Five Lessons Learned: From Emotional Intelligence to Emotional Engagement at Work


Written by and originally posted by Leo Castillo on LinkedIn >

In the last year, I’ve spent a lot of time and effort levelling up my mastery of emotional intelligence, partly because of my own personal experience, the certifications I’ve been building, and the work we do at Fearless Inc.

After working extensively on myself, leaders, teams, and organizations, I’ve come up with five insights where we can make emotional intelligence actionable, leading to what I call emotional engagement. Although a few are personal, this is really looking at how to create emotional engagement in the corporate world. 

I share these insights from my journey with the hope that you can also be emotionally engaged and make EQ actionable for you, too. Without further ado, here is what I've learned in this journey. 

Insight # 1 : Emotions are Strategic

When I discuss emotional intelligence with leaders I sometimes hear groans along the lines of “yeah I guess that’s important too”., They grudgingly agree that empathy is important and yes we need to do it.

These reactions make it clear that for some leaders, emotions are an afterthought, a secondary priority compared to execution and delivering business results. I must admit that in the past, I was one of those leaders, too. I’ve been to business school, and the conversation on emotions is minuscule compared to finance, strategy, or operations.

I’ve evolved on this throughout the years, and the last few months with intensive work on emotional engagement has dramatically changed my perspective: 

Dealing with emotions is as important or even more important than the delivery side of the business.

Generally speaking, all companies are still built with people. The best strategy, the best execution, and the best delivery of value proposition will fail if the people are not emotionally engaged with the outcome.

Note that I said the best. A mediocre strategy or execution can still succeed even when people are not engaged. Delivering the best requires that extra mile, that extra step that can only be delivered when the people bring their whole self into it: the body will only achieve its best when the mind and heart are fully into it.

Insight #2 : Emotions bring Clarity

One of the biggest challenges in any organization (and in any human interaction, actually) is the complexity of human conversation. How many times have we tried to guess “did the boss really like the proposal” or “did I come across as too blunt in my feedback” or “did they mean it when they said yes or are they just saying that?”

Add the complexity of communicating over email, messaging, and remote calls where useful information such as tone and body language are missing.

Let’s add another layer of complexity. It’s just not with the person listening: the sender also somehow has a sense of what they think and feel but can’t seem to figure out how to put it in words, leaving both trying to work on something that is unclear to both of them.

I’ve learned that communication is significantly effective when people explicitly identify the exact emotion they are experiencing. 

However, we find that people are usually not good at this, not because they don’t understand what they are thinking or feeling but because they can’t find the words to describe them.

This is where a tool like the Emotional Culture Deck is a lifesaver. It gives people the vocabulary and the focus to decipher and communicate their own experience. The user is surprised how much clearer and how much more visible they can share what they truly think and feel, even to themselves!

There are other similar tools, of course, and if you have something that already works for you, use it. . The point is that when you start with identifying the emotion, it unlocks clarity in the most authentic and most human way possible, not just to the receiver but to the sender as well.

Insight #3 : Emotions are not the Problem.

“You’re too emotional”. “There is no place for feelings at work.” “Suck it up and get back to work.” 

Does this sound familiar? I bet you’ve heard this before. Sadly, this approach has been weaponized and used to create false generalizations about others, especially against women at work. As if men don’t get overly emotional! We’ve all had an experience with a pissed-off boss or a hard-to-please leader, whatever gender they may be.

Well, people are human, and people have emotions. Emotions aren’t limited to only one gender. 

The problem isn’t emotion itself but when emotions are out of control. And paradoxically emotions get more out of control when they are suppressed and uncommunicated, leading to explosive bursts that give emotions a bad name.

And if we go to point #2 (Emotions bring Clarity), emotions might even be the solution. By having our emotions out in the open, it lets us deal more effectively with the passive-aggressive tone that makes office politics so toxic.

We need more conversations about emotion, not less. 

Doing this productively allows us to talk about what’s real rather than what’s discussed secretly in that “hidden” group chat or the backstabbing when someone’s not in the room. It’s not the emotion itself that’s the problem, it’s how we deal with them.

Insight #4 : Emotions are complex.

Ask someone how they feel, and generally, their answer is “I’m ok”. Did you ever wonder why this is so? Part of it is a perceived bias about sharing feelings at work (see #3 - Emotions are not the problem), especially “negative” ones. Another part of it is that we really don’t know how we feel because, well, emotions are complex because people are complex.

One of the activities we do with the Emotional Culture deck is for people to choose a black card (the feelings we usually like to have) and a white card (the feelings we usually don’t like to have). As with #2, when people realize that they experience both feelings at the same time, they find it liberating. 

You are not classified as either good or bad… you are just a person feeling many emotions at the same time, and that is normal!

What people also find is that it’s good to discuss and talk about the “negative” emotions as these actually give fresh new insights on why they feel that way, thus leading to better decisions! This reframes the experience that “negative” emotions aren’t really negative; they’re just another data point!

Insight #5 : Leaders have emotions too.

We’ve all heard the story: the hapless employees being pressured by the soulless boss, the bane of their existence. Oh, if only our companies really focused on emotional well-being instead of these heartless dictators!

In my many years in culture and strategy, I’ve been lucky to work with many people in senior leadership, and wow... if you only know the truth.

I’ve learned something that’s common with senior leaders: whether C-suite, entrepreneurs, or family business owners. 

Every one of them, each one, is obsessed with trying to figure out what is the right thing to do.

You have no idea how they often ask for help, how they worry about how they come across their people, their frustrations with dealing with so many things at once, and their understanding that the gravity of what they do can impact people’s lives.

It is so easy to judge them and think they don’t care when they not only have to deal with the emotional turmoil and pressure from all sides, they also need to show they are strong and ok all the time. As i shared in It's Lonely At The Top, many organizations think about people’s emotions but typically don’t consider or even ignore the emotions of the leaders.

Sure, there are probably leaders who don’t really care that much and just go after the almighty dollar, but each one I have met so far is clear: they need to do the right thing that’s best for the sustainability of the organization. It may not look like it, but for them, the struggle is real.

We ask our leaders to empathize with us. What if we empathized with them and ask them how they feel?

Now, insights are infinitely more useful when they are actionable, so how do we put what we learned into practice? Here are some ideas: 

1. Let’s be strategic with how we deal with emotions in the organization. Think about how we want people to feel (and not to feel) when they work on a specific project, a specific team, or how you want them to feel being part of the organization. Design the employee experience not just with purpose, vision, and values but also with what emotions we want to experience in our organization.

2. Let’s normalize people actively verbalizing their true emotions in all business conversations. This includes meetings, conferences, and brainstorming, not just check-ins and employee well-being discussions. Let people share their feelings without fear and refrain from labeling them as bad or good. Use them as what they are: additional data points that can help us understand multiple perspectives and make the right decisions.

3. Let’s remember that emotions are complex because people are complex. Allow us to have empathy for those who are experiencing emotions, even the people on top who are probably the ones who least receive emotional support.

Here is something worth trying. Next time we are at the receiving end of an emotional outburst, with genuine empathy, try thanking the person for sharing their emotion. In customer service programs, we are taught to acknowledge and appreciate customers when they complain, which, when done well, helps defuse the situation. Research proves that it can actually build higher customer loyalty.

Maybe we can do that with our co-workers and leaders. For example, with empathy and personal self-control, try asking, “Thanks for letting me know that this is making you angry. What else do you want to tell me?”

4. Finally, think about making emotional intelligence actionable for yourself.

What emotions have been showing up for you lately?

What emotions are you suppressing?

What emotions do you long for?

Try asking yourself these questions, and others like these. Allow yourself to feel and see what the data tells you.

You might be surprised to uncover a truth about yourself… and what you need to do. 

And just with all the insights above, use that and make yourselves and everyone better. Share what you’ve learned and I’d love to hear about your experience. 

This exploration from emotional intelligence to emotional engagement has been an incredible, eye-opening, and productive journey for me, and I hope you go through your own journey too. If you do I'd love to hear your story too! 

Download a free Emotional Culture Deck and join our mission to re-humanise the workplace. Emotions drive life’s experiences. They can inspire and embolden people to push their limits or crush confidence and motivation, leading them to languish. Embraced, emotions are a marvellous force for good. Learn more here:


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