What’s this guy feeling?
Can you tell, based only on his facial expression? Take a guess.
d. None of the above
This guy, by the way, is Marc Brackett, Ph.D. — a Yale University Psychologist and Director of Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence. I’ll tell you soon what emotion he’s expressing in that photo. First, though, let me explain why your guess was probably wrong.
One of the biggest obstacles to developing emotional intelligence, and instilling it in our organizations, is that many of us first need to unlearn a lot of incorrect beliefs. Here are a few examples.
Misconception 1: I’m good at reading people’s emotions.
Unfortunately, for most of us, accurately reading other people’s emotional states based on their facial expressions is essentially a coin toss.
Researchers at Princeton University found that when they showed stock photos of people expressing a range of emotions — like Dr. Brackett’s image above — the average person correctly identified the emotion only 50% of the time. As I said, it’s a coin toss.
The study found that people were more accurate when studying both facial expressions and body language. But that led researchers to uncover another big misconception: We tend to over-rely on people’s facial expressions to read their moods. In fact, 80% of participants said they would rely only on the face.
Oh, and Dr. Brackett’s expression? Sadness.
Misconception 2: We’re here to do business, not talk about our feelings.
This error should have run its course by now, particularly given all the highly publicized research indicating millions of employees left their jobs during the Great Resignation largely due to interpersonal conflicts and poor management.
Pew Research’s 2021 study, for example, found that 57% of employees who quit did so because they felt disrespected at work.
Emotions affect everything we do — including our decisions, judgment, and productivity at work. Improving employees’ and managers’ abilities to regulate their emotions (and co-regulate the emotions of colleagues) can make a big difference in a company’s success.
It’s also possible to go too far in expressing our emotions at work and allowing those emotions to guide our decisions and behaviors, even if we believe they are the right emotions to have. Yes, many employees would like their supervisors to express more appreciation and gratitude for their work. But when a CEO posted a photo of himself crying after a round of layoffs at his company, it had the opposite effect he was hoping for. He clearly wanted to show vulnerability and that he cared, but the public viewed it instead as tone-deaf and self-indulgent grandstanding.
This is one of many reasons that EI is such a difficult skill to get right — and why it requires training and practice. Choosing when to express emotions is part of emotional intelligence, too.
Misconception 3: You’re either born with emotional intelligence or not.
This misconception is the exact opposite of reality. Nobody is born with emotional intelligence. These skills need to be learned.
And we certainly can learn them.
Cognitive Scientist Delphine Nelis and her colleagues conducted an emotional intelligence training study, teaching participants how to increase their ability to understand and analyze their emotions and the emotions of others, as well as regulate their own emotions. When they tested this group directly after these sessions, researchers found the participants had significantly improved in all of these skills.
In fact, when Nelis and her colleagues re-tested this group later, they found their emotional intelligence improvements were still holding strong after six months.
Why We Advocate for Emotional Intelligence Training
So, why is it worthwhile to dispel these myths about emotional intelligence and embrace the concept of building this skill set — for individuals, teams, and entire organizations? Here are some of the key reasons we’re such strong advocates for EI training.
1. It improves attention, memory, and learning capacity.
A big component of emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and regulate our emotional state at any given moment. That skill set can help us avoid the frustration and wasted effort of trying to pay attention in a meeting or learning situation when we’re experiencing anxiety or distractions that would only undermine our attention.
EI can help us regulate those emotions — often using simple tactics that take just minutes to implement — and put ourselves in a calmer and more clear-headed frame of mind before walking into a situation that demands our full attention and ability to process new information.
2. It improves decision-making.
Because emotions color our judgment about everything we do, a high degree of emotional intelligence will help us make better decisions at work and in life.
Imagine an employee in a meeting has presented a proposal and receives strong pushback from a colleague. The employee could misinterpret the criticism as disrespect, leading to a defensive posture and a heated conversation that could escalate. The high-EI employee, however, would recognize their emotional reaction and regulate their mood to achieve a greater calm, thereby allowing them to more objectively consider the feedback offered. Decisions improve when emotions don’t exert an invisible influence.
The cumulative effect of these more thoughtful decisions can have a positive effect over time on teams, business units, and entire organizations.
3. It improves collaboration and creativity.
Yet another benefit of emotional intelligence in the workplace is that it fosters better team collaboration, which can unleash more of the team members’ creativity and innovation.
The ability for employees to think and act creatively in a work environment requires them to feel both connected to their colleagues and psychologically safe proposing ideas and trying new things.
If an employee proposes a new idea to a coworker and interprets that coworker’s quiet intensity during the presentation as aggressiveness or disgust, that will likely have the effect of tamping down the employee’s creativity (or at least the willingness to share it) in the future.
But if the employee has learned key emotional intelligence skills, such as reframing — where we interpret people’s emotions in a more favorable light — the employee might come away with a completely different interpretation of the colleague’s reaction. Perhaps, for example, the intense expression simply indicates that this individual is deep in thought, processing the idea.
To bring this post full circle: No, we’re not very good at reading other people. But although no one is born with these skills, we can learn them. And doing so can have tremendous benefits for us and our businesses. This is why emotional intelligence training should be a top priority for any organization.