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Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace

Fernandez, Claudia S. P.

Section Editor(s): Baker, Edward L. MD, MPH, MSc

Journal of Public Health Management and Practice: January-February 2007 - Volume 13 - Issue 1 - p 80–82
The Management Moment

The Management Moment is a regular column within the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice. Edward L. Baker, MD, MPH, MSc, is serving as the Management Moment Editor. Dr Baker is Director of the North Carolina Institute for Public Health, School of Public Health, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This column provides commentary and guidance on timely management issues commonly encountered in public health practice.

Edward L. Baker, MD, MPH, MSc, is Director, North Carolina Institute for Public Health, School of Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Claudia S. P. Fernandez, DrPH, RD, LDN, directs several leadership institutes at the North Carolina Institute for Public Health, including the ACOG Leadership Institute and the leadership core of the Food Systems Leadership Institute. She is past-Director of the Emerging Leaders in Public Health Leadership Institute for minority leaders and the Southeast Public Health Leadership Institute.

Corresponding author: Claudia S. P. Fernandez, DrPH, RD, LDN, North Carolina Institute for Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, CB 8165, Chapel Hill, NC 27599 (e-mail:

Traditional public health training does a very good job at preparing professionals with the requisite “hard” technical skills they need to have in order to protect the public's health. But most traditional training programs do not excel at teaching that other critical ingredient, the soft skills.

Hard skills are the easy ones, the ones you had classes in way back in school. They are the budget and strategic issues, the scientific application to surveillance, assessment, and care—those issues of fact finding and data recall that represent the technical sides of the field. People with good technical skills often get ahead and progress well through the early stages of their careers. However, people with poor soft skills often derail later in their careers. Soft skills relate to those sticky areas that cause organizational problems—the interpersonal issues.

Reuven Bar-On labels these skills collectively as “Emotional Intelligence,” and describes them as an array of noncognitive (emotional and social) capabilities, competencies, and skills that influence one's ability to succeed in coping with environmental demands and pressures.1,2 Emotional intelligence is more than having a thick skin or a sense of empathy for others. It is a genuine ability to feel emotions in response to others, understand what you are feeling, understand how others are feeling, and to move forward constructively with the interests of the larger group at heart. It has to do with building bridges and alliances—and being able to mend those bridges and alliances if they get damaged. The ability to empathize, be resilient in the face of difficulty, and manage one's impulses and stress all fall into the realm of emotional intelligence. In other words, emotional intelligence enables us to make our way in a complex world.

The Emotional Intelligence Quotient, or EQ, has emerged as a tool to describe how one uses their soft skills. It is at the core of much of the leadership literature these days and is a great focus of research for business and industry leaders as well as human resource departments.

Reflect on the five most challenging work situations you have faced. How many represent budget woes or strategic planning issues? How many revolve around the results of faulty communication, organizational culture problems, the inability of individuals to understand one another, or their inability to grasp the impacts of their own actions or inaction? While we all have faced budget headaches, it is those latter situations that are the stuff of most organizational migraines.

As a public health manager, you can reap benefits from understanding, exercising, and developing your emotional intelligence. First, EQ is not Intelligence Quotient, or IQ. Intelligence Quotient is concerned with one's capacity to understand information, to learn new information, to recall data, and to think rationally. EQ is also not aptitude, achievement, vocational interest, or personality. Are you reading this laundry list and thinking, “Well, that basically sums up everything that is important in the world?” Think again.

In their book The EQ Edge,3 psychologist Steven Stein and psychiatrist Howard Book discuss how success at work is related to both IQ and EQ. They note that IQ has been shown to predict an average of 6% of success in a given job, while EQ has been shown to be directly responsible for between 27 and 45 percent of job success (depending on the field under study). The authors note that having a high IQ and an underdeveloped EQ can hold an otherwise smart professional back, commenting that, “regardless of how brainy we may be, if we turn others off with abrasive behavior, are unaware of how we are presenting ourselves or cave in under minimal stress, no one will stick around long enough to notice our high IQs.”

Our understanding of the neurological basis for some of these phenomena was aided by an amazing case study, based on a railway construction accident back in 1848 in Cavendish, Vermont.4 On September 13th of that year, a young foreman named Phineas Gage, capable and efficient, a shrewd and smart business man, met with tragedy: an accidental explosion from a charge that he had set blew his 3-ft 7-in tamping iron right through his head. The 13½-lb iron rod took with it much of the left front side of his brain. Reports show that, surprisingly, he did not lose consciousness and that, after some months of recuperation, he actually returned to work. Unfortunately his personality had changed so much that his previous employers would not rehire him. As Gage expert Malcolm Macmillan reports, poor Phineas Gage was now described as “fitful, irreverent, and grossly profane, showing little deference for his fellows. He was also impatient and obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, unable to settle on any of the plans he devised for future action. His friends said he was ‘No longer Gage.’”

Today, the concept that a part of the brain actually governs—in a predictable way—how emotions are processed and shared with the outside world led psychologists, such as Daniel Goleman,5 to develop the theory and research on emotional intelligence. And while IQ and personality are static, relatively unchanging components of who we are, the emotional intelligence we have turns out to be something we can nurture and develop.

Today, emotional intelligence development is one of the most common reasons people seek executive coaching: strong EQ skills can give one a competitive advantage in the workplace and make worklife far more pleasant. As Peter Drucker stresses in Management Challenges for the 21st Century, self-awareness and the capacity to build mutually satisfying relationships provide the backbone of strong management.6

EQ experts group the major skills of emotional intelligence into the arenas of personal competence—self-awareness and self-management—and social competence—social awareness and relationship management. The latter builds upon the former. One important point about knowing yourself: it is not about being perfect or having complete control over your emotions; rather it is about understanding your feelings and how they guide your behavior—for better or worse. The biggest obstacle most people face in developing their EQ is the distinct discomfort that comes from facing up to one's own shortcomings, a.k.a. “self awareness.” Seeing yourself accurately can sting the sensitivities somewhat, but it is a necessary ingredient to EQ growth.7,8

Managers with good emotional intelligence make getting the best out of their direct reports look easy. They are good at motivating others and, as Executive Coach, Thomas Hayden writes,9 they “find common ground for solving conflicts, managing stress levels, and providing needed direction for any team effort. Rather than simply managing a business, group or team, they create an atmosphere of cohesion and creativity. Leaders with EQ possess an uncanny ability to manage up as well.” As you can see, these are some of the most important skills you can have.

By now you are probably wondering what your EQ is and how you can nurture it. The most accepted tool measuring EQ is called the Bar-On Emotional Quotient Inventory, or EQi.1 This instrument breaks EQ down into 5 major areas and 15 minor ones or subscales. The five overarching areas include Intrapersonal (dealing with yourself), Interpersonal (dealing with others), Stress Management, Adaptability and General Mood. The instrument is used in targeted selection programs to match EQ with job fit for several industries, including the US military, the FBI, insurance firms, and customer service divisions of corporations, to name a few. It is used in many leadership and management development programs, such as the Southeast Public Health Leadership Institute, the Food Systems Leadership Institute, as well as executive coaching programs.

Short of enrolling in a leadership institute or an executive coaching session, a good way to understand and develop your own EQ is to reflect on what seems to make the difference for others who are successful and focus on those issues for yourself. In a study of 16,222 individuals, five EQ-i subscale categories emerged as significantly related to overall work success. These included self-actualization, optimism, stress tolerance, happiness, and assertiveness. Let us look at these in more detail.

Self-actualization is the ability to realize one's potential capacities and to lead a rich and meaningful life. The theory goes that people who feel a sense of fulfillment work harder, are more pleasant to be around, and have an edge on productivity and teamwork.

Optimism and stress tolerance have to do with how you handle adversity and challenges. How you “muddle through” when adversity cannot be avoided is what is important. Optimism is defined as the ability to look at the brighter side of life and to maintain a positive attitude even in the face of adversity. People who can still see the light at the end of the tunnel or the silver lining are not easily defeated and demoralized by the bumps and bruises along the way.

Similarly, stress tolerance is the ability to withstand adverse events and stressful situations without falling apart, the use of coping strategies to weather difficult situations and avoid being overwhelmed by adversity. Certainly, getting overwhelmed and falling apart has a negative relationship with productivity at work.

Happiness is a somewhat surprising EQ strength for success at work. Who knew that the ability to feel satisfied with one's life, to enjoy oneself and others, and to have fun would improve work performance? The theory is that happy people show enthusiasm at both play and work and that this attitude infuses their relationships. Happy people can easily attract and build relationships with others, according to the research of Stein and Book,3 while people who are sad have little enthusiasm or energy to share with their colleagues, and both their work and their relationships show it.

Assertiveness, the final of the top five, is more complex. It involves three major components of standing up for yourself, with the common characteristics that this is done in a nondestructive manner and maintained even if the stance taken is not popular. Assertiveness is the ability to express one's feelings, to express thoughts and beliefs openly (even if it is emotionally difficult to do so and even if there is personal risk involved), and the ability to stand up for one's personal rights by not allowing others to bother or take advantage of you. It is the opposite of being shy and it is the opposite of being a bully, abusive, or aggressive. People who are assertive can arrive at a constructive compromise, creating the much-sought-after win-win solution. They can walk the fine line, defending their deeply held beliefs, disagreeing with others, and yet not resorting to emotional sabotage or subterfuge. They respect the other person's point of view and are sensitive to their needs. Sounds like a tough recipe? Well, the most successful people at work have figured that one out.

So if you want to get ahead, to inspire your direct reports to make the most of their talents, and to maximize your own productivity, then perhaps taking another course on budgets or epidemiological evidence is not what you really need. Perhaps it is time to take stock of your happiness, your stress level, your ability to constructively give voice to your views, to be fulfilled, and have fun. Perhaps it is time to use the EQ framework to take more than a passing glance at that silver lining and give more weight to the bright side of attitude. We encourage you to learn more about EQ. After all, it is what your successful peers are doing. They—and their colleagues—are better off for it.

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© 2007 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.