The Emotionally Intelligent Way to Engage Employees

Empathy, teamwork, and other abilities can go a long way to solving one of the toughest workplace challenges, says best-selling author Daniel Goleman.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, "Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body," is available now. 

You hear it everywhere these days: Employee engagement makes a huge difference. Executives seek the productivity such engagement brings, while employees increasingly desire fulfilling (read, “engaging”) work. Employee engagement means more than mere job satisfaction. While satisfied employees might do just well enough, they’re unlikely to put in that extra, discretionary effort that comes when they’re really engaged in their work. Then there’s the bonus for emotional climate that comes with true engagement; engaged employees are passionate about their work and committed to their organization’s purpose and business outcomes.

Gallup’s most recent State of the American Workplace report found that only 33% of the U.S. workforce is engaged. And only 21% of employees feel motivated to do outstanding work. These statistics are similar in other countries and, oddly, remain unchanged regardless of how the economy is doing.

High disengagement may be linked to evolving expectations for what work should and should not be. Millennials—who now comprise the largest generation in the U.S. workforce—more often than previous generations at the same point in their careers seek fulfilling and meaningful work. They want work-life balance, learning opportunities, and roles that align with their talents. Many organizations have yet to meet these expectations, though doing so would heighten engagement.

Moreover, organizations too often lack the performance management practices that have been proven to boost outcomes, such as giving employees the information and resources necessary to do their work well, offering recognition for good work, and valuing employee input. 

One strategy for increasing engagement would have leaders use their emotional intelligence to manage and develop their employees. Leaders with competencies in empathy, teamwork, coach and mentor, and inspirational leadership enhance the emotional climate in their organizations and more effectively engage employees.

All of these relationship management competencies require a foundation of empathy. Empathetic leaders can better read unspoken emotions, whether in a team or an individual, and listen attentively to understand where people are coming from. Employees who feel that their leaders care about them as people are more likely to in turn support their coworkers, use their creativity at work, and advocate for their employer.

Vanessa Druskat at the University of New Hampshire has done extensive research that shows the more collective emotional intelligence a team has, the better its business performance.  On teams the best leaders cultivate an atmosphere of respect and cooperation and establish emotionally intelligent team norms, like collective self-awareness. Such teams have high levels of trust and openness.

At the individual level leaders can help team members develop further strengths in EI by applying the coach and mentor competency. Effective coaches establish a mutual foundation of trust and help their employees set clear goals. They offer positive, constructive feedback to guide performance growth and help the individual further develop the skills that will enhance career development.

Leaders who inspire articulate a shared mission and offer a sense of common purpose beyond day-to-day tasks. Inspirational leaders create a shared sense of pride and hope in the face of daunting challenges. This sense of a shared mission particularly helps in retaining younger employees.

My colleague, Annie McKee, describes the impact of inspirational leadership on engagement in her book, How to Be Happy at Work:   

Seeing our work as an expression of cherished values and as a way to make a contribution is the foundation of well-being, happiness, and our ongoing success. Passion for a cause fuels energy, intelligence, and creativity.

When we can align our values with our work—and see the benefits for ourselves and others—we naturally become more motivated, even resilient. Meaningful engagement yields positive emotions that drive innovation and adaptability, making us excited about tackling new challenges.

Above all, engagement comes down to human connection, which is where EI really matters. When we do good work with people we trust and when together we align our work with our sense of meaning and passion, performance soars.

Click here to learn about Daniel Goleman’s facilitated online courses.