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Working Under Pressure: Emotional Intelligence in the Work Place


Why do some smart people fail? Why do some technically brilliant individuals have trouble managing others and collaborating in a team?  And why do some people believe that they aren’t clever enough to do what they love, regardless of their academic qualifications? 

It is not because they lack intelligence or specific skills. Far from it. What they lack is a critical level of Emotional Intelligence (EI) and the ability to acknowledge and manage their own emotions.  Yet talking about feelings at work is a taboo subject and sends many running back to their offices, quickly closing their doors behind them. By learning how to develop and use your emotional intelligence more effectively however, you will not only learn how to better manage pressure at work, but to improve all your personal and professional relationships. 

What Is EI? 

One of the first psychologists to describe ‘non-academic’ intelligence was Edward Lee Thorndike (1), and it was almost 100 years ago in 1920 that the term ‘social intelligence’ was identified. Fast forward to 1990, when two researchers, Peter Salovey of Yale University and John D. Mayer of the University of New Hampshire (2), developed the idea of ‘emotional intelligence’, and who defined it as "the subset of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one's own and others' feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one's thinking and actions" (1990). It was up to the now famous Daniel Goleman (3) however, to provide a model of EI that could be applied in practical terms, and whose book with the simple title ‘Emotional Intelligence’ (1995), has sold over five million copies worldwide. 

Why Is EI Important? 

It is probably no coincidence that EI became a buzz word at a time when the world was still wildly in love with new technology in the form of the internet and mobile telephones.  Within the space of five years we went from having face to face conversations with each other on a daily basis, to being able to communicate with colleagues on the other side of the world without having to leave our desks. Regrettably the instances of burnout, depression and worse have also increased (4) and because of what the experts in neuroscience have taught us about how the brain creates new neural pathways when learning new things (5) we also know that the less we use a part of our brain (for example our ability to learn a language), the more likely it is that we simply forget how to do it – or we tell ourselves that we are no longer able. So it is with EI.  The more we focus on tapping with our fingers to get the letters in the correct order to make up words on our laptops and mobile ‘phones (strengthening our mechanical intelligence), the more we lose our ability to express how we feel, even if it is just to acknowledge that we’re upset or excited. 

Making the changes 

Daniel Goleman’s EI model defines five elements and it is these elements around which I have built the following approach to reducing pressure in the work place. Self-Awareness: Your initial awareness of stress happens in your body before you are aware of it as a thought.  The next time you feel the pressure start to rise, take note of where it is happening in your body.  Do you clench your fists or grind your teeth?  Do you feel a tightness in your chest or throat, or does your stomach start churning?  Recognising the physical manifestation of your stress before using logic to blame a person or situation will help you in the next step of EI. 

Self-Management: If you try to control your emotions, for example by telling yourself to pull yourself together when things go wrong, it is the same as putting a lid on a pot of boiling water – at some point the water will boil over. Managing your emotions is the same as turning the heat down and whilst there are many easy techniques you can use to handle your stress levels (for example meditation, writing a journal, or using the emotional freedom technique), it’s important to take the time to find out which one works best for you. One quick way to momentarily relieve pressure is to change your breathing (also known as a pattern interrupter). Inhale for the count of three and exhale for the count of five. Even 30 seconds of breathing differently will provide emotional release.

Motivation: If you’re working with people you don’t like, doing a job you don’t enjoy, in an environment where you don’t feel comfortable, start looking for a new job. We all have to pay the bills and whilst money is important, a prolonged lack of motivation will make you ill.

Empathy: Suspend and/or release your judgement of others.  We perceive and judge those around us according to our own values and beliefs. We don’t have to agree with the opinions of everyone.  We don’t even have to understand them.  We simply need to be able to allow others to be themselves, just as we want to be acknowledged for who we are. 

People Skills:  Do you enjoy being told what to do? In my experience one of the greatest management tools we have today is coaching because it encourages and empowers individuals to take responsibility for their contribution. By moving from a ‘push’ to a ‘pull’ approach, you’ll find that not only does productivity in the work place increase, you’ll also be working in a team that communicates clearly and honestly. 

Still not convinced? 

Several major players in the corporate world take the issue of emotional intelligence very seriously.  In September 2015, Ernst & Young in the UK announced that it was going to be scrapping the compulsory requirement for a university degree for its employees. Cap Gemini, providing professional services on a global scale, added considerable weight to the significance of Ernst & Young’s decision by announcing that it would be hiring future consultants straight out of school (no college degree required!). Why?  Because what is the use of having an accountant with an amazing understanding of tax laws if they are unable to communicate agreeably with their colleagues or clients?  What would the point be of putting an employee who was great at sales in an office where no-one spoke to each other?  EI is about using our emotions for our well-being. It’s about managing ourselves and managing how we behave in our relationships with others.  In an ideal world, EI is about communicating in such a way as to work and live in harmony. 

EI And You 

Developing your emotional intelligence takes time.  You have probably been behaving, reacting and responding to people and situations in a certain way for many years, and as with any new learning, your logical brain will need to get used to doing things differently. 

If nothing else, please remember that the only person responsible for your emotions is you.  Only you can choose how to feel. No-one else can make you feel happy or sad, angry or excited, unless you allow them to. 

In Summary 

The subject of EI is vast and its relevance will continue to grow as the impact of globalisation and technological developments changes the way that we communicate with each other. In particular, working with people from a multitude of cultures requires great self-awareness and multi-national businesses are already making the necessary changes to support their staff because they know that academic excellence does not equal a great leader, manager or team. EI isn’t fluffy; EI is critical to your future success. 


Author Gwyneth Letherbarrow

Gwyneth Letherbarrow

Gwyneth is a Personal Branding Strategist and Professional Development Coach, Author and Speaker. Born in England, she spent 25 years working throughout Europe and the Balkans, building and managing multi-cultural teams.

After gaining her MBA with the OU and qualifying as a coach, she established her own consultancy based on her understanding and experience of complex workplace challenges. She now provides specialist consultancy services, online training, and workshops all over the world to help people working in an international business environment discover their personal brand and transform the way that they communicate, market and promote themselves.

Visit if you would like to get in touch or subscribe to the Feelgood Coaching and Consulting Mailing List for Gwyneth’s Fabulous Feelgood Friday emails. 

© Gwyneth Letherbarrow, 2018 
Reviewed 2022

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