Article: How HR can help make the workplace emotionally intelligent

A Brand Reachout InitiativeLife @ Work

How HR can help make the workplace emotionally intelligent

The blurring of personal and professional life calls for an emotionally intelligent employee. Here's how HR can help.
How HR can help make the workplace emotionally intelligent

Being ‘emotional’ and ‘professional’ are often misunderstood as being two polar opposites. It is assumed that an individual who is able to discharge their duties without showing any emotion is what a true professional is. The truth, however, is that emotions affect people, and people, in turn, affect the organization’s emotional climate.

For the longest time, we were told that the key to a good work-life balance and subsequent professional success was the ability to keep ‘personal’ and ‘professional’ domains of our lives separate. The reasoning that is often offered to justify this adage is the fact that one cannot afford to ‘take it personally’ when it comes to work, as this is a place where decisions are purely pragmatic and business-oriented in nature. On the other hand, we are encouraged to let our emotions, and not our reasoning guide our decision making on the personal front, especially when it comes to something that affects our loved ones. In reality, however, segregating the personal from the professional is futile, at best, as both are integral parts of our daily experiences. Similarly, we often mistake that being emotional and rational are mutually exclusive. 

Research on Emotional Intelligence, one of the latest buzz words in the corporate circle, over the last three decades has done well to bust the myth that emotions have no place in the professional setting. If anything, evidence suggests the opposite! When people come to work, they don’t leave behind their emotions at work, they bring them with them. And the experiences that they have at and outside work affects the feelings they express at work. Emotions affect everything we do at work – right from the relationships we share with our workmates and bosses, to how we negotiate our deadlines, to how we share the workload, and how we give and receive feedback. Since emotions are such a key variable affecting a wide range of outcomes at the workplace, it only makes sense that those who are better able to navigate emotions, both that of others and their own, in different situations are more likely to be successful at the workplace. 

The story of the New Idea: Mohan is a Sr. Manager in an MNC. His team has been struggling to finish a difficult project (Project X), with its deadline approaching fast. 

Mohan has recently come across an amazing idea for a new business opportunity for the firm and he is sure it would be a great success if implemented. He is extremely thrilled and can’t wait to share this idea with his bosses, and it appears infinitely more appealing than the monotonous Project X. 

What should Mohan do? Share the new idea with his bosses or concentrate on Project X.

Any time Mohan spends thinking or working on this new idea, he is losing time on the project that is due. It also runs the risk of his team perceiving him as someone who is not pulling their weight when the pressure is on. It must also be noted that Mohan’s lack of enthusiasm towards the work affects the morale of his team. The outcome may be that instead of being commended for sharing a wonderful idea, he may be pulled up for not prioritizing work. 

As an emotionally intelligent person, Mohan puts his head down and goes through the grind for the rest of the project, without letting his dislike towards the work affect the team morale. He understands that the bosses are more likely to respond to a new idea when the organizational climate is less tense. 

Pitching a new idea, therefore, is as much about when and how you pitch it, as it is about the quality of the idea itself!

One must remember here that ‘managing emotions’ does not mean masking one’s true emotion. In fact, research has shown that our emotions don’t have to be expressed in a grand or overly obvious for others to pick up on them. While some people are able to mask their emotions than others, even a slight non-verbal cue is enough to let on what we are feeling to another person. 

Take, for example, a situation in which you are communicating feedback to an employee you notice a change in their facial expression when they hear a negative comment. You see that they compose themselves the very next instant, and when you ask them how they feel at the end of the interaction, they thank you and mention that the interaction was extremely helpful for them. It is quite likely that despite the employee admitting that the conversation was helpful, you feel that they left the conversation with a bad taste.

Emotional intelligence, in this case, would mean the employee takes ownership of the negative emotion they were experiencing, and at the same time acknowledge the fact that while they initially felt bad, they were able to see the point behind the feedback; instead of labeling the whole experience as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Similarly, emotional intelligence on your part would mean being able to read between the lines of what the employee said to you, and not taking their statement towards the end of the conversation at face-value. 

Masking emotions, especially negative ones also come with significant emotional labour, or in other words the exhaustion one experiences as a result of spending substantial emotional energy. When we ‘put-on’ an emotion to cover for what we are actually experiencing; like avoiding sharing negative news with your colleagues, and instead pretending that everything is fine, it is not only likely to take a toll on our own emotional well-being (as constantly being ‘in character’ that everything is going well is tiring), it is also equally likely that your behaviour will be seen as odd or suspicious by your colleagues, thereby prompting speculation of the worst. Instead, if one were to acknowledge that things were challenging at the moment, but that a solution was being actively worked on, this would allow others to stop speculating, and take comfort in your honesty and reassurance. 

While managing emotions while at no point suggests that only negative emotions need to be managed (or in other words, repressed), there is evidence to show that positive approaches to situations are in fact advantageous from the point-of-view of cognitive processing. Positive thinking helps one do better, simply because processing negative thoughts takes a lot of our mental resources. It, therefore, does indicate that being to shake-off a negative mood and bring oneself back to a positive mood allows us to take in information which we would otherwise miss as our focus would be on negative emotions instead. 

Lastly, in an organization’s context, creating an Emotionally Intelligent workforce, leads to an innovative culture, full of positive conflict and energy. An emotionally intelligent workforce can moderate their behaviour and reactions as per the requirements of the customer, peer, supervisor or subordinate leading to optimal output. Given, the current context of diverse culture and educational background of the workforce, it increasingly becomes the responsibility of the Organization (or the Human Resource function) to build this culture and the competency.

What can HR Managers and People Managers do to make the workplace and employees ‘Emotionally Intelligent’?

  1. Enabling a culture of openness at the workplace: Enabling employees share concerns, appreciations, and feedback openly, without fear of a backlash

  2. Training Managers and Employees for milestone events: Providing training to Managers for handling milestone events like Appraisals, Layoffs, Developmental Feedback, Coaching / Mentoring to enable institutionalization of the culture across employee groups

  3. Train employees on Self Awareness / Emotional Intelligence: Identifying an emotion accurately, and early, enables individuals to manage it effectively. Being in touch with one’s emotions and being able to accurately distinguish one emotion from another allows them to identify a negative emotion – using both bodily, as well as mental cues. 

  4. Identify role models: Identify role models who are champions at managing emotions in the workplace. Explain how this has helped them become successful, both personally and professionally.



Barsade, S., & Gibson, D. (2007). Why does affect matter in organizations? Academy of Management Perspectives, 37-58.

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Topics: Life @ Work, Employee Relations

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