Emotional intelligence: How to deal with your low-EQ boss or colleague

When you have to deal with a difficult co-worker, put your own EQ to work. Use these five strategies
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You don’t have to look hard to find a new article or conference session touting the importance of emotional intelligence.  By and large, leaders have read the memo on EQ and are actively working to strengthen the characteristics that make up emotional intelligence – such as  self-awareness, empathy, and social skills. Maybe you're already striving to build your own EQ, or to nurture soft skills in your team.

But all it takes is an intense outburst from a boss during a meeting, or an uncomfortable run-in with a colleague to bring you crashing back to reality. Emotional intelligence is not always required to advance or earn influence in an organization, and some people have gone far in their careers without it.

“We often look at leaders and think that because they are in a position of power, they should automatically have a higher level of emotional intelligence,” said Drew Bird, founder at The EQ Development Group. “While organizations are increasingly recognizing the need for emotionally effective leadership, people are still very often promoted because of their job knowledge or length of time in the organization. EQ is sometimes a secondary or non-consideration.”

Most of us are unlikely to go through our careers without encountering a colleague who is low on the emotional intelligence scale. In some cases, that person may be unavoidable, like a direct superior or close teammate. In these instances, we need strategies for taking the emotional high road and minimizing unpleasant interactions – and stress.

[ Learn the behaviors to avoid as you build your EQ: 10 things leaders with emotional intelligence never do. ]

We asked experts and IT leaders to share their tips for dealing with low-EQ colleagues and bosses. Consider these five strategies:

1. Look in the mirror

Before you critique someone else’s emotional intelligence, it’s wise to check in with your own. A saying comes to mind: “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” Bird puts this another way. “Be careful. Judging someone else’s emotional intelligence is highly dependent on your own,” he says.

“Before you start ‘dealing’ with anyone it’s always a good idea to look inwards and ask: ‘what does this say about me?’” suggests Dr. Neeta Bhushan, emotional health educator and author of “Emotional GRIT.” “Someone’s lack of emotional intelligence is triggering something in you and before going any further you need to be clear why is it happening.”

If you are at all unsure of where you stand, you could take a test or do some self-reflection to better understand your own emotional intelligence. There may be areas that you could improve that could ultimately strengthen your relationship with the colleague or boss in question.

“Dealing with people who have low EQ is realistically a test of your own EQ,” said Sanjay Malhotra, CTO of Clearbridge Mobile. “Emotional intelligence is a collaborative process.”

2. Lead by example

If you are confident in your EQ, congratulations. It’s no easy feat. But do keep in mind that everyone is human, and emotional intelligence improvement is an ongoing effort. Try to think of interactions with colleagues as opportunities to model good EQ and lead by example, suggests Malhorta.

“It can be difficult at times to understand the thoughts and actions of someone with a low EQ, but it’s important to lead by example and remember that everyone has reacted to situations emotionally at one point or another. In scenarios where you have to communicate with someone with a low EQ, self-reflection is key,” Malhorta says.

In these situations, put your own emotional intelligence skills to work: “Before you react to something or someone who frustrates you, give yourself time to develop your thoughts and consider the consequences and counter-arguments,” he says. “By taking time to self-reflect, you’re able to communicate your developed idea in the most effective way possible, taking into account the thoughts, needs, and opinions of the listener.”

3. Ask questions

Someone low on the EQ scale may lack the social and communication skills to talk about problems or concerns effectively. They may not be aware of the triggers responsible for their emotional reactions and stress. Assuming positive intent and opening the lines of communication can go a long way in diffusing negative interactions with peers – and even your boss.

"Do not assume why another person is acting in a certain way."

“Do not assume why another person is acting in a certain way,” says Bhushan. “Instead ask questions. It does not matter if you are talking to a colleague or someone who directly manages you. Asking questions can lead to a new framework of thinking. The fact that you started the conversation by asking and listening ensures that any agreement you come up with will be beneficial for both sides.”


Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.