10 Reasons Why Teams Need Emotional Intelligence

Actions to raise the EI of your team.

Teamwork is very popular and a necessity in organizations, but it is an unnatural act that takes a strategy, discipline and practice. Most organizations talk about teamwork and put a group of workers together and say “you are a team now.” Duly formed the team is marched out onto the field to succeed or fail. We know from sports, the military, dance troupes and theater that they focus on their teamwork skills 95% of the time and perform only 5% of the time. Diane Coutu (2009) reports that “if the leader isn’t disciplined about managing who is on the team and how it is set up, the odds are slim that a team will do a good job.”

It is a documented fact that, in the corporate world, less than 5% of an individual’s time is devoted to off-line learning. Instead 95% of time is performing, performing and performing without the requisite skill building or practice in teamwork. In fact nearly all the learning in organizations happens after the fact and in front of customers, where mistakes are costly to the organizations reputation and bottom line and the individual’s career development. (Nadler, 2011). Working in teams, then becomes the playing field to demonstrate these skills.

Emotional Intelligence (EI) is understanding and managing yourself and also understanding and managing others. These skills are the building blocks necessary for teams to be high performing. Hillary Elfenbein (2006), assistant professor at Berkley, published a study linking emotional intelligence with team performance at work. She found that “teams with greater average emotional intelligence have higher team functioning than [did] groups with lower emotional intelligence.” Moreover, in a team, “the ability to understand one another’s emotional expressions explained 40% of the variance in team performance.” Elfenbein describes Team EI as the emotional savvy exhibited when team members interact with each other.

Study after study has shown that teams are more creative and productive when they can achieve high levels of participation, cooperation, and collaboration among members. The success of a team is more likely when effective task processes emerge; causing members to engage wholeheartedly. Three conditions are essential: Trust among members, sense of group identity – pride in the group, sense of group efficacy – the belief that they are more effective working together than apart.  (Druskat and Wolff, 2001)

Below are 10 reasons why teams need to have training in emotional intelligence to maximize it and utilize it for top performance

1. More work is being done in teams. Cross, Rebele and Grant (2016) state that over the past two decades time spent in collaborative activities has increased by 50% or more. What was done individually in the past now has many people who have the pieces of the puzzle to pull together.

2. Teamwork is an unnatural act and takes practice and discipline. Given that practice takes precious time that leaders don’t want to give up. They either wing it or expect that their group knows how to operate as a team. Also it easier to do things yourself versus taking the time to teach others. Teamwork is unnatural yet necessary and many organizations don’t devote the time. Research consistently shows that teams underperform, despite all the extra resources they have. It is because problems with coordination and motivation typically chip away at the benefits of collaboration. (Coutu, 2009))  How can you devote more time for team practice?

3. Are all team members performing? Initiative and collaboration are not equally distributed between team members. Are your top performers carrying the weight of your team?  Cross, Rebele and Grant (2016) found in a study or 300 organizations that 20 to 35% of value added collaborations come from 3% to 5% of employees. Motivating your average performers to be great contributors takes knowing their strength, weaknesses and differing motivations, the social side of emotional intelligence. What team members need more of your attention?

4. Emotions are stirred up in social interactions. Think of times that you felt the strongest weren’t others involved with you? Anger, frustration, impatience, disappointment, rejection, betrayal, injustice and isolation all happen in groups. How they are experienced and regulated are critical for top team performance.

Google’s Project Aristotle studied teams and teamwork and found psychological safety was the key factor for top performing teams. Is it safe in your team to push the envelope and bring up conflicting and opposing ideas?

As Druskat and Wolff (2001) concluded:

“Group emotional intelligence is about small acts that make a big difference. It is not about in-depth discussion of ideas; it is about asking a quiet member for his thoughts. It is not about harmony, lack of tension, and all members liking each other; it is about acknowledging when harmony is false, tension is unexpressed, and treating others with respect.”

5. The task dominates the relationship. In most organizations the task or challenge is the focus and the relationships take the back seat to solving the crisis of the day. The neuroscientist tell us that we can be on one brain channel at a time solving problems or having empathy, it is hard to both at the same time. What channel are your teams predominantly on?

6.  Power mutes empathy. In a recent article in the Atlantic titled “Power causes Brain Damage”, Jerry Useem writes that the higher up in an organization and more power a leader has the less they feel they have to listen to others. They stop mirroring others and he quotes psychologist Dacher Keltner, powerful people stop simulating the experience of others and it leads to an “empathy deficit.” The lack of empathy can decrease the psychological safety and limit the production of creative ideas.

7. We don’t listen or inquire. I have shadowed many executive teams to assess their problem solving and teamwork. It may seem surprising but after a few hours of discussion there are limited questions stated. Everyone is busy promoting their ideas versus anyone following up, adding to or unpacking on the ideas already presented. Leaders feel their responsibility is only to put an idea on the table and someone else will make sense of it or integrate with the other thoughts. What is left on the table is what I call “idea litter,” someone else will pick it up. How well does your team actually listen and inquire?

8. Leaders aren’t natural facilitators. One cure for #7 above is to have the leader also facilitate the meeting or have an external facilitator. To raise the Emotional Intelligence of the team, someone needs to be honoring the process of the conversation versus the magnetic pull of the content. Are all ideas and people heard, are ideas left on the table, are decisions really understood, digested and moved to actions? It is important to have the process or meta communication brought into the consciousness of the group so it can improved upon and regulated. Leaders typically don’t have these skills and they are often leading the meeting. It is hard to lead the agenda and facilitate for high team emotional intelligence. Who is acting as facilitator on your team?

9. Decision making process is ambiguous. Each decision may require a different process and how are these decisions made. This is one of the unnatural team conversations that may not occur. Who makes the decisions, is it unanimous, consensus, majority rule or subject matter experts? All of these are appropriate for different types of decisions. Does the team have team norms and guidelines? Actions recorded, is there an agenda, does leadership rotate. All of these are types of decisions that will make the team more effective. How does your team make decisions?

10. Hard conversations are avoided. Without the emotional intelligence to bring up, hear and resolve tough and tense conversations, it is too easy to avoid those conversations or hope that Human Resources will deal with it. There is a constructive way to deal with conflict and trying to orchestrate a win-win, it takes many of the EI competencies.

Evaluating yourself on a normed EI assessment that can also get a group score for your team can help you see where your team needs improvement.

Dr. Relly Nadler has been working with executives to enhance EI skills since 1997. His website has free tools to support your teams: www.truenorthleadership.com


Batista, E. (2012) Building the Emotional Intelligence of Group, Harvard Business Review, May

Review, May

Coutu, D. (2009) Why Teams Don’t Work, Harvard Business Review. May

Cross, Rebele and Grant (2016) Collaborative Overload, Harvard Business Review January- February

Druskat, V.U and Wolff, S. B., (2001) “Building the Emotional Intelligence of Groups”, Harvard Business Review, March

Elfenbein, H.A. (2006) Team emotional intelligence. In Druskat, V.U.,Sala, F. and Mount, G . Linking emotional intelligence and performance at work. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Nadler, R.S. (2011) Leading with Emotional Intelligence; Strategies to Develop Confident and Collaborative Star Performers. New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing

Useem, J (2017) The Atlantic “Power Causes Brain Damage”, July/August

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