5-second summary
  • Emotional intelligence has declined in the past couple of decades, which has serious implications for the way we show up at work.
  • Emotional intelligence is associated with better team effectiveness, better job performance, better relationships, and better health outcomes.
  • Through increased awareness and intentional interventions, we can mitigate the effects of declining emotional intelligence, both at work and in our personal lives.

We’re constantly moving toward the “future of work.” On paper, this might look like more asynchronous collaboration, remote-first hiring, or a four-day workweek. But workplace practices don’t exist in a vacuum, and there are broader, more complicated factors in play. Key moments and themes of history trickle down to workplace trends – from women’s mass entry into the workforce during World War II to the sudden acceleration of remote work due to COVID – that affect the way we live our lives and work our jobs.

Prior to my time at Atlassian, my academic work revolved around emotional intelligence, which has been well-established as an essential skill for individuals and important for team health, too. In a paper for the Journal of Personality entitled “College students in the western world are becoming less emotionally intelligent,” I found that a number of indicators of emotional intelligence – at least for the population we studied – have declined in the past couple of decades, which can have serious implications for the way we show up at work.

So for the sake of our happiness and productivity, let’s explore why this might be happening, and what organizations and individuals can do about it.

Declining emotional intelligence is putting teams at risk

Previous research on generational changes in personality has shown that both extraversion and neuroticism increased in American college students over a 40-year period. Other studies have found that self-esteem, assertiveness, narcissism, and high expectations have increased in recent decades. Researchers typically attribute these changes to Western society becoming increasingly individualistic – that is, a society that increasingly values materialism and competition. Perhaps it’s not surprising that when the values of society change, people’s personalities also change.

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence 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 action.

This is where emotional intelligence comes in. For our study, my co-authors and I considered emotional intelligence as a collection of specific personality traits: wellbeing, self-control, emotionality (being able to perceive and empathize with other people’s emotions), and sociability (having effective social skills). After analyzing data for 17,000 college-aged students over the past two decades, we found that wellbeing, self-control, and emotionality significantly declined. These declines were pretty consistent over the two decades, meaning they weren’t concentrated in any particular year.

This phenomenon should sound alarm bells for any organization; emotional intelligence is associated with better team effectiveness, better job performance, better relationships, and better health outcomes.

Technology is partly to blame

Interestingly, we found that increases in technology usage in the countries that we studied (the United States, the U.K., Australia, and Canada) partially explained the declines in wellbeing and self-control. With the rise in technology in the 21st century, people started replacing in-person interactions with online communication, which is associated with loneliness, which in turn can take a toll on wellbeing. Emotional intelligence is also most likely to develop through complex in-person human interaction, so people have less opportunity to “practice” emotional intelligence when they are using technology to communicate.

How to foster emotional intelligence in the workplace

How to lead with emotional intelligence when times are tough

If technology is implicated in declining emotional intelligence, what does this mean for the future of work, which is now increasingly turning to hybrid and remote models? And what does it mean for teams that have no choice but to connect with each other through Zoom or Slack?

Organizations should emphasize emotional intelligence and connectivity

The most obvious way organizations can mitigate these risks is by investing in emotional intelligence training – a quick Google search dishes up many options. As a data-driven researcher, I would recommend using a service offering quantitative evidence of sustained improvements in each participant’s emotional intelligence.

Also, organizations (especially those that are remote-first) should be more intentional about creating avenues for people to connect with one another face-to-face (e.g., through social or networking groups, which can be a powerful tool in connecting like-minded people). In reality, teams often have to rely on virtual team-building, which is valuable in its own right, but since in-person interactions are more likely to build emotional intelligence, gathering in the same physical space whenever you can is ideal.

Teams should plan face time strategically

Individual teams need to be strategic about putting time and resources into in-person events. Research shows that teams connect the most when first formed, so if you’re looking for an opportunity to gather your team in one place, try to schedule it for when the team first forms, a new person joins the team, or a new project starts. Use these opportunities to get to know your team members on a deeper and more personal level.

Related to this, I would encourage teams to find more meaningful ways of connecting (like volunteering or learning a new skill together). Our internal Atlassian research indicates that when teams commit to volunteering as a team goal, they are more engaged, more effective as a team, and even more committed to the company itself.

Individuals may need to look elsewhere for human connection

Likewise, individuals should prioritize face-to-face interactions with their teammates. While remote working has its benefits (personally, I love it!), people need to be sure their social needs are being met, whether at work or in their community – this piece is particularly important if you live alone. When I started working from home, I joined my local gym. Since I’m not the most motivated when it comes to exercise, I started working with a wonderful trainer, who became my friend over time. Because of this connection, I started going to the gym consistently during breaks, which has been an unexpected but welcome way to add some face-time to my remote workday.

Emotional intelligence in the time of COVID

The decline of emotional intelligence, and in turn the value of these recommendations, are more significant now than when the data was collected for this study, which was prior to the pandemic. Due to the fallout of COVID-19, our reliance on technology for communication has increased exponentially. One study found that text messaging increased by 43% after the start of the pandemic, while social media usage increased by 35%.

These spikes threaten to accelerate the decline in emotional intelligence. But through increased awareness and intentional interventions, we can mitigate these effects, both at work and in our personal lives.

Emotional intelligence is on the decline – what does it mean for the future of work?