Many of us are on an emotional rollercoaster these days.
Credit: Getty Images/David Benito
April 19, 2022 7:28 AM EDT

The medical-device salespeople would show up in the middle of surgical procedures, play on their phones, and correct doctors at inappropriate times. As their behavior led to lost business, their employer decided to take action…on upping their emotional intelligence.

The company, a division of Johnson & Johnson, turned to Marc Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and Andrea Hoban, head of learning at Oji Life Lab, to design a program to cater to the salespeople.

That was 2018. Arguably, it’s only gotten harder to read the proverbial room (or Zoom) in the last few years.

But even more necessary, say Brackett and Hoban. Together, they’ve designed a 50-step app designed to help users increase their emotional intelligence.

“If you were exposed to Covid yourself or your family member was, and you had a boss with higher emotional intelligence, then it was an easier transition,” says Brackett.

Adds Hoban: “A lot of people in the time of Covid started to feel bigger swings in their emotional rollercoaster. This profound sense of loss whether we lost a person or we lost the freedoms we enjoyed before, that led to all kinds of feelings. They didn’t know what to do with all those feelings. We have to recognize them in order to regulate them.”

The regulation of how you feel is a critical part of navigating your own and others’ emotional intelligence at work. But first, as Hoban says, you must recognize what you are feeling.

The roots of emotional intelligence date back to the 1990s, with scholarship and books on the subject. In 2019, three decades after the term was introduced, Brackett wrote Permission to Feel to summarize the science and the practices behind it. “We’re still in the awareness-building phase,” says Brackett. “The skill-building phase is the hardest, and we need to put a lot more attention to it.”

Defining the feelings.

It’s easier to make the case for emotional intelligence by defining what it is not: being the life of the party.

I made the mistake of thinking people with high emotional intelligence are charismatic, outgoing, the type of people who can not just read the room but work it.

Actually, says Brackett, “that’s one-eighth of 1% of what emotional intelligence is. It’s always interesting what the business world thinks emotional intelligence is. In its simplest form, it’s about being intelligent about how you use your emotions.”

Understand how others are feeling.

Next in importance to recognizing your own feelings is recognizing others’, especially as their manager. “Is it anger or rage? Happiness or contentment? In the workplace, a big deal is safety and can I be my true self with you, or will you use that emotion against me?”

He cited a study examining the emotional intelligence of supervisors and how people felt. Notably, “their productivity in the group was higher if their leader had higher emotional intelligence, with significant differences in inspiration, frustration, burnout” among workers, said Brackett.

Regulate your feelings.

One of the reasons people don’t associate emotional intelligence with work is because we are wrongly taught to leave emotions out of the workplace.

“You don’t leave your emotions anywhere,” explains Hoban. “Historically as a leader, you turned down volume on emotions. Instead you want to be able to regulate that emotional labor.”

Sometimes, just knowing you can regulate feelings leads leaders to feel calm and exude a much calmer-yet-still-authentic feeling to staff. Hoban used an example that has come up with many managers of late: whether to return to work in person.

“Let them see that I too struggle,” she says. “Vulnerability is knowing that the answer to ‘what’s going to happen next month’ might be ‘I don’t know. How do you feel about it?’ Instead of having an answer. You want to create a safer environment for the employee to be seen. And yet also it’s important for the manager to not feel they carry the entire organization on their back.”

Emotional intelligence, when regulated in this manner, can lead to better relationships among colleagues.

It’s not a girl thing.

Everybody has feelings. Full stop.

Now, do men have a harder time with emotional intelligence? The answer depends on many factors, such as the culture of the workplace, and where they rank within.

“Feelings have been cast as feminine, other than anger,” explains Brackett. “But women feel uncomfortable expressing emotions as they get a higher rank in the organization.”

There are also differences in skill around what you do to regulate emotions and in general, the experts say women are more skilled than men.

You can get pretty far without emotional intelligence but then….

Many of the clients and workplaces the pair works with are hospitals or technical companies, including the above example of salespeople (who were mostly twenty-something engineering graduates). What feels necessary is to start weaving in lessons around emotional intelligence earlier and earlier in people’s career trajectories. “People are reinforced and rewarded for their technical skills and academic abilities,” said Brackett. “That’s what they have experienced their whole life. Then they are managing a team. It’s a different skillset. Managing people is not the same thing as getting your doctorate.”

People who report to you, for example, will want direction and feedback. Feedback offered by people with high emotional intelligence is a gift. But otherwise, says Brackett, it can be a nightmare.

Why this training matters so much, right now.

Chances are, the idea of a 50-step program or any additional training right now makes you want to scream. (Remember, you can regulate this reaction.)

The emotional intelligence app designed by Hoban and Brackett costs $349, is self-paced, and requires individual commitment and reflection. “Adults learn better when they struggle with a concept before they are given the answer,” says Hoban. She says diversity training, to name one example, rests upon someone having emotional intelligence. “How can I possibly grapple with their biases if they don’t know how they feel. Emotional intelligence work is foundational for more challenging topics.”

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