Understanding emotional intelligence in the workplace

Developing managers’ emotional intelligence in the workplace can reap rewards, but, in practice, there are issues that HR and managers need to be aware of. Dr Kathryn Thory looks at how to avoid the potential pitfalls of an over-focus on business imperatives including: lack of confidentiality; gender stereotyping; and cross-cultural differences.

We have over 4,000 English words to describe our feelings, with 600 of those describing negative emotions. And yet many of us struggle to find the right words to express how we feel or ever fully understand our emotions. This is not surprising, given that our feelings can be complex, ambiguous, changing, contradictory, subjective and subconscious.

Figuring out our emotions becomes harder when we are under pressure, tired or unwell. In the same vein, it is not easy to control daily feelings of frustration, competitiveness, fear, arrogance and so on. For example, in the workplace, around 45% of managers report becoming angry with others too easily, 31% report mood swings and over 33% report constant irritability (Chartered Management Institute, 2012). These figures show an upward trend of negative emotions in the workplace over the last five years.

Given this, it is easy to understand why emotional intelligence (EI) continues to be of interest to business and organisations since its emergence in the mid-1990s. Being able to recognise and manage our emotions, self-motivate, as well as understand the emotions of others and handle relationships are essential “soft skills” for today’s workplace.

EI training has been enthusiastically embraced by UK companies over the last 20 years. This groundswell of interest revolves around its association with transformational leadership, resilience and being stress-fit. EI is also the hallmark of enterprising business behaviours and excellent customer service.

In a supportive training environment, developing one’s EI offers opportunities for better self understanding, successful management of emotions and thoughts, empathy and improved social relationships. However, despite EI’s longevity in business, some new themes are surfacing that have implications for HR best practice training and development.

Risks of focusing solely on business imperatives

It is not surprising that corporate programmes focus on what EI can deliver to the business. Yet, EI training that adopts an integrative perspective that encourages participants to reflect on work and life, can reap personal and organisational gains. Crucially, with a focus on emotions, stress tolerance and values, EI training can raise awareness of work strains and work-life imbalance, which can then be addressed through career development, appraisals, mentoring, coaching and feedback.

As a by-product of this holistic approach, insights into non-work relationships (becoming a better partner or parent) can also improve participants’ quality of life outside work, with a positive spill-over.

By contrast, when EI training concentrates on the business imperative, participants can be motivated to use EI as a more strategic tool. Indeed, there is growing evidence that EI can be adopted for personal gains in self-promotion, impression management, calculative empathy and strategic relationship building (Kildruff et al, 2010).

This is particularly true when employees are competing for money, status, promotions and other scant organisational resources and the more single-minded, premeditated side of EI surfaces. For instance, employees may use praise and other tactics to ingratiate themselves to a supervisor or use empathy for instrumental gains. While potentially benign, companies are wise to consider how the content of EI training, and their organisational culture could be fostering a more duplicitous use of EI at work.

Popular EI models

The popular versions of EI (Goleman and Bar-On) can encourage managers to be more authentic and genuine at work by: reconnecting with one’s feelings, character and identity; being more emotionally honest; practising integrity. Many individuals attend EI workshops trying to be what they think a manager or leader should be, but EI encourages individuals to be more comfortable in their own skin at work, removing the strain of pretence (Thory, 2015).

Training with the popular EI models also provides opportunities to realise one’s potential and make work more meaningful. For example, Bar-On (2010) explicitly includes the aptitudes “self-actualisation”, “happiness” and “social responsibility” in his model and much of this focus encourages individuals to reflect on what is significant and of value in their life and work – what engages their full commitment, flair, vigour and skill. When managers feel enthused to proactively shape their work to be more intrinsically meaningful and have scope to do so, they can experience increased engagement, satisfaction, productivity, motivation, happiness and less stress.

Avoiding pitfalls

At the same time, HR managers responsible for organising and managing EI interventions must also be aware of some of the pitfalls. Research shows that participants can disclose private information (thoughts, feelings, experiences) during EI training to make sense of themselves or explore past feelings in relation to current thinking and behaviour (Thory 2013; 2015).

For individuals attending these EI courses, the nature of training can be intimate and intense and the impact profound. A clear benefit is that genuine emotional and intellectual growth can take place and sessions can be used for catharsis. Often though, issues of confidentiality and third-party dissemination become pertinent.

Mindful of career progression and reputation management, managers may feel concerned about whether or not their employer receives a report of their performance during the training. Hence, practitioners and participants should mutually agree upon the general types of disclosure and privacy boundaries adopted at the outset and agreements should be made on how disclosed information is treated during training.

Similarly, the experience can bring to the surface or “unlock” uncomfortable emotions in participants, even when unsolicited. Therefore, practitioners should be trained to recognise when to refer participants to appropriate professional counsellors or employee assistance programmes and have basic skills themselves to manage such situations sensitively. This extends to the careful management of any mental health issues that may surface through participant disclosures in EI workshops.

Gender issues

Because managers and leaders are conscious of how they “perform” during EI training and how they apply EI to work situations, there are further issues relating to gender and culture for HR managers to consider.

EI is often equated with natural “feminine” abilities (identifying and understanding emotion in oneself and others, talking about emotion, empathy and care). It is therefore assumed then, that women have a head-start when they use EI in the workplace.

Yet, when women use these skills in managerial and teamworking roles, their feminine qualities do not always lend them the kind of credit or remuneration men’s strengths offer, or when men “do” femininity. This is particularly the case in masculine work environments. Studies report that because these skills are seen as natural, feminine qualities, they are unacknowledged, seen as a “gift,” ignored, and unrewarded in women (Thory, 2013).

By the same token, there is evidence that the emotionally literate male manager fares well in today’s organisations. This was epitomised by Michelle Bachelet, Chile’s President, who commented after an incident during which her predecessor President Ricardo Lagos was tearful during a speech, “The media said ‘It’s his sensitive side coming out,’ but when I did it, they said: ‘she’s hysterical.’ I’m not whining about it, but come on” (Butler, 2008).

There is evidence that a more managed emotional expression or “weak emotion” is assessed more positively in men than women. This is because emotion is perceived as a brief break in overall rational behaviour and provides a hint of humanity, but not an overall weakness.

However, society holds stronger typical views of women’s emotion compared to men. So it is possible that when men “do femininity” they are seen as more socially competent because their emotion skills are seen as an ability. By contrast, the “emotional women” stereotype still pervades so that when women engage with their emotions this is still framed within a stereotype of vulnerability, loss of power and control (Thory, 2013).

Cross-cultural issues

Criticisms have also been made because EI ignores cross-cultural differences. For instance, there are ethnicity issues underlying emotion management in working traditional Islamic women. In a culture where a woman is required to be modest and restrained, “what might be seen as ‘modern’ work is not designed around the emotional requirement and displays required of ‘modest’ women in Islamic societies” (Syed et al, 2005). Therefore, there can be a lack of parity in the way that EI is performed or appraised in the workplace, especially when gender and culture are taken into consideration.

Overall, these gender and cultural issues provoke new considerations for HR professionals offering EI workshops to employees. For instance, diversity training offers opportunities for attitudinal and behavioural change toward unfair advantages, sexism, gender and ethnicity stereotyping. Equally, HR executives can encourage and support the development of emotional competence through reflective practice and experiential learning that is more representative of society.


Bar-On R (2010). “Emotional intelligence: an integral part of positive psychology”. South African Journal of Psychology; 40(1), pp.54-62.

Butler K (2008). “Women judged more harshly”. The Independent, 5 April 2008, p.20.

Chartered Management Institute (2012). “Quality of working life report”.

Kilduff M, Chiaburu DS and Menges JI (2010). “Strategic use of emotional intelligence in organizational settings: exploring the dark side”. Research in Organizational Behavior; 30, pp.129-152.

Syed J, Ali F and Winstanley D (2005). In pursuit of modesty: contextual emotional labour and the dilemma for working women in Islamic societies. International Journal of Work Organisation and Emotion 1; (2), pp.150-167.

Thory K (2013). “A gendered analysis of emotional intelligence in the workplace: Issues and concerns for Human Resource Development”. Human Resource Development Review; 12(2), pp.221-244.

Thory K (2015). “The role of emotional intelligence training in developing meaningfulness at work”. Paper presented at the ICOM conference, UAE.

Thory K (2015). “To reveal or conceal? Managers’ disclosures of private information during emotional intelligence training”. Human Resource Development Quarterly.

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