Last updated: What is emotional intelligence: The case for EQ in business

What is emotional intelligence: The case for EQ in business


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In an era that often seems empathy-deficient and empathy-starved, it’s easy to understand the growing interest around emotional intelligence in business, and why it matters for success.

In a nutshell: the business case for EQ is the human case for EQ.

Then what’s the problem? Improve your EQ and win at business and life. Simple, right?

If only it was so. Let’s face it: interacting with other people can be difficult. People are a mess. We are a mess. No, not always; but often enough, and often with each other.

What is emotional intelligence or EQ?

Emotional intelligence is a person’s ability to understand and manage their emotions to communicate with others effectively. It also factors in the ability to have empathy for how others feel.

Also called EQ and EI, emotional intelligence is when someone identifies their feelings and uses that understanding to inform their behavior. They’re also able to understand how another person feels and know how to best interact with them.

The concept dates back to 1990 and caught on in popular lexicon when psychologist Daniel Goleman wrote a book about it.

Goleman lays out five pillars of emotional intelligence to look for when hiring candidates, or when working to strengthen your own EQ:

  1. Self-awareness: The ability to identify your emotions and how they impact what you do. You understand your strengths and weaknesses.
  2. Self-regulation: The ability to control one’s emotions. Staying calm under pressure is an essential skill, especially for business leaders.
  3. Motivation: A drive to succeed and grow as a person.
  4. Empathy: An empathetic person can understand how another person feels and be compassionate.
  5. People skills: The ability to read the room by accurately picking up on how others feel.

“Hell is other people.”

Before we examine how important emotional intelligence is in business today, let’s consider this famous and searing indictment of being-with-others appears in the play No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre.

I mean, who hasn’t felt Sartre’s sentiment deep in their bones on the fifth Monday of the week when someone’s hair is on fire at 4:53 p.m., or when you have to reply with another ‘per my last email…’? Or perhaps when there was one too many meetings to prep for other meetings that should have been emails.

All out-of-contextness and misinterpretation aside, one possible takeaway from our cold, cozy commiseration with Sartre’s statement of hell and other people is not that we feel it, but how we manage that feeling in ourselves.

Think of the 10/90 principle of what happens and how we react to it. Or, to look at the other-side of emotional intelligence, we become aware and regulate how we respond to that emotional state in someone else.

Without unpacking Sartre’s line in-context, the quick-and-dirty of it is that it has more to do with how we judge and make assumptions about each other as human beings than about how stupid, annoying, and incompetent other people can be.

The hell that Sartre seems to mean is one that improving empathy and emotional intelligence can go a long way toward overcoming conflict and producing healthy and productive business relationships.

What does emotional intelligence have to do with business?

As long as we have to work with other people and as long as we serve human customers, emotional intelligence in business will be an essential part of negotiating the complexities and dilemmas of those relationships for the best outcomes.

The revival of interest in EQ likely has many contributing factors, but the most obvious include:

  • Digital transformation: The hyper-focus on rapid development, AI, and machine learning must be balanced with the human strengths such as empathy and emotional intelligence.
  • Bad leadership and burnout: This kind of speaks for itself. People are tired of it. If Sartre had done any time in these toxic work environments, perhaps his line would have been something like, “Hell is bad bosses.”
  • Leaders with higher EQ get better results: Happier employees are more productive and innovative. But different people are motivated differently, and emotionally intelligent leaders find out what works for each individual and adjusts their approach accordingly instead of forcing a one-size-fits-all solution. Happier employees make happier customers and higher profits.

Workplace culture grows out of the tone set by EQ levels of executives. That willingness to listen to others and to adjust one’s own behavior and course of action radiates outward, emerging in the customer experience with your company.

Daniel Goleman says of emotional intelligence among executives:

“The most effective [business] leaders are all alike in one crucial way: they all have a high degree of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence. It’s not that IQ and technical skills are irrelevant. They do matter, but…they are the entry-level requirements for executive positions.”

Unless you work in an overtly life-and-death situation on the regular, you’re probably likely to prefer a balance of IQ and EQ in your co-workers.

When someone is miserable and insufferable to work with every day, the value of their great technical skill and intelligence plummets.

Why will emotional intelligence in business be so important?

With customer experience as the primary field of competition among brands, the ability to listen to and understand your customers – even as they change from moment to moment – the emotional intelligence of your leadership and your company enables you to meet and exceed customer expectations.

This requires fostering an emotionally intelligent workplace culture. Leadership needs to demonstrate EQ and train employees to develop their own self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and ability to build rapport and trust with everyone they encounter.

The emotional intelligence of your company inevitably shows through in the customer experience it delivers.

The numbers continue to support the benefits of higher emotional intelligence in business. Boosts in productivity, employee engagement, efficiency, customer satisfaction, and, of course, profits have caught the attention of the business world.

Some businesses will hold fast to the attitude – spoken or implied – that hell is other people and continue to ignore the value of updating and integrating emotional intelligence into their organizational culture.

And they will almost certainly succumb to inevitable existential crisis as top talent leaves and customers disappear.

The experience economy and intelligent digital technologies such as AI and machine learning continue their symbiotic evolution.

Businesses leading the way will drive growth and innovation through balanced development of the best human and machine attributes to deliver exceptional experiences based on empathy and real-time understanding of what customers need, feel, and expect.

Every digital moment matters.
Are you making the most of them?

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