Getting a handle on emotional intelligence can smooth the way for a diverse workplace

January 20, 2013 - by: Diversity Insight 0 COMMENTS

by Tammy Binford

Proponents of a diverse workforce understand that an employee group made up of all ages, races, and cultural backgrounds has a lot to offer. In spite of the advantages of diversity, though, employees’ differences can lead to a lack of understanding that holds everybody back. But is there a secret to capitalizing on the strengths diversity brings to the workplace?

An understanding of “emotional intelligence” may be that key to getting past the downsides and realizing the rewards of diversity. Emotional intelligence–how well a person is able to control emotions and understand the emotions of others–is a concept that’s been around for decades. Notably, it’s the subject of a handful of best-selling books by psychologist and journalist Daniel Goleman, whose books include Emotional Intelligence: 10th Anniversary Edition; Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (published in 2006) and Leadership: The Power of Emotional Intelligence (published in 2011).

In the introduction to his 1995 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, Goleman asks, “What factors are at play, for example, when people of high IQ flounder and those of modest IQ do surprisingly well? I would argue that the difference quite often lies in the abilities called here emotional intelligence, which include self-control, zeal and persistence, and the ability to motivate oneself.”

Emotional intelligence in action
Tony Ellison, CEO of, has seen the principles of emotional intelligence work well in his company, an online office supply retailer based in New York. He says it’s his goal to foster an environment where people coming from different backgrounds can be successful as a team.

Ellison doesn’t necessarily use the term emotional intelligence internally. Instead, he said, he aspires to a holistic approach that says, “Your attitude at work counts.” Employees who can be confident that they’re valued in spite of–or because of–their differences are more likely to contribute to the company’s success.

“We have an overall tenet … respect your peer,” Ellison says. “Find ways to collaborate. Make sure your attitude at work is professional. Don’t let your emotions hold you as a prisoner. Don’t play the blame game.”

By fostering the right environment, people are allowed to interact and put their differences aside, Ellison says. That environment also doesn’t prohibit people from taking risks. They know they don’t have to be right all the time. “When you build a team together, you find out that being wrong is just about as good as being right,” he says, “because you learn from that process.”

Ellison says he wants the workplace climate to allow a diverse workforce to feel free to ask questions and seek help. “It doesn’t matter that you might be wrong. Making mistakes is OK as long as you learn from them,” he says.

People who possess self-control and are empathetic, aware, tolerant, and understanding of people who are different from them make the kind of employees Ellison seeks. He says diversity has made his company strong because employees are able to learn from everybody else in a collaborative environment.

Ellison says people need to understand an organization’s guidelines on how employees should treat each other, and that’s where HR comes in. HR must communicate the values so that employees realize what’s right and wrong.

Valued characteristic
Signs point to increasing importance being placed on employees with strong emotional intelligence. A 2011 survey from CareerBuilder found that 71 percent of employers taking part in a survey value emotional intelligence over IQ, and 34 percent of hiring managers said they’re putting more emphasis on emotional intelligence when hiring and promoting employees.

“The competitive job market allows employers to look more closely at the intangible qualities that pay dividends down the road–like skilled communicators and perceptive team players,” Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources at CareerBuilder, said. “Technical competency and intelligence are important assets for every worker, but when it’s down to you and another candidate for a promotion or new job, dynamic interpersonal skills will set you apart. In a recovering economy, employers want people who can effectively make decisions in stressful situations and can empathize with the needs of their colleagues and clients to deliver the best results.”

Assessing emotional intelligence
HR managers and hiring managers in the CareerBuilder survey said they assess job candidates’ and employees’ emotional intelligence by observing a variety of behaviors and qualities. The top responses for how to identify people with high emotional intelligence are:

  • They admit and learn from their mistakes.
  • They can keep emotions in check and have thoughtful discussions on tough issues.
  • They listen as much or more than they talk.
  • They take criticism well.
  • They show grace under pressure.


Tammy Binford writes and edits news alerts and newsletter articles on labor and employment law topics for BLR web and print publications. In addition, she writes for HR Hero Line and Diversity Insight, two of the ezines and blogs found on

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