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Emotional Intelligence Is Key to Success in Today’s Changing Workplace

By Miriam Phipps

emotional intelligenceWhen I was young, my father urged me to give a 110 percent effort to my job, which in theory sounded wonderful. The reality upon entering the workforce, however, was that my extra effort alienated less zealous co-workers, leaving me worn out and stressed in just those moments when I most needed a surplus of energy.

Ditching Dad’s advice, I began making a purposeful investment in quality downtime with my colleagues. For this, I was rewarded with a support system willing to back me up in a pinch and an increasing ability to tackle crises with more vigor and humor.

This recognition of the need to work quality downtime into my workday is an example of what psychologist Daniel Goleman writes about in his 1998 book “Working with Emotional Intelligence.” Goleman’s message is that the critical factor in quality performance is not hard work, as my father said, nor even high IQ or superior skill. The critical factor is emotional intelligence.

Goleman uses data and testimonials from hundreds of companies to demonstrate that skill and intelligence can easily be rendered ineffective by a lack of emotional intelligence. This trait could be thought of as having insight into what works, on an emotional level, and what doesn’t, being aware of how our emotions impact our performance and having the ability to envision how to make the most of this.

Goleman’s first book on the subject, “Emotional Intelligence” – written for the academic community in 1995 – led to a proliferation of courses bearing that title for corporate training, job training programs and business schools. He was hailed by those in the business realm for “making it safe to talk about the business cost of emotional ineptitude,” and was so inundated with requests from corporate administrators to give talks or provide consultations that he wrote “Working with Emotional Intelligence” specifically to address the business sector.

Goleman lists five categories of emotional competence: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skill. When these competencies are employed effectively, he says, we achieve “flow,” a functional state between the two dysfunctional extremes of stress and apathy. In flow we find ourselves working with humor and vigor, accessing all our skills and abilities with ease and infecting others with our positive energy.

The reason we struggle to access our skills and abilities while under duress is biochemical. Stress hormones affect the brain on several levels: First, they shunt blood away from the brain’s higher cognitive center and toward the senses. Second, successive incidents of stress cause a buildup of cortisol, a hormone which makes the amygdala – the brain’s emotional center – reactive to the slightest provocation. And since the amygdala is the brain’s alarm system, it can override the prefrontal lobes within a split second. When the emotional center overrides our cognitive center, we resort to those behaviors that are the most rehearsed, not those that are the best thought out.

As debilitating as stress can be, it is not the only emotion that affects job performance. At the other extreme of the emotional spectrum is apathy. Apathy is overcome when we feel inspired by our mission, challenged with attainable goals, loyal to those we work for and immersed in an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust. Leadership with this awareness can make the difference in overall team performance.

Emotional intelligence is key to navigating today’s ever-changing corporate landscape. With the high rate of turnover, we are constantly re-acclimating to new social dynamics. Cuts in staffing may demand that we take on more diversified responsibilities. And perpetual changes, such as in technologies, may demand that we maintain social networks that can keep us up to date. In general, the rockier the terrain, the more critical emotional intelligence becomes to navigating it.

Instances when emotional competence is less critical are increasingly obsolete: such as jobs that require little human interaction, those serving one consistent low-profile function in a large company or jobs in environments that are steady and predictable, as they traditionally have been in countries like Germany and Japan.

While working in Japan myself, I found the atmosphere so stable and team-spirited, that in fact I never felt truly challenged, socially or emotionally. In the US, on the other hand, the high rate of corporate turnover necessitated that I perpetually re-acclimate to new social dynamics, demanding focus and energy.

How does Goleman suggest we develop the emotional intelligence for tackling today’s challenges?

The first step is determining where our deficiencies lie. It helps to ask for feedback from those who know our workstyles. He advises asking multiple people to assess us, since every perception will be tainted with some bias – including our own. Once we’ve identified our dysfunctional workplace habits, the next step is replacing them by practicing new ones.

Training programs can help with the process. But not all are the same. The best, he says, should provide data regarding their effectiveness. Other tell-tale signs are individualized programs geared toward each student’s specific needs, student participation in establishing their own goals and a support network of individuals with similar goals.

Developing competence in emotional intelligence can be two steps forward, one step back. But Goleman urges that we not get discouraged by setbacks and that we learn from our mistakes.

Eventually, if we keep practicing good habits, they should not only start to come effortlessly to us, but should ultimately become our “default setting” – those behaviors that we resume automatically when our bodies and minds go on auto-pilot, as a result of being under emotional duress or just too tired to think straight.

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Miriam Phipps is a caregiver, a former ESL instructor and biotech research coordinator, and is now developing her career as a writer. She can be reached at

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