Harnessing emotional intelligence at work: Turning feelings into strengths

Apr 15, 2024

6 mins

Harnessing emotional intelligence at work: Turning feelings into strengths
Serena Leilani

Journalist Intern

Have you ever caught yourself crying at your desk? Maybe you’ve felt a surge of resentment when your colleague got the promotion you were after, or found yourself wanting to crawl into a hole when your manager said, “I expected better from you”?

It’s natural for emotions to come up at work, even (potentially disproportionately) strong and messy ones. After all, just because we’re in a professional environment doesn’t necessarily mean our brains—or hearts—will make that distinction. So what do you do when your emotions are getting the better of you, but you have a meeting in 15 minutes?

What matters is not what emotions you experience or when, but what you choose to do with them. Coming to the rescue is a method of understanding emotional intelligence, or EQ, developed by American psychiatrist Aaron Beck. By deconstructing our emotions, we can take a step back to better process and regulate them. This, in turn, creates heightened productivity, better work relationships, and increased job satisfaction. So stop fighting your emotions and make them an ally instead!

Know thyself

It’s a well-known principle that the secret to mastering our emotions is to dive deep into our own psyches, to better understand how we operate and interact with the world. Philosophers have long been interested in this idea of self-knowledge, or the close examination of one’s core beliefs, values, thought processes, and corresponding behaviors. Self-knowledge helps us to understand who we are at the core, which in turn helps us gain a better sense of self-awareness, or what we do.

A 2021 report from the Journal of Management Education suggests that increased levels of self-awareness results in more effective teamwork, better stress management, and higher self-confidence. However, despite the widespread belief among individuals in their self-awareness, research conducted by psychologist and author Dr. Tascha Eurich indicates that it is a rare quality. In fact, Dr. Eurich found that only 10-15% of individuals examined met the criteria. So how do we harness the collective powers of self-awareness and self-knowledge to reap the workplace (and personal) benefits?

What is emotional intelligence all about?

If self-awareness was the popular workplace buzzword in 2018, it’s since been taken over by the concept of emotional intelligence—also referred to as emotional quotient, or EQ. Popularized by David Goleman after the release of his 1995 bestseller, aptly titled Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, the exploration of this idea can be largely credited to researchers Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer, whose 1990 study opened the doors for understanding emotional intelligence in the context of mental health.

Salovey and Mayer defined EQ as a set of skills that help us comprehend and manage our emotions as well as the emotions of those around us. It involves accurately recognizing and expressing emotions, regulating them effectively, and using these emotions to guide our actions and goals in life.

In the past few years, soft skills have become a popular area of development in the work sphere. Employers and job seekers alike recognize the power of these intangible skills related to how we work. According to a 2019 survey, 61% of executives thought emotional intelligence would become a “must-have” skill in either one to three or three to five years. Those who have less traditional backgrounds or little professional experience can still shine thanks to soft skills, which are incredibly sought-after by employers. A recent study conducted by the Association for Business Communication showed that in the wake of AI, soft skills related to communication and character are more pertinent than ever. And the basis for most soft skills? Emotional intelligence.

Aaron Beck’s method

Considered the father of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Aaron Beck’s approach to psychotherapy highlights the crucial influence of cognitive processes, such as thoughts and beliefs, in determining emotions and behaviors. Beck used this knowledge to develop various techniques, often employed in therapy but also available for use by anyone, for restructuring our thoughts in order to feel instant relief.

Many of Beck’s techniques involve asking questions or repeating phrases as a means to call our natural way of thinking into question and decatastrophize. We are encouraged to slow down, analyze the situation from multiple angles, and realize there may be more solutions than we initially thought.

One of these techniques, Socratic questioning, consists of asking powerful open-ended questions about a given situation, such as: “What is the worst that could happen?” or “What is the first step the team could take toward our goal?” Questions can be adjusted to any topic and are meant to challenge our current set of beliefs. When we encounter thoughts that are highly emotionally charged, Socratic questioning helps to restructure these thoughts to assess how logical and rational they are in reality, which offers us needed perspective.

Learning from and employing these techniques is one way to increase levels of emotional intelligence and gain some of those coveted soft skills. But it doesn’t take a degree in psychology to boost your EQ. In fact, it only takes five minutes.

The situation

Let’s imagine your colleague is running late for your weekly check-in meeting … again. Despite promises to “be on time next week,” this colleague keeps letting you down, arriving 10-15 minutes late which then pushes the meeting over into your precious lunch break. When you see them finally walk through the door, your annoyance turns to anger.

The method

Beck’s method deconstructs emotions into three categories, also known as the cognitive triangle:

  • Thoughts
  • Feelings
  • Behaviors

This triangle represents the components that create our emotional experience, which occurs as the result of a situation. These three elements are linked and inform each other. By gaining a better understanding of each element, we can aim to grasp the state of our emotions as a whole.

Thoughts: I listen to the thoughts that this emotion generates (about myself or others)

It may feel like your mind is racing a million miles per minute, with thoughts popping up all over the place, some related to your current situation and some not. If possible, try to slow them down and separate them. If you’re in a situation which allows you to, try a brain dump. Writing by hand is best, but you can also quickly type your thoughts out on a computer.

Some thoughts this particular situation may provoke:

  • This person is always late
  • They don’t respect me
  • They’re wasting my time
  • I should have scheduled this meeting for a different time
  • I should have reprimanded this colleague more severely last time

Feelings: I scan the bodily sensations that this emotion produces

Rather than feelings as in emotions, this category refers to the physiological effects emotions have on us. Are you feeling heat in your cheeks? Perhaps your heart is racing, fists are tightening. You may feel tension in your body or notice you are breathing rapidly.

This step will allow you to slow down and focus on a sensory experience, grounding you in the present moment.

Behaviors: I identify the actions I would usually take in this situation, then I consider the actions I could take instead

Not only are behaviors related to what we do, but also what we don’t do or could do. It’s important to consider all three of these elements:

  1. Would I normally yell at this person for being late?
  2. Or would I avoid conflict and keep my anger to myself, letting it boil up inside?
  3. Instead, perhaps I could schedule a candid chat about my feelings and how this person’s lateness affects me, as well as the rest of the team.

Is EQ the tool you need at work?

So, is trying to boost your EQ worth the effort? Well, individuals with heightened emotional awareness and intelligence exhibit enhanced communication skills, fostering clearer exchanges and deeper connections among colleagues. Remember that coworker you almost yelled at about being late? By taking steps to understand why that situation was so emotionally charged, you were able to resist placing blame on your colleague and protect that relationship, as well as learn a bit more about yourself. Though this was a simple example, these same principles can be applied to more complex situations and emotional landscapes.

Regulating emotions leads to lower stress levels, increasing focus and productivity. According to a study from the National Library of Medicine, emotion regulation is associated with greater well-being and overall professional success. A research report from 2020 also linked the ability to regulate emotions to higher levels of job satisfaction. In addition, emotional intelligence has been demonstrated to increase leadership skills and likability, which has proved to matter more than competence when fostering positive workplace relationships. In short, you can assume that the higher your emotional intelligence levels, the more likely you are to get hired, promoted, and feel satisfied at work.

However, EQ isn’t a one-size-fits-all, nor is it just another workplace buzzword we’ll forget about in a few years. Though it may come more naturally to some, this type of intelligence must be continually cultivated and adapted to align with changes within our work environment, personal life, or within ourselves.

EQ at work: Key takeaways

Mastering emotional intelligence is like having a secret weapon for navigating office life with ease. Whether a manager or an intern, everyone around you will benefit from your newfound command over difficult emotions.

Here are the top things to keep in mind when harnessing your feelings at work:

  • Emotions are natural, even in business, so rather than shutting them down, aim to understand and express them in a constructive manner
  • Methods like Socratic questioning and cognitive restructuring are easy ways to feel instant relief and empowerment over your feelings
  • EQ is not inherent, but can be cultivated and improved, meaning anyone can reap the benefits
  • Remember, it’s also okay to simply “feel in” to your emotions without managing them. However, once we get into the habit of employing these techniques, they start to become second nature
  • Sharing your personal experiences dealing with emotional situations at work can help fellow coworkers and foster a culture of open communication in the workplace. The more EQ, the merrier!

Not only does EQ make your daily work life better, but it also sets you apart from the pack when on the job hunt. So, whether you’re dealing with office drama or chasing career goals, emotional intelligence is your ticket to thriving in any environment.

Photo: Thomas Descamps for Welcome to the Jungle

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