Step 8: Practice relationship management, especially when there's conflict

Becoming self-aware won’t happen overnight, of course. But once your self-awareness grows, you’re able to better manage your emotions, because you’ll have a stronger understanding of what others may be experiencing. The end result: You can manage relationships in a more emotionally intelligent way.

For example, imagine that Jack, a manager on another team, comes to you with an urgent crisis he says requires your immediate attention. As has been the case before with Jack, his team’s mishandling of affairs caused the crisis, but he needs you to stop what you’re doing and help him find a solution. During your video chat with Jack, you’re furious and tempted to lash out. But you hold your fire. You try to get at the root of the problem. You work with Jack to find a resolution.

You’re determined not to let this happen again, however. Because you’ve done the work to sharpen your EI, you take a few minutes after the crisis to briefly consider your top five values: competency, creativity, humour, meaningful work and responsibility. Next, you take into account what you think Jack’s top five values are: adventure, chaos, friendships, humour and meaningful work. Right away, you can see there are two values you share with him — humour and meaningful work — and you use that insight to manage your relationship with Jack.

Once you’ve thought it through, you have a follow-up video chat with Jack. You break the tension right away with humour, which helps put him at ease. The two of you agree that you want to do what’s best for both teams (because meaningful work is a shared value). You explain how his team’s crises impact your team’s work. Jack understands and agrees to find ways to identify and resolve problems before they can impact your team. Thanks to the emotional intelligence you’ve developed, you’ve successfully managed the relationship with Jack and achieved a more satisfying outcome for everyone involved.

Speaking of video chats: Technology is playing both a beneficial and potentially challenging role these days in regards to emotional intelligence, Nevarez says. On the one hand, EI teaching and coaching is much more scalable and accessible when delivered online. But technology — specifically video chats — can make it more difficult to put your hard-won EI to work.

“When someone is on camera, it’s easy for you to miss some emotional cues you’d have if you were meeting with them in person, and it’s easier for them to hide those cues,” Nevarez explains — which makes a well-developed EI even more important during video calls.

With more interviews being conducted virtually, for example, a strong emotional intelligence helps you be more attuned to a candidate’s emotional cues. As a result, you may be more likely to express empathy for their situation or are better equipped to anticipate special accommodations the candidate might need.

“In these stressful times, it’s important to consistently emphasise the human side of hiring,” notes Scott Bonneau, Indeed’s Vice President of Talent Acquisition. “Your empathy and understanding can help put candidates at ease throughout the hiring process. This gives them a greater opportunity to shine and can lead to a more successful interview.”

In other words: Among its many benefits, emotional intelligence can also help you provide a positive candidate experience.

Step 9: Don't be afraid to discuss or show emotions

As a manager or leader, it’s important to show you’re open to talking about difficult situations and the emotions they evoke, says Brackett. A simple question like “How are you doing?” or even “How are you feeling?” can open the door to important conversations with colleagues and direct reports, particularly during these high-stress times. And if you’re an HR or talent attraction leader, ask your managers if they know how their direct reports are feeling, he advises. Listen carefully to their answers.

Above all, practicing EI in difficult times is about having the courage to be open and authentic about your own challenges. In fact, when handled appropriately, leading with vulnerability is often a strength.

“I’ve told people that since the pandemic started, I’ve had more anxiety than I’ve had in my entire life,” Brackett says. “Their reaction is often something like, ‘But you’re the director of the Center for Emotional Intelligence!’ And I tell them that’s just my title. The truth is, I’m as messed up as anyone else is these days. The difference is, because I have emotional intelligence, I have the skills to deal with it, so that it doesn’t have power over me.”

Why EI can be more important than IQ

Strong relationships are key to any talent leader’s success. When you’ve developed your EI, you can more easily build lasting, positive relationships with your hiring managers, recruiters, and colleagues.

Influencing others is also critical to a recruiter or other talent professional’s job. Whether you’re trying to interest the ideal candidate in a position or persuade a hiring manager to consider a strong but not-obvious candidate, EI gives you leverage.

Put another way: Emotional intelligence — to paraphrase Goleman — can be more important to talent professionals than IQ. When you’re emotionally intelligent, you can spot hot-button triggers as they arise. You’ll have developed a strong inner voice that guides you away from knee-jerk reactions toward positive responses. Ultimately, EI will help you be an even more effective talent professional, which will benefit your career, the candidates you work with and your organisation’s ability to retain and attract top talent.