For decades scholars have debated the relative importance of cognitive intelligence (IQ) versus emotional intelligence (EQ) to workplace performance. Research shows both are helpful. However, in the era of COVID-19, my bet is on emotional intelligence playing a much stronger role.
Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and regulate emotions in ways that help us think more clearly and work with others more effectively. Such an ability is a superpower for managing uncertainty and ambiguity—something everyone is experiencing these days.
For example, many employees are being asked to come back to the office. This is causing employees to adjust their routines and deal with vague and constantly changing COVID-19 policies. Some are adjusting to a completely remote work environment. Others are still trying to figure out what exactly a hybrid work environment entails. Worse yet, some are unemployed and fighting through Zoom-only interviews. These experiences are emotionally demanding and necessitate conversations with others that require tact and empathy.
In research with my colleagues at Miami University, we’ve found that emotional intelligence might be particularly well-suited for dealing with work-related challenges. In our 2018 study published in the “Journal of Organizational Behavior,” we asked 157 undergraduates to complete a well-validated, ability-based emotional intelligence assessment. We then contacted them in a follow-up survey more than 10 years later, when these same individuals were adults with full-time jobs.
From our research, we found that the higher employees were in emotional intelligence, the more likely they would overcome one of the biggest challenges of their work-life—employment gaps—breaks in employment that are either involuntary (like a termination) or voluntary (like a gap used to care for family).
Specifically, we found that employees higher in emotional intelligence were not only more likely to get back on their feet, but also to find jobs that aligned with their skills, within organizations that aligned with their values. This is important, because person-job fit and person-organization fit relate to a host of beneficial outcomes, such as job satisfaction and employee performance.
Prior work has focused on why emotional intelligence improves performance “in the moment.” This is too narrow. Work success is a marathon, not a sprint. Your cognitive intelligence might help you solve a problem quickly and efficiently at any one point in time. Emotional intelligence, however, is a long-term game. Success is more likely when one properly manages moment-to-moment emotions and interactions with others over a long period of time, which eventually facilitates future success.
To help illustrate this point, consider another study published by my colleague, Dr. Joseph Rode, and his team, in the “Journal of Vocational Behavior.” The study investigated whether emotional intelligence was related to long-term salary; a popular indicator of objective career success. In this study 126 undergraduates completed an emotional intelligence assessment, and were then surveyed more than 10 years later. As expected, emotional intelligence was strongly associated with higher salaries, even after controlling for cognitive intelligence factors like IQ and grade point average.
Even more interesting is why this seemed to happen. Individuals higher in emotional intelligence had higher salaries because they had at least one mentor—someone who holds a senior position (and not necessarily their manager) that takes an active interest in developing the individual’s career. This signals that the reason emotional intelligence is important for success is that it helps people navigate work by seeking out the support of others, something that is emotional and psychosocial in nature.
In work environments where volatility and change are ever-present, performance becomes more of a long-term endeavor. It’s about staying afloat and keeping the long-term goal in mind by artfully taking up resources. This suggests that during the era of COVID-19 employees should be considering several emotionally intelligent approaches to work. Along those lines, outlined below are some of the key elements of emotional intelligence and descriptions of how they relate to the current work environment.
Self-awareness entails recognizing your emotions and how they are connected to your thoughts and behaviors. This might be especially important with dealing with burnout, which is at an all-time high. You can’t operate at your full capacity if you’re not realistic about the degree to which you are emotionally exhausted.
Additionally, as organizations begin implementing new policies on working in the office, from home, or some combination of the two, it’s important that you are aware of how this affects you. You are responsible for maximizing your work while maintaining your sanity given your unique needs, tendencies, and preferences.
Further, other awareness is important. Other awareness entails recognizing the emotions of others. This manifests as being more empathetic, such that you recognize the needs of others. It can also manifest as being attuned to the sociocultural dynamics of situations.
We’re in a phase of work where work-home balance has taken a back-seat to work-home integration. Give others the benefit of the doubt about their energy and availability; be empathetic and work hard at having transparent and authentic interactions. Additionally, tread lightly on conversations about COVID-19, as not everyone will agree on the best way forward. Opinions vary widely on several issues, such as when and whether it’s safe to return to the office and whether or not to get vaccinated.
Self-regulation entails being able to manage your emotions in ways that are healthy and situation-appropriate. You are able to separate stimulus from response such that you can choose to respond to stimuli in ways that are most appropriate.
Keep in mind that everyone handles change differently. If you are lower in tolerance for ambiguity, for example, learn how to self-regulate and manage your emotions so that they don’t cloud your judgment. Relatedly, if there are return-to-work- policies that you disagree with, it’s important to control emotionally charged reactions that might result in decisions you later regret.
Relationship management entails knowing how to develop and maintain good relationships, communicate clearly, inspire and influence others, work well in a team, and manage conflict.
When work gets challenging, we tend to become more self-interested as opposed to collective-minded. Keep in mind that team success tends to trickle down to individual success. And, your colleagues are your primary source of coping resources—whether it be for social support or through collaborative problem-solving.
Work is not a never-ending series of Rubik’s Cubes that need to be solved. If it were, cognitive intelligence alone would be fine. Instead, today’s work environment is more like being stuck inside an escape room experience with your teammates, but with vague instructions and blindfolds. Cognitive intelligence can’t hurt—but if the chaos of the past year continues, emotional intelligence will become increasingly paramount to success.
Scott Dust, PhD, is a management professor at the Farmer School of Business, Miami University, and the chief research officer at Cloverleaf, an HR-tech platform that helps organizations create amazing teams.