Why is emotional intelligence important in teams?

Irvine Nugent, Ph.D. –Behavioral Analysis Expert
Irvine Nugent, Ph.D. –Behavioral Analysis Expert

By Irvine Nugent

By Irvine Nugent

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Why is emotional intelligence important in teams? Because teams are ever-increasingly becoming a reality in the way that we organize our work. If you want your team to be successful, if you want your team to be enjoyable, then this article might be able to help, because we’re going to talk about the four stages that teams go through and how critical emotional intelligence is to making each stage as productive as possible.

What if the Titanic had a better team?

You know, a few weeks ago I went to Belfast, which is just about an hour from where I was born, and there’s a wonderful new museum there called the Titanic museum (because the Titanic was built in the Belfast shipyards). As I went through the museum one of the things that came to light that I wasn’t fully aware of was the fact that, as they were building the ship, there were questions raised by certain people about the stability of the ship and what would happen if the ship struck an iceberg, or if part of the bottom off the ship was pierced. We also know that in that frightful night when the ship went down, there were numerous reports of icebergs, and yet no one raised questions. My point is that in certain teams, people raise critical questions that when they come to light help to surface problems that have to be dealt with, and as I came out of the museum I was wondering, in this circumstance, that if someone had felt confident enough to raise the problems, or open enough to listen, would we have even had that disaster after all.

In this article we’re going to talk about emotional intelligence, about what helps a team to be cohesive, and what helps a team raise critical issues that can help the outcome of great decisions. When I’m doing training with teams, I like to begin with certain questions about asking them what the best team they had ever worked with was like, and ask them about some of the things that were happening in that team? Often I’ll get responses like ‘There was great communication.’ ‘I was kept in the loop.’ ‘I felt respected.’ ‘I felt wanted.’ ‘We got things done.’ And afterwards I often ask “Well, what was the experience like in the worst team that you were ever on?” and it’s almost the opposite – ‘There was no trust.’ ‘We were always at each other’s throats.’ ‘I didn’t feel respected.’ ‘I didn’t feel like I could speak up.’ All of these are critical because they are behaviors based on emotional intelligence, and so why is emotional intelligence important in teams? Because if we want teams to function at the highest level they can then we have to operate at the highest levels of emotional intelligence that we can.

The single most important factor in great teams.

Google did a survey recently and they asked this simple question – ‘Why is it that some teams are impactful and incredibly great, and other teams are less impactful?’ They wanted to find what the secret sauce was that makes great teamwork, and so as Google does, they examined every little variable that goes into making up teams. Is it a certain age group? What is it that makes this great team? They fell back to one component – one component that was present that was essential for great teamwork, and that component was psychological safety. Psychological safety is the ability in the team to create this feeling that ‘I could be vulnerable’, That I am safe to be myself. That I can say to the team ‘you know what – I don’t know. That I can say to the team ‘I need help’, that it’s okay to make mistakes, that it’s okay to raise challenges. The psychological safety and the level of psychological safety was the clear determinant into how well that team functioned. Of course, psychological safety is a subsection of emotional intelligence. Emotionally intelligent teams can create a space of psychological safety so that they can function at their highest levels.

There’s been lots of research done on teams, I just referred to Google, and yet another one was by a psychologist called Bruce Tuckerman. Tuckerman really analyzed what some of the cycles are that a team goes through to make it a truly well-functioning team, and he came up with four stages that I want to introduce to you, because they’re incredibly important. They’re important because at each stage there is a critical element of emotional intelligence that a team must embrace in order to become high functioning.

Stage one: forming

The first stage is the forming stage. You’ve been in these teams before, it’s the first couple of meetings. Everyone is polite to each other. It’s the ‘get-to-know-you’ stage, and everyone is kind of sussing out the other people on the team. We’re setting out the work and the guidelines, and normally it’s that polite stage. Where does emotional intelligence come in here? Well, emotional intelligence comes in because at this stage it’s critical to begin to form bonds between each other. It’s that fourth stage of emotional intelligence – relationship management, knowing how to get to know each other, to ask great questions which uncover information about the other person. It’s also about bringing in some self-awareness of knowing and noticing how I am reacting to other people, and about bringing in some social awareness too, recognizing others and their needs and how they also fit into this team. So that’s the first stage.

Stage two: storming

After the forming then comes the second stage – this is the storming stage. The honeymoon is over. We are now bringing our true selves and all of a sudden there is conflict, and conflict becomes part of what’s happening on the team. There is a fight for clarity on this team, and it can be marked with not only conflict, but competition and blame and defensiveness too. Where does EQ come in? Well, emotional intelligence is incredibly important at this stage because it enables us to have more constructive conflict. It enables us to realize when our triggers have been pressed and how we are showing up. It enables us to recognize some of the defensiveness that we’re bringing to the conversation. It enables us to de-escalate our anger so that our arguments can be more constructive, and to focus on ideas rather than other people.

Stage three: norming

The third stage is norming. This is where we establish the group norms. We’ve got over some of this early conflict, and now there is still conflict, but that conflict has moved from being rather personal to really being conflict around good ideas. This is where the group establishes working norms and is able to establish avenues of accountability. Where does emotional intelligence come in here? It comes in at this stage because what’s required is an ever-increasing ability to listen, and an ever-increasing ability to trust each other on the team. So, the aspects of self-awareness, self-management, and relationship management helps us build trust, and build some of that psychological safety that I mentioned at the beginning of this video.

Stage four: performing

Finally, we come to the last stage which is performing. Here we have a team which has worked out accountability. Here we have a team which is functioning at the highest level, where there’s minimal direction needed because the team is almost self-directing. It’s reaching for results. There is an individual commitment and a shared commitment on the team. Where does emotional intelligence come in at this stage? It’s the ability to hold each other accountable. It’s the ability to deal with potential areas of conflict, but in a mature way. To listen intently at what’s happening. To manage these relationships and, as we come to decisions, to realize who’s making the decision and how we’re making decisions.

So there we have the four stages: the forming, the norming, the storming, and the performing. All of them have critical elements of emotional intelligence ingrained, and if that emotional intelligence is activated, if it’s powerfully present in the team, then you will find a team go through each of those stages until it arrives to that fourth stage, the performing stage, when it is operating at the maximum of its potential.

So as you can see, emotional intelligence is incredibly important to helping teams function at their maximum potential.

I hope you’ve learned something from this article. If there’s one thing we’ve come upon time and time again, it’s the importance of trust – psychological trust. I would really suggest here that you read this next article, which concentrates on building trust and confidence in the workplace, because it will take the knowledge that we’ve learnt here and really build upon establishing trust and confidence, which is at the core of emotional intelligence and at the core of better functioning workplaces.


Irvine Nugent, Ph.D. –Behavioral Analysis Expert

Irvine possesses fifteen-plus years in senior leadership roles in various organizations. Dr. Nugent is an approved Paul Ekman International Trainer and offers a wide range of workshops in the areas of emotional intelligence, nonverbal communication, executive presence and lie detection which are based on the practical application of scientific research.
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