Your Highest Priority: Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence is a key competence for life and leadership. Discover why you should care about your emotions and that of others – in the workplace and anywhere else.
By Lisa Baier
April 26th, 2024
12 minutes

Emotional Intelligence – or EQ – is the new IQ. A few decades of research on emotions and emotional intelligence leave no doubt that emotions play an essential role in human life and interaction. The workplace is no exception for that: In the workplace, where stakes and expectations are high, “the leader’s mood and behaviors drive the moods and behaviors of everyone else”, observe researchers Goleman, Boyatzis, and McKee.


In this article, we discuss

  • what emotional intelligence is and which 4 key competencies refer to it,
  • why and how emotional intelligence makes a difference (for leaders) in the workplace,
  • why coaching is a great way to “learn emotional intelligence by doing”,
  • and if we can learn to be emotionally intelligent at all.

The Role of Emotions: A Short History Review

Emotional Intelligence refers to the ability to perceive, understand, and manage emotions; one’s own and that of others. The term emotional intelligence was first coined in 1985 in Wayne Payne’s “A Study of Emotion: Developing Emotional Intelligence”, was further investigated by researchers John Mayer and Peter Salovey, and then popularized by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his bestselling book “Emotional Intelligence – Why it can matter more than IQ”.


Although the concept of “emotional intelligence” is only a few decades old, emotions were recognized as an essential part of being human in history. However, from the early days of Plato (427 – 348 BC) to today, the role and meaning of emotions changed drastically. While Plato recognized that emotions influence human behavior, he was convinced that any good education would pursue the goal to control and master emotions to bring forth a person’s best intellect. Plato’s student Aristotle further developed Plato’s ideas, stressing that emotions serve a functional purpose in human life by motivating and guiding behavior. He believed that any emotion you instantly feel reflects your character, and that the aim should be to work on feeling morally correct emotions.


Throughout the centuries, philosophers like René Descartes (1596-1650, “I think, therefore I am”), or David Hume (1711-1776, “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions”) discussed the status of emotions for human nature; sometimes regarding emotions as the superior force behind our behavior, and sometimes the intellect / rational thinking.

Emotions, the Mind, and the Body: Science on Emotions

With the rise of science, we increasingly turned to other disciplines, especially psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology, to learn more about emotions and their meaning. While a great part of early philosophy is based on the body-mind dualism, which holds the body (everything “matter”) and mind (everything “mental”) as two separate entities interacting with each other, the sciences – and some modern philosophy – are bringing the body and mind closer together again.


Experts today are largely aligned on the idea that emotions are a mental response to any stimuli that cause sensations in the body – at least in humans. The amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, different parts of our brain, are decoding and interpreting these sensations, which – simply put – leads to us feeling. Here is where scientists distinguish emotions and feelings: Whereas “emotions are considered the automatic, unconscious body reactions to stimuli, […] feelings are the conscious, subjective, and mental interpretations we make of those physical changes”, write the authors at Psychology Today.


To conclude, emotions are a part of human nature, directing our attention, driving our behavior and motivation, and communicating with us about our state of being, making the unconscious conscious and tangible. Experts find that “emotional factors ​​influence our attention, perception, memory, language processing, judgements, and decision-making” (Eysenck, Michael W., and Mark T. Keane. Cognitive Psychology : A Student’s Handbook), and thus arguably have an impact on our relationship quality, health, creativity, and performance. Neglecting them, you guessed it, will lead to poor quality in all of the mentioned areas.


All the more reason to turn towards our emotions, to make an effort to understand them and their messages to us, and to cultivate empathy for other people and their experiences. This skill and hard work indeed reflects intelligence. Scientists who research in the field of emotional intelligence are convinced that this is a key competence that makes us thrive and navigate through life, and that is essential for effective leadership.

Emotional Leadership as Primal Task

An often cited study on the effects of emotions in leadership and business comes from researchers Daniel Goleman, Richard E. Boyatzis, and Annie McKee. In related articles and the book “Primal Leadership”, they discuss their finding that a manager’s mood and emotional state has a direct impact on (the mood and behaviors of) employees and the whole business performance. High levels of emotional intelligence, our research showed, create climates in which information sharing, trust, healthy risk-taking, and learning flourish. Low levels of emotional intelligence create climates rife with fear and anxiety. Because tense or terrified employees can be very productive in the short term, their organizations may post good results, but they never last”, write Goleman, Boyatzis, and McKee.


Upon presenting their findings to others, they would “first exclaim, ‘No way,’ then quickly add, ‘But of course.’”, report the authors. It seems to be as unbelievable as natural and intuitive that the magic key to leading (a team or a good life, or anything else) lies in emotional capability. “If a leader’s mood and accompanying behaviors are indeed such potent drivers of business success,” write the authors, “then a leader’s premier task—we would even say his primal task—is emotional leadership.”

The four key competencies of Emotional Intelligence

But how does emotional leadership work? What do we need to pay attention to, and how do we know if we succeeded? According to Daniel Goleman, emotional intelligence is composed of four key competencies: Self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. While self-awareness and social awareness speak to understanding your own (self-awareness) and other’s (social awareness) strengths, behaviors and feelings, the quadrants of self-management and relationship management address how you respond and behave.


All four components are equally important, and like on a plane, where you should put on your own oxygen mask first before helping others in case of an emergency, emotional intelligence requires you to start with yourself first. As Goleman, Boyatzis, and McKee suggest in their research, understanding your own thoughts and feelings and how you deal with them is already visible to the outside world and has an impact on everyone else around you. So taking care of your inner world and acting appropriately has first priority. Emotional intelligence then also means to master the conscious jump to others: How are others perceiving you? How are others feeling, and what does this in turn evoque in you and others? Cultivating empathy, and understanding and managing your influence and impact on others are key levers here. Finally, emotional intelligence takes into account that you cannot control other people’s feelings and reactions, and that dealing with emotions (and people) is unique in any situation.

The four key competencies of emotional intelligence according to Daniel Goleman: Self Awareness, Self Management, Social Awareness, and Relationship Management

Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace – and at Home

The implications of (not) exercised emotional intelligence mentioned above leave no doubt that emotional intelligence is not only a desired and vital competency for people managers, but for anyone. Human interaction and work happens between people of all levels, and thus emotional intelligence enables everyone to collaborate and communicate effectively, and to better adapt to change. The technological advancement and today’s remote work culture might even have increased the relevance of emotional intelligence, as collaboration through text and video calls leaves potentially more space for misunderstandings. Co-workers and leaders alike need to learn to be especially sensitive in this setting.


Let’s look at one example of how emotional intelligence in the workplace could look like. A report shares at work that they are feeling under the weather for private reasons, and cannot focus on work. A leader who practices emotional intelligence will firstly value the trust that the employee has brought forth to share this, and prioritize talking to the employee about what they would best need in this situation. It may be time off work, it may be a de-prioritization of tasks, it may be “just” a more sensitive handling of things in the upcoming week. If emotions and their underlying needs are given space and understanding, people find themselves in the best condition to cope with their problems in the best possible way. That’s why acting with emotional intelligence is not only the right thing to do – but mostly also the way that leads to better sustainable performance and arguably to a higher contentment at work for all involved individuals, as Boyatzis et al. are uncovering in their research.


We now looked at how emotional intelligence in the workplace is a key and growth catalyst for anyone. What made us curious when we discussed this in a company workshop, was actually another observation: Many of us have confirmed that behaving emotionally intelligent in the workplace – be it with coworkers or clients – is quite successful for them. However, when being at home, with a partner, children, and/or close friends, for many it is harder to act with the same tools that emotional intelligence provides. We speculated that we might expect our close and loved ones to “read us instantly and magically”, as if they are our extended selves and feel what we feel. The threshold of what is appropriate lowers, and what is expected rises. Turning to the studies of emotional intelligence and bringing to mind that even the people closest to us cannot read our minds nor feel our experiences makes it clear that emotional intelligence is truly a practice for life in all its areas.

Coaching and Emotional Intelligence

Coaching, as a safe space for the coachee to reflect on their development and goals, very much uses the tools of emotional intelligence to get to the core of the development. In the beginning of a coaching, a coach will likely start with the question “How are you feeling right now?”, and will probably come back to questions like “How did this make you feel?”, or “How would you like to feel instead?”.


Coaching is built on the premise that the coachee does not only have the problem or goal, but also holds the solution to resolve/achieve it. To get to these individual approaches, emotions can be regarded as the most direct and true source of information that comes directly from us, for us. They guide us the way of what quite literally “feels right or wrong”. 


Also, many of the discussed topics in coaching, even the ones that seem hard core business, eventually come down to finding the right strategies to deal with something emotionally. Coaching is thus an opportunity and invitation to look at one’s own emotions again and again, and to “learn emotional intelligence by doing”, if you will.


This is the main reason why we at bettercoach are convinced that AI coaches will not completely replace human coaches. They already prove to be strong partners for coaches, and maybe also to be an easily accessible solution for first steps in being coached – but an AI coach will probably not easily master the warmth and compassion that a human relationship sets free.

Can We Learn to Be Emotionally Intelligent?

The short answer and good news is: Yes, we can indeed train our emotional intelligence. In this article, we discuss further what the ROI of emotional intelligence in leadership and in the workplace is, and 3 of our renowned coaches share their insights about how to develop your emotional intelligence.