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Emotional & Social Intelligence: Rejuvenating Your Career Through HR Relationship Management

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Across industries, HR departments perform many essential functions beyond hiring and firing from keeping up to date on employment law to planning special events. But these dedicated workers don’t always enjoy the dynamic career growth that they work so diligently to develop for those around them. For HR professionals looking to advance and lead, mastering relationship management may well unlock their true potential.

Kale Evans, Adjunct Clinical Professor of Leadership and Executive Coaching at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, visited TemPositions’ HR Roundtable Series on Thursday, June 27, 2013 to lead a discussion on applying Emotional & Social Intelligence (ESI) skills to gain competitive advantage. This expertise, he noted, can make the difference between being perceived as merely competent vs. integral to a company’s success.

In the years since ESI first appeared on the front pages of business magazines and received global attention, Evans has carefully followed the ongoing research in the field. The data on ESI, he stressed, “continues to accumulate, and it is compelling.” He uses key findings to inform his work as a Certified Coach working closely with leaders from around the globe to help them avoid career pitfalls and build momentum toward success.

Positive relationship management behaviors are particularly important in HR, he noted. Too often, the H R leaders he coaches find themselves at the behest of the C-suite. Rather than having a seat at the table when decisions are made, they’re expected to manage the employee base by following orders from the top. But HR professionals that manage their own relationships with company leadership can wield a great deal more influence and earn far greater rewards.

“I don’t contend that this is the panacea, that once one has enhanced their emotional and social awareness skills, they have arrived,” he said. Skill sets will always be important. But for those competing at elite levels, attitude, perspective and mastery of interpersonal relations become important differentiators. Why? They directly impact our behavior in the workplace.

“You need to bring a new skill set to the table,” Evans said. “Managing relationships can become a powerful differentiator, and you can become a force to be reckoned with.”

Intelligence Quotient (IQ) vs. Emotional & Social Intelligence (ESI)

To re-familiarize attendees with ESI, Evans began his presentation by comparing and contrasting it to Intelligence Quotient, commonly known as “IQ.” Before ESI became a prominent area of study, most professionals considered IQ to be the ultimate test of an individual’s potential, both as a young student and later, a working professional.

Researchers derive IQ scores through standardized tests that measure “cognitive intelligence”: how well an individual processes and analyzes information to solve a problem or address a challenge. Per Evans, 95% of the population has an IQ between 70 and 130. The remaining 5% score either very low or very high.

ESI, also known as Emotional Intelligence (EI), Emotional Quotient (EQ) or Social Intelligence (SI), represents a different breed of aptitude that governs relationships. Researchers Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer, authors of a seminal 1990 study on ESI, described it this way: “[ ESI] involves the ability to perceive and express emotion, assimilate emotion in thought, understand and reason with emotion, and regulate emotion in the self and others.”

Some researchers believe that ESI can be learned, while others describe it as an innate ability. For his part, Evans believes there is a bit of truth to both arguments. While some people seem to have a natural gift for grasping and applying ESI, he firmly believes that awareness-building and a commitment to change can help almost anyone improve their relationships.

ESI and the Limbic Loop

Through ESI, individuals can help regulate the emotions of those around them through a proven principle known as the Limbic Loop. Evans described the Limbic Loop as “nonverbal actions that allow human beings to come to each other’s emotional rescue.” In short, reading and responding to another person’s body language can make the difference between a failed or successful interaction. “The vibe” between people can make all the difference.

Evans estimated that 75% of all communication effectiveness lies in body language not in tone of voice or any other variable related to speech. As he put it, “The body tells the real story.” Children are notorious for denying wrong-doing while looking guilty, he said. And while adult body language may not be as clear, it’s still there to be interpreted for those willing to note it.

He offered the example of a personal trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). During his visit, Evans stood behind a woman who upset the DMV employee working with her. She complained loudly and bitterly about having made repeat trips to fill out countless forms. Sure enough, when she left, it was to retrieve yet another form to complete.

As he approached the counter himself, Evans noticed that the DMV worker kept his head down. He made no eye contact, and his body was hunched. He looked guarded and defensive. Evans might have just presented his paperwork and hoped for the best. But instead, he took calm, confident action to respond and put the young man at ease.

Evans told him quietly, “I don’t know how you do it; working with the public would drive me nuts.” After a few seconds, the DMV employee raised his head and the two shared a brief, human moment. The worker told Evans that some days were better than others and asked how he could help. Ultimately, Evans ended up being fast-tracked through his process with the help of another nearby worker, who chatted with him and seemed eager to assist.

ESI and Achievement

Among researchers, the consensus only continues to grow that ESI skills are critical to achieving substantial success. Evans quoted internationally-renowned psychologist Daniel Goleman (author of Primal Leadership: Realizing the Potential of EI and many other books on the topic), who has concluded, “We are being judged by a new yardstick; not just how smart we are, or by our training and expertise, but also by how we handle ourselves and each other.”

Of course, it’s a mistake to think that IQ isn’t a factor in success, Evans noted. But once basic competence is established as a baseline in any field ESI becomes the great differentiator.

Evans recalled a study on the career progression of engineers. Without doubt, technical skills are essential to performing that job well, and we’d expect a high IQ (strong cognition skills) to be the most important. But even among this population, ESI skills made the difference in career advancement. Among engineers with the same level of education, knowledge, training and experience, those with the best relationship management skills achieved the most success.

The ability to connect with others is important because our brains link every thought to an emotion. Evans guided attendees through a simple diagram of the human brain, explaining that as we process information, it is “stamped” by the brain’s emotional center before it travels to the logic centers, where we analyze information and make decisions. Powerful emotional stamps  like those created in a negative social experience can “hi-jack” our decision-making.

Both in research from the Center for Creative Leadership (an executive education organization) and in his own coaching practice, Evans has observed the five key reasons why leaders and all professional suffer from stalled careers. The top three are directly linked to ESI .

  1. Struggles with interpersonal relationships
  2. Experiences difficulty building or leading teams
  3. Experiences difficulty changing, or adapting to change
  4. Fails to meet their business objectives
  5. Is confined in too narrow a role (functional orientation) to advance

The group began an active discussion that lasted several minutes, agreeing that these top causes of career stagnation are al l linked to relationships. A nd of course, maintaining good relationships involves listening, Evans stressed. Listening requires staying curious about what other employees do, feel and experience. We’re more likely to feel empathetic and forge connections with others when we understand what they contribute and hear about the challenges they face.

The best leaders use their curiosity to remain adaptive and responsive. And critically, this helps them learn how to spot top talent, even when it lies beyond their expertise. Once a professional learns to staff their teams with the right people, their careers can go farther than they imagine. As Evans put it, assigning the right talent is a “force multiplier” for the person in charge.

A Closer Look at ESI

ESI skills are both individual and social, Evans explained. They begin with self-awareness and self-management competencies that are personal and in a way, private. But they then extend into social awareness, and they culminate in relationship management. Step by step, the professional with strong ESI skills builds positive relationships.

Step 1: Self-Awareness

Evans described self-awareness as “the ability to accurately perceive your own emotions in the moment and understand your tendencies across situations.” Self-aware people understand their own triggers. Then, they can be ready for them.

The self-aware always seem to keep calm under fire. They’re honest about what they feel, but their emotions never seem to get them “bent out of shape,” Evans explained. They’re generally open and honest when they communicate, and they have a genuine quality that softens any firmness. Notably, they don’t burden others with their stress. They’re empathetic conscious that their moods have the power to affect other people.

“A leader sets the emotional tone,” Evans said. “Whether you’re in a leadership, management or individual contributor’s role, your interface with another person can be defined by the tone that you set.”

Step 2: Self-Management

Evans described self-management as “the ability to use your awareness of your emotions to stay flexible, and to direct your behavior positively to manage your emotional reactions to situations and people.” Those who self-manage can continue to listen and respond positively even when they’re experiencing strong emotions themselves.

Professionals with good self-management skills seem to remain patient and understanding no matter how high emotions begin to run. They are often called upon to handle difficult matters because they remain compassionate. They’re not prone to knee-jerk reactions or emotional blow­ups. They listen well, think carefully, and then speak to others. They’re not without emotion, but they’re adaptive and can manage their own emotions for the benefit of the group.

Evans offered the example of an employee coming back from an extended vacation and feeling very relaxed, then seeing a dreaded supervisor approaching. Being self-aware first, that worker has the choice to take a deep breath, anticipating the trigger that’s coming. And being adept at self-management, they then have the choice to take a deep breath, smile, and be the one to initiate a positive exchange.

“Of course, behavior is funny, because we’re all creatures of habit,” he said. “And habits do not go away gently into the night.” Learning self-awareness and self-management may take time, and anyone can experience setbacks. The important thing is to stay committed to the change.

Step 3: Social Awareness

Evans described social awareness as “the ability to accurately pick up on the emotions of other people and understand what is really going on with them.” As famed productivity and relationship management guru Stephen Covey (author of The Seven Habits of Highly Efective People) said, we must all “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

People with strong social awareness skills are exceptional listeners and observers they can read the emotions of those around them and adapt instinctively, on the spot. They’re empathetic and deeply respectful. They will take the time to get to know everyone on their team that little bit more deeply, so they can understand perspectives as well as skill sets. They can establish and maintain true authority in a group setting very effectively.

As Evans explained, the socially-aware are prized for their ability to spot “the elephant in the room” and persuade others to address it. All the while, they remain calm, empathetic, and positive. They exude competence, which makes others feel very comfortable around them.

Step 4: Relationship Management

Evans described relationship management as the “ability to use your awareness of your own emotions, and those of others, to manage interactions successfully.” Knowing one’s own emotional landscape, managing it effectively, listening responsively to others and responding with empathy all set the stage for managing relationships masterfully.

Skilled relationship managers use what they know about their own emotions and the emotions of others to create a “safe and inviting forum for discussion,” he explained. Even when there are vast differences in perspective or opinion, these professionals feel very comfortable exploring common ground, keeping disagreements constructive. They build strong relationships on a foundation of trust, honesty and good-will.

ESI and Career Advancement

When professionals possess such strong ESI skills that they become master relationship managers, they have extraordinary career potential, Evans stressed. They won’t just make trusted colleagues. Their peers will embrace them as leaders and support their advancement.

A couple of attendees asked Kane how to persuade leadership to promote the “right people.” Too often, they felt pressure from above to advance the careers of short-term revenue generators, regardless of their relationship management skills (or lack thereof). While it’s tempting to promote a rainmaker to hold onto them, HR professionals know that their poor relationship skills may threaten the company’s well-being in the long run.

Evans urged attendees to speak frankly with leadership in such moments. Behaviors have real consequences, and the company really doesn’t want to promote someone with poor interpersonal skills into a role that includes managing other people. Morale will suffer and productivity with it. It’s better to help develop career paths for those with strong ESI skills, who are more likely to inspire their teams to better performance.

The career path for those with strong ESI skills can be profitable indeed. As Evans explained it, ESI-rel ated studies of corporate leadership roles and compensation consistently find that professionals with higher ESI scores out-earn those with lower scores by a significant margin. He again quoted Goleman, who found, “The link between [ESI] and earnings is so direct that every point increase of [ESI] adds $1,300 to an annual salary.”

Building ESI Skills by Asking the Right Questions

With ESI so clearly essential to success, many professionals are now looking for ways to improve their relationship management skills. Evans recommended a five-step self-evaluation and commitment-building process. It begins, he explained, by answering critical questions.

  1. “What do you want to be?”

Covey always counseled aspiring professionals this way: “Begin with the end in mind.” Evans urged attendees to visualize themselves in the roles they want to play whether leader, manager, or prized individual contributor. He reminded attendees that great athletes habitually visualize their performance on the field or court in order to help them reach the next level.

  1. “Who are you now?”

Answer this question for yourself, but also ask others to weigh in. Get feedback in the form of 360 reviews from superiors, peers and subordinates. Urge them to be honest. This will provide a fuller picture of your individual strengths and weaknesses. Embrace the truth (avoiding defensiveness), and get ready to hold yourself accountable for making a change.

  1. “How do you get from here to there?”

According to Evans, the most specific and detailed plans for bridging a performance gap are the most likely to succeed. Be clear about the new skills you want to learn, and put together a concrete plan for pursuing them. Again, visualization can help. If the goal is to improve self-management skills, imagine how your behavior will look and feel different after the change.

  1. “How do you make the change stick?”

“Routine becomes a habit, but you have to work on it,” Evans said. Recognize that old habits might be hard to break and plan to stay persistent. We now know that the physical brain needs time to adjust to changes in behavior and perspective. Using Magnetic Resonance Imaging

(M RI), scientists have observed the physiological changes (literal rewiring) that take place in the brain in order for a psychological change (a shift in mindset) to occur.

  1. “Who can help you?”

This question is as important as any that came before, Evans said. We are social beings, and we all need people around us who support what we’re trying to do. Identify people in your life who will support you as you embrace your ESI potential. They can be professional colleagues, friends or family members. But they should understand what you need from them to succeed: honest feedback and continuing affirmation.

Embrace ESI, Achieve Your Potential

In closing, Evans urged attendees to embrace the challenge of improving their ESI skills for their own benefit. Like any other kind, careers in HR can stall. But the very instincts and talents that attract someone to a life in this role working with others, nurturing careers, and helping a company succeed through the power of its people can be developed to help the practitioner themselves. There’s no reason an HR professional can’t become a leader in their organization.

“The more self-aware you are,” Evans explained, “the better positioned you are to take what you want to do to heights that you can’t even imagine.”

Anne DeAcetis is a freelance writer based in New York. Reach her at

The HR Roundtable is a breakfast forum for human resources professionals in New York City sponsored by The TemPositions Group of Companies. TemPositions, one of the largest staffing companies in the New York tri-state area with operations in California, has been helping businesses with their short- and long-term stafing needs since 1962. Visit them online at or email them at

For more insights and perspectives on managing the workplace, discover TemPositions’ blog.

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