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Understanding emotional intelligence in the workplace: it’s not what you think

The value of emotional intelligence in the workplace is being promoted more than ever. Laura Rees, assistant professor of organizational behaviour at Smith School of Business, shares her key findings from her research on emotional intelligence and tips for navigating emotions at work. 


We’ve all heard about emotional intelligence, the ability to be aware of, manage, and express emotions — without sharing too much. Emotional intelligence is a hot topic around the water cooler these days. But there’s confusion. What does “emotional intelligence” actually mean? And how much emotion should you show at work?

When someone tells you to “manage your emotions,” what they’re really saying is suppress them. But is that always the right approach? Laura Rees, assistant professor of organizational behaviour at Smith School of Business, says no.

Laura studies emotions in the workplace. She believes feelings like anger, frustration and sadness are important and shouldn’t be overlooked. Emotions have enormous power to shape how people make decisions, she says. “It’s much better to understand them than to ignore them.” 

At BCG after university, Laura often worked with companies undergoing big changes – from disruptive strategy shifts to mergers and layoffs. Staff were naturally affected. Some got emotional, others hid their feelings. Laura began poring over psychology books to understand what was going on.

“I wanted to know more about the emotional side of humans,” she recalls. “I thought, why not understand it and leverage it?”   

Fast-forward to today, and Laura has a PhD in management and teaches negotiations, organizational behaviour, and leadership to Commerce and Masters students at Smith. Her research into emotional intelligence demonstrates the power of human expression. Among her findings:


Anger isn’t always negative — in fact, it can improve the outcome of a negotiation. 

While we may think anger is problematic and best left out of negotiations, Laura’s research shows that having the emotional intelligence to recognize anger in the person across the table can actually work to your advantage. 

“If someone acts angry during a negotiation, you’ll want to use this cue to ask questions and gain diagnostic information,” she says. “In some cases, anger can create value if you can use it to understand why a person is upset.”

On the other hand, countering anger with anger can often lead to more trouble. Instead, use the gathered information to ensure your side doesn’t lose out during negotiations. “Don’t let their anger result in you giving away what’s rightfully yours,” Laura says. 


We should all strive for ambivalence in making decisions. 

Ambivalence is defined as “the state of having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone.” When people are ambivalent, we assume they’re wishy-washy or indecisive. Yet, ambivalence is a powerful tool. Fostering ambivalence offers us the opportunity to make a more thoughtful decision—and to change our mind.

 “Ambivalence fascinates me because it can have surprisingly beneficial effects, including making you a better decision-maker,” Laura says. In class, she teaches her students to understand the benefits of keeping an open mind.


Emotions not only have a place in the boardroom, they are a key ingredient to a healthy workplace. 

Suppressing emotions isn’t just bad for you psychologically, it’s bad for you physically. Some neuroscience research suggests that if the parts of the brain that process emotions get damaged, the brain’s cognitive abilities are weakened as well. “While some workplaces tend to encourage suppression, it’s much more dangerous to not recognize how your emotions are affecting you,” Laura says. 

Oh, and don’t believe it when someone tells you that emotions and business shouldn’t mix. Our greatest success can come when we learn to recognize, express, and use our emotions. “Don’t judge emotions as bad or good,” Laura advises, “just learn to leverage their benefits and mitigate their downsides most effectively.”

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