Is Your Lack of Emotional Intelligence Holding Your Career Back?

Angela Colley — Ask an Insider

It might sound like a corporate buzzword, but emotional intelligence—and how well you use yours—can make or break major milestones in your career. A high EQ can score you the promotion you’ve been eyeing or help you deal with a tricky boss. A low EQ, on the other hand, could seriously hold you back.

But knowing how (and when) to keep your emotions in check at work isn’t easy. We spoke with Debra Boggs, MSM, co-founder of D&S Professional Coaching, to get some tips on how to make your EQ work for you.

We hear a lot about emotional intelligence, or EQ. How can having it (or not having it) impact your career? 

EQ can have a huge impact on your career. Not having a strong EQ can cause you to have trouble connecting with co-workers, relating to your boss, and interacting well with your clients and customers.

Is having a higher EQ important to moving up the ladder into a management role? If you have all the right training and experience, could having a lower understanding of the emotional side of business keep you from getting promoted? 

Absolutely! I have seen very talented professionals who had experience and education, but who were not able to adapt their communication or actions to the social situation and were not self-aware enough to take constructive feedback. As a result, they were either passed over for promotion or quickly removed after starting a position that needed a higher EQ than they possessed.

I once worked with a director of a department who could not take feedback in meetings and lashed out in anger at her boss and co-workers. She did not last long in that position.

Once you do land a job, how often do you think emotions come into play in a workplace? Is it normal for people to feel emotionally tied to or emotionally burdened by their jobs?  

It is impossible for most people to be unaffected by emotions in the workplace. Some people in stressful and toxic work environments can even get sick, gain weight, or experience health issues. Positive work environments and a healthy work culture can affect people as well — employees often feel emotionally connected to their co-workers and feel a responsibility to do their part to help the team. They may also feel an increased affinity for their workplace and the work that they do, especially in non-profit organizations.

What steps can you take to keep those emotions in check, especially when things get stressful? 

Everyone can get overwhelmed. In the heat of the moment, it is important to take a step back and think about how your email, words, faces, reactions, etc. might be perceived by your boss or co-workers. Sometimes this means waiting to respond to an e-mail that causes stress, or remaining silent in a meeting and following up with a response after you’ve had a chance to think through the situation.

Make sure not to respond in an inappropriate way, even if you think your boss or co-workers won’t know. A woman was on a video conference with her boss the other day and was very stressed and unhappy about receiving feedback for improvement. Because she thought her camera was turned off, she made exasperated faces and a very rude gesture on video to her boss, C-level leaders, and an outside consultant without knowing it. This is a great example of how losing your temper can have very bad consequences for your career.

Speaking of, do you believe the hype about attitude? Experts often say that having a positive attitude at work is contagious, but does that really trickle down to your coworkers? 

Absolutely! Those with a high EQ and a positive attitude can lift up others around them, empower their teams to make decisions, and communicate openly — all of which contribute to a healthy workplace. No one gossips or complains to the person who is always smiling and encouraging others to do their best work. Negativity breeds negativity and vice versa.

Let’s say you let your anger or stress get the best of you and you either said or did something you later wished you didn’t. How do you regroup and move past it?

The best option is to get in front of it by apologizing proactively to your boss or co-workers and offering suggestions to keep it from happening again in the future. Admitting you were wrong is hard for everyone, but it can go a long way in demonstrating EQ and your ability to do better in the future.

How do you deal with coworkers who have a lack of emotional intelligence? 

The best way to deal is to first understand they have a low EQ and to not take their interactions personally, because it is the best they can do. Not taking everything on as a personal attack will help a lot.

What about bosses? What’s the best way to interact with a jerky boss on a day-to-day basis?

The best way to interact with a difficult boss is to proactively find out how they like to work and how they like to manage. If they are a micromanager and want constant updates on work in progress, give them constant updates proactively. If they want to communication in person rather than e-mail, make sure to visit their office if you have a question. Catering to their management and work style will help a lot.

The other thing to keep in mind with a difficult boss is to make sure to document everything. Send follow-ups on topics discussed after meetings, keep e-mails, etc. in case they turn hostile in the future.

What about bigger issues with management? What if, for example, you feel like you’re being treated differently because you’re a woman or excluded from special projects because you’re younger than your coworkers? How do you deal?

One of the ways to do this is to meet with your leaders to discuss your career trajectory and professional development goals. That way, you can have a clear understanding of what it takes to earn a specific promotion and you can have a plan of action to work towards that goal. Be wary of a workplace that is not interested in supporting your professional development or can’t help you become better at what you do. That is not a workplace that will invest in your future.

Finally, do you believe people can build emotional intelligence as they go on in their careers? And if you can, how can you use that to leverage yourself into better jobs?

I think people can build EQ throughout their careers if they are self-aware enough to know they need to and are open to feedback and change.

Challenge yourself by working with new groups or in a new environment. You can find a mentor or professional coach who can work with you on communication. And you can also seek feedback from your boss and others to check in on how you’re doing and areas for improvement.