Developing emotional intelligence at work: an evidenced-based approach

What is emotional intelligence (EI) and how does it relate to work and leadership?

It’s better to reframe “what is EI” and think of EI as a range of developable abilities rather than a single thing. Peter Salovey and John Mayer were the first major researchers in this area, and they defined it as:

“the ability to perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, to understand emotions and emotional knowledge, and to reflectively regulate emotions to promote emotional and intellectual growth.”

In their view, it was about seeing emotions as sources of data, providing valuable information about:

  • whether you are on track and moving toward your goals and living in a manner which is congruent with you your values and strengths
  • whether to listen to your emotions – for example, poor sleep, heightened workloads or skipping meals might indicate one or more areas of your life are out of balance
  • whether to discount your emotions – waking up and feeling grumpy doesn’t necessarily reveal that something is wrong and needs to change. It could just be that you aren’t a morning person without a slug of caffeine. In the words of Susan David, “you own your emotions; they don’t own you.”
  • how to connect, incentivise and energise your colleagues – for example, how awareness of their emotions may reveal vital information about their intentions, goals, values and triggers at work

Dan Goleman took this idea of emotional data mining and created a model of measurable workplace behaviours with four main features: self-awareness, social awareness, self-management and relationship management. Under each of these quadrants was a set of workplace abilities. You can self-rate your abilities below.

A measure of EI abilities

Richard Boyatzis, Dan Goleman, and the Hay Group developed a survey measuring abilities called the Emotional and Social Competency Inventory (ESCI). The following are their twelve areas of leadership abilities. You can take an assessment for yourself and your manager/leader below.

  1. Emotional self-awareness
  2. Emotional self-control
  3. Achievement orientation – striving for excellence
  4. Positive outlook
  5. Adaptability
  6. Empathy
  7. Organisational awareness – tuning into the needs of the team
  8. Influence on others
  9. Coach and mentor
  10. Conflict management
  11. Inspirational leadership
  12. Teamwork

Emotional and Social Competency Inventory (ESCI and its uses)

The ESCI inventory is a 360-degree questionnaire used to help evaluate the abilities of a leader in the twelve areas identified above. It’s best done in organisations where there is an open and honest flow of feedback between colleagues, where colleagues have deep knowledge of each other, there is an attitude of growth and leaning into tough conversations and where difference is celebrated, permeated by underlying respect. Without these things, any 360-degree feedback can descend into anger and pettiness.

Despite the difficulties in assessing EI abilities and given the challenges of any 360-feedback process, researchers from consultancy Korn Ferry have found some interesting results from ESCI, which backs up research into MSCEIT.

According to their research, only 22% of 155,000 leaders have real strengths in EI – where people see them as often or consistently, showing at least nine of twelve of the EI competencies noted above. The remaining 88% of leaders showed moderate strength or less. In addition, 17% were not competent in any area.

A recent analysis confirmed a direct relationship between emotional self-awareness and the team’s effectiveness and collaboration. For example, leaders with strong emotional self-awareness (the starting point of the ESCI model) are more likely to create an environment that their teams see as enabling excellence and high performance. And another study found that employees at poor-performing companies were 79% more likely to have low overall emotional self-awareness than those at firms with high levels.

To put it simply, the organisations where people tend to score highly in most or all the twelve areas experience positive impacts on their operations:

  • More team engagement – greater understanding and alignment between personal goals and values and the organisation’s goals and values
  • Less staff turnover
  • Improved client relationships
  • Increased productivity
  • More interpersonal trust
  • Positive wellbeing impacts for individuals – there is a link between healthy emotional awareness and expression and the endocrine system

EI development at work

Take a few moments to complete our emotional intelligence survey.


Below are two links:

  • Rating your own EI abilities
  • Information about the MSCEIT assessment and coaching program

Rating your own abilities

Know thy self – rating your EI abilities at work

One of the challenges of rating your abilities in these areas is that we aren’t very good at it. Researchers Mayer, Salovey and Caruso found, not surprisingly, that the worse your overall EI abilities are, the less able you are to rate your own and other people’s abilities. And in particular, the worse your emotional self-awareness is, the worse you are at all the essential leadership abilities. So for most researchers in this field, the most important thing to develop is learning to observe, name and reflect on your own emotions more often – I’ll come to this below.

There is a brilliant way to rate your abilities using an online psychometric assessment called MSCEIT. This assessment measures people’s ability to recognise, use, understand and manage emotions. Unlike self-report evaluations, it’s tough to cheat! It tests people’s abilities to recognise emotions in others, what they mean and how they can drive behaviours. And it poses complex scenarios about emotions and their impact on colleagues and friends. The assessment results provide robust evidence-based information about abilities and enable people to focus on critical development areas. There’s more information about MSCEIT below.

MSCEIT information

Mindfulness and emotional self-awareness

Try this simple technique. Before starting work, don’t rush to your computer and to-do list.

Take a minute to reflect on how your body is feeling and notice the feeling. If you can start to put some labels in place, such as :

“Excitement is here”, “anger is here”, “uncertainty is here”, “sadness is here”, “jitteriness is here”….

Keep a journal of your emotions. Just a minute of reflection and labelling is a powerful tool to deepen your emotional self-awareness. And as you note and journal, avoid the temptation to fix it and make the feeling disappear. Sit with them, breathe into the space in your body calling for some attention, acknowledge them with self-compassion, let them be and gently let them go. The process of noticing and accurately labelling (if you can) is a powerful, simple, quick, and effective tool for building emotional intelligence abilities at work.

Sometimes it’s hard to label accurately: but that’s fine and perfectly normal. When it feels like that, notice the sensation in your body, perhaps a heaviness, flutteriness, heat or cold. Take a minute or so to give your body the attention it deserves. Your brain-body-mind system is asking you for care. Treat it as you would a best friend wanting some love and validation, and time.

Share these insights with friends and colleagues