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8 Ways to Use Team Emotional Intelligence to Create Great Culture

Knight Campbell
February 24, 2024

Do you have a good team or a great team?

“A good team has clear roles, clear goals and great meetings.” Let’s be honest, that probably is not how you would describe your team all of the time. To most of us, that would be a great team, a team we would be excited to be on. In reality these are just the prerequisites for a satisfactory team. To build a high performing team, you’ll need a great culture. Perhaps the fastest track to a great culture is to use team emotional intelligence to drive the cultural norms you need. 

Download a comprehensive culture guide here

It’s rare to find a team where everyone clearly knows the mission, understands their part in it, and enjoys going to meetings, but Dr. Vanessa Druskat, a leading researcher in team emotional intelligence, says that is the bar for an OK team. Where does your team stack up? We rely on current research on teams from Dr. Richard Hackman to define high performing teams. 

Some key components include: 

  • Outperforming other similar teams on the same metrics
  • Members are excited to be part of the team and learning from the experience 
  • Turnover is very low
  • The superior performance is sustainable


Download our full guide for high performing teams to get more actionable insights for your team here.

You have likely heard of emotional intelligence, or even taken a course on it in your career. We are talking about something different with team emotional intelligence, but here is a refresher just in case. 

A team emotional intelligence lesson in New River Gorge
If you're an executive, you have had EQ lessons before, we bet they did not look like this...

What is Emotional Intelligence?

Researchers have been investigating Emotional intelligence (often shortened to EQ) since the early 90’s to explore how people perceive and solve emotional challenges. Team emotional intelligence research followed about a decade later. Anecdotally it all began when Peter Salovey and John Mayer posed the question on many of our minds from time to time, “how could these super smart executives be so dumb?” They went on to coin the term emotional intelligence, which Daniel Goleman popularized in several books. 

Emotional intelligence includes four primary social emotional skills: self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness (empathy) and social skill. 


I sometimes ask coaching clients “when you feel angry, where in your body do you feel it and what does it feel like?” Typically I get silence. Most of us can’t name more than a handful of emotions, let alone articulate how we experience any of them. EQ starts with emotional literacy and awareness. We have no chance of regulating emotions or building empathy for others without basic self-awareness.  


Ok, I can be aware of my anger and still throw a chair across the room. Once we have awareness we need tools to express our emotions and needs effectively and release them in appropriate ways. 

Social awareness (empathy):

Empathy has three levels. We can have ‘cognitive empathy,’ that is we can understand how a situation might make someone else feel. We need this for sales and even to effectively counter an adversary. ‘Emotional empathy’ takes it another step to where we can feel what the other person feels. This can be useful, but it can also become debilitating when you need to fire someone or even deliver difficult feedback. At the highest level, ‘compassionate empathy’ means we have cognitive and emotional empathy AND we care. 

Interestingly, caring is a skill you can build by spending time and effort serving people. Daniel Goleman says we build love for people because we have spent the time and effort to care about them, not the other way around. Let that sink in and then go find ways to serve your team today. 

Social skill:

Daniel Goleman actually breaks EQ into 12 skills and many of them are in the social skill domain. These include skills like conflict resolution, motivation, coaching and more. We often help teams build these skills as individuals and collectively on our leadership adventures while we address team emotional intelligence gaps.

Emotional Intelligence Vs IQ
Understanding EQ and IQ will help you hire the right team in the first place!

Why EQ is the wrong term.

Perhaps surprisingly, EQ is not technically an “intelligence” and likely ought to be renamed “social emotional skills.” 

Intelligence quotient (IQ) is a scientifically valid construct used to measure raw intellectual horsepower. Scientists agree that we can measure it and people can’t really increase it much after an early age. Popular media has made the argument that EQ is more important than IQ for leaders, but that’s only part of the story. It’s like saying that talent matters more than height for professional basketball players. Yes, but only once the player is above six feet tall.

Why reconceptualizing EQ is good news for you.

If EQ is more accurately called social emotional skills, that means we can improve our EQ. That’s great news and research backs that claim. When we spend intentional time training for EQ and team emotional intelligence, we can become more aware of our emotions, more able to regulate our emotional responses, more capable of understanding other people’s emotional perspective, and more able to manage social situations with grace. It takes a lot of intentional work to do this, so ensure whatever approach you choose to build EQ does not waste your employee’s valuable time. Here are some tips to get started internally if you are not ready to work with us.

Should you hire for EQ or IQ on your team?

If you’re hiring a scientist, coder, or engineer and you need employees who can outthink the competition, you better place a premium on IQ. If you need leaders (or future leaders) who can creatively collaborate on a team, social emotional skills will be key. Either hire for EQ, or have a solid training plan to build social emotional skills in your organization. 

You might think that team emotional intelligence is simply the sum of each team member’s EQ, but that is not quite right. In many ways, team emotional intelligence offers a road map for you to create an amazing culture. At the least, it builds a culture that wastes less time on emotional friction. 

Team emotional Intelligence norms
Building Team Emotional Intelligence is actually much more simple than you might think! (From research by Vanessa Druskat and Steven Wolff)

What is Team Emotional Intelligence?

Dr Vanessa Druskat and Dr. Steven Wolff define team emotional intelligence as the ability of a team to create norms that guide the emotional experience of a group effectively. Poorly managed emotions create a boatload of friction, but well managed emotions can supercharge a team’s trust and motivation. If you and your team can create and follow some simple ground rules (cultural norms) about “how we do emotions around here,” you’ll be set up to outperform other teams. 

Want to learn more about culture? Download this in-depth culture development guide

When you have the right ground rules, people on your team will feel like they belong and add value, won’t worry about stepping on toes (or having theirs stepped on). Your team will approach challenges with a sense of optimism. They will also understand the larger context of the organization and be able to optimize your team’s impact. Basically, emotions will move from a big distraction to a big enabler. Team performance will go up, and your team will love the experience of working together.

To build team emotional intelligence, establish norms that facilitate a healthy emotional experience on a member, team, and organizational level. Here are eight simple ways you can take to get started. 

1. Get to know your team where it matters

Get to know your team on a deeper level. You’ll be shocked by how little team members often know about each other. What kind of work do people prefer? Best way to communicate with them? What do they appreciate most as a reward for great work (bonus, recognition, a thank you note)? How do they best take feedback? These are all simple questions with simple answers if you take the time to ask. One great recommendation we got from a leader at Qualtrics is to create a personal user guide to help everyone on your team understand you better! 

2. Create a code to enforce norms

Set standards for how people can enforce emotional norms. Start with set times and ways to bring the emotions topic up. Maybe implement a five minute section in your weekly standup. Then clearly outline what is and is not appropriate. Can people cry? Is cursing or yelling ok? General (Ret.) Sattler shares a powerful tip: Listen to any argument until the primary rhetoric becomes louder volume. 

Once you have clear expectations, you’ll need a norm to help people hold each other accountable. It has to be ok for anyone on the team to say, that’s not the way we deal with emotions here. For example, one team I worked with embraced emotions and it was normal to cry when happy or frustrated. When a new member came onboard and didn’t like the crying, the CEO said embrace it or go! 

Pro tip: All of these team emotional intelligence norms should go in your team charter

3. Have each other’s backs

People fear not mattering. A great way to make sure that people know they matter on a professional and personal level is just to tell them. At Cairn Leadership sharing specific appreciation for our teammates and for our clients is a basic expectation in our meetings and on our programs. Clients typically love the chance to explicitly call out their teammates’ contributions. As a leader this also forces you to pay attention to the good around you. 

If you want to take that to the next level, find a way to demonstrate caring. Celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. Send care packages for new parents. Have BBQs for your team. Finally, sometimes the most powerful way to show you care is to hold people to a high standard. Give them the tools they need to succeed and then call them out when they are not doing their best. Nothing else makes people feel more seen and cared for than seeing their potential and pushing them to meet it

Note, Dr. Druskat makes it clear that caring about people on your team does not mean having a social relationship. Members do not need to be friends or even particularly like each other. Your culture does need to foster respect for teammates and an expectation of giving each other the benefit of a doubt. People should go out of their way to have each other’s backs. 

A big bonus of making sure people have each other’s best interest in mind is that it builds a lot of trust. To see why team trust is critical to success and how to build it, check out this blog

4. Consistent self assessment of team emotions

Mirroring the self-awareness aspect of individual EQ, you need to build in periodic and realistic self assessments. Try some of these questions:

  • Are you doing what you said you would do? 
  • Is the team performing at the level you all hope for? 
  • What barriers are holding you back? 
  • What’s not being said that needs to be said? 
  • What is the general mood of the team? 


As a leader you will need to proactively communicate the good, the bad, and the ugly. If you ask others to do so, but you only speak in platitudes, no one else is going to speak up with bad news. Then listen and act! A huge way to destroy psychological safety is to ask for feedback and then tell people they are wrong. At Cairn Leadership we have a rule about receiving feedback: you can only say thank you. Think it over, then ask clarifying questions if you need to. If at all possible, do something about the feedback. I even try to implement ‘bad’ feedback as long as I don’t think it will be detrimental to the team. I am often pleasantly surprised by good results from what I thought were ‘bad’ ideas. 

5. Be proactive problem solvers

No one wants to feel helpless, and being on a reactive team makes us feel that way. Reactive teams are battered by issue after issue like being tossed in ocean waves. Leaders who push their team to seek out and address future risks and potential problems (see this blog for tips) will help their team sidestep major issues and find major opportunities. This proactive approach builds a collective sense of self-efficacy, a sense that whatever comes up will be surmountable. People want to work in a place like that, build a mindset that allows them to truly embrace adversity.  

6. Build a culture of cautious optimism

In general an optimistic team will outperform a negative team. Consider the famous quote attributed to Henry Ford, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” It sounds nice to say ‘be positive,’ but building a culture in which your team believes it will succeed will actually make you more likely to succeed. Dr. Druskat notes that this also minimizes anxiety and other negative emotions that people might feel under stress. Instead of worrying about succeeding, an optimistic team will be excited for the new challenge. 

The key here is to be cautiously optimistic, or more accurately realistic. Ben Horowitz shares that if you project false optimism with a serious headwind, your team won’t take the situation seriously. Then when you fail because no one understood how much effort would be required until too late, your people will stop trusting you. They will feel like you have been lying to them about the situation. To avoid them, focus on reality when it comes to the situation and optimism when it comes to your team’s ability to overcome the odds.  

7. Understand the team’s organizational context

I remember being constantly frustrated as a junior officer in the Navy. My bosses did not understand what I was trying to do and kept making my job harder. As I gained rank and responsibility, the big picture became more clear. My bosses just understood all of the parts of the situation and my part had to give a little. 

You and your team should constantly be building relationships with other teams that you serve and teams that serve you. When interorganizational missions are aligned and communication flows freely, your organization can do big things and that directly benefits your team. 

Make it a priority to meet with other team leaders and have your team members do the same with their peers in other departments. You will all get smarter and your team will stand out in the organization. 

8. Create weak ties outside the organization

Pioneering sociologist Mark Granovetter found that that our success is more linked to weak ties than strong ties. Weak ties are acquaintances and loose connections with people who are different from you as opposed to strong ties or deep relationships that have been forged over years of common work and interest. It seems counter intuitive, but if your team actively builds relationships with departments for no other reason than to have a tie, you’ll be able to get insights and resources when you most need them. 

Chances are people and departments with strong ties won’t actually have the resources you need in a complex situation (see this article for ways to use systems thinking to solve complex problems). Strong tie connections will have more of what you have, because they are similar to you. Put lunch meetings with company stakeholders, suppliers, other departments in your budget. You’ll thank yourself one day and your people will feel like they have more tools at their disposal when challenges inevitably arise. 

Team emotional intelligence provides the cultural building blocks you need.

If you do three things this week after reading this, ensure you have a clear team charter, spend time getting to know your people beyond their team functions, and take actions that demonstrate that you value your people as employees and humans. Building and changing culture takes a lot of work, we know because it’s what we help companies do. 

Want help creating and enforcing healthy emotional norms on your team? We specialize in diagnosing team emotional intelligence gaps and helping you build the culture you need to grow sustainably. Learn more here!

Questions? We'd love to hear from you! 

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