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Heart Over Head – The Impact of Emotional Intelligence on Staff Wellbeing

Editorial introduction:

When I read through this blog again recently, I couldn’t believe how much had changed in the meantime in the UK political landscape. How many prime ministers were there in 2022? Yet the premise of the blog remains relevant now as we establish ourselves beyond the pandemic and continue to navigate many other challenges, globally and closer to home.

The authors remind us that emotionally intelligent managers are people who are able to be self-aware and aware of others. The idea of an EI ‘credit score’ is introduced and the authors emphasise the benefits for other staff, too, if they are working with an EI leader. What’s clear to me is that emotional intelligence is about far more than adopting a tokenistic ‘duty of care’ approach to staff; being emotionally intelligent is about actually caring about and for their staff.

So, this blog is a timely reminder to check in with ourselves and others as we open ourselves up to whatever the rest of 2023 has in store! If you’ve enjoyed reading this blog, do go over to Twitter and comment, using the hashtag #BELMASblog

– Suzanne Culshaw

Heart Over Head – the Impact of Emotional Intelligence on Staff Wellbeing

Andy Coleman and Azhar Ali

“I don’t think at any time [the Prime Minister] thought he was breaking the law. I think at the time he thought [he was acting] just like many teachers and nurses who after a very, very long shift tended to go back to the staffroom and have a quiet drink…” Michael Fabricant MP (BBC News, 12 April 2022).


This was Michael Fabricant MP responding to confirmation that the then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson was to be fined for breaching lockdown regulations. Fabricant’s words undoubtedly touched a nerve for many of us working within the education sector. While our reactions may have been moderated through our personal political persuasion, many of us nevertheless experienced a deep, visceral response to his words as our recollections of the huge professional challenges and personal traumas we and our colleagues faced during the pandemic came flooding back. However, once those feelings subsided, what might Fabricant’s words tell us about our expectations of our leaders? This question cuts to the heart of the concept of Emotional Intelligence [EI], the focus of this blog.

Emotional Intelligence

While Emotional Intelligence can be defined in a variety of ways, one common ‘working’ definition involves the ability to accurately diagnose and monitor both one’s own feelings and those of another, before utilizing this information to guide one’s thinking and actions to manage this relationship to a desired outcome (eg Marembo and Chinyamurindi 2018).

EI is not new, and academic interest in managing emotions dates back to the early 20th century. EI also remains a ‘uniquely controversial area of the social science’ (McCleskey 2014:76) for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, there is increasing evidence of its importance within the context of leader-follower relationships, not least the extent to which our perceptions of a leader’s capacity for EI informs our willingness to follow them. This is perhaps especially the case during periods of challenge and disruption during which we feel at our most vulnerable.

Our study (Coleman and Ali, 2022) was conducted during the early stages of the pandemic. We examined the importance staff – in one HE professional services team – placed on their manager’s perceived EI capability. While recognizing the limited scale of this study, our findings are nevertheless unequivocal as to the impact Emotional Quotient (EQ) can have and the importance of leaders proactively building a positive ‘EI credit score’ with their teams.

Two findings are particularly eye catching.

Firstly, the overwhelming majority of participants in our study reported that simply perceiving their manager as more emotionally intelligent had the potential to promote personal wellbeing [92%], while simultaneously reducing anxiety [87%] and stress [85%]. Having an ‘EI’ manager therefore has the potential to positively impact our mental health.

As a practicing middle manager, it’s particularly easy to relate to this. Life for middle managers brings its own unique challenges with the position. Receiving and processing instructions and messages from above can often involve clarification, conflict and challenge, each of which is facilitated through displays of EI involving openness and understanding. The subsequent stages of dissemination to and implementation with the wider team also call for EI, for instance through demonstrating the ability to regulate one’s own uncertainties or frustrations, when seeking to gain buy-in, or by providing support and reassurance to team members who may already be overworked and under-pressure.

Secondly, the study found clear evidence that perceiving your manager as emotionally intelligent could boost your motivation and performance, with almost all staff reporting that observing their manager displaying EI had a positive impact in these regards.

Within the context of HE professional services, this finding has significant implications. For example, professional services staff who work with researchers are often required to provide high quality outputs at short notice and with a fast turnaround. This can involve working long hours, taking on additional responsibility or covering for colleagues. Furthermore, such staff can often feel that they do not receive recognition proportionate to their input, with the academic principal researcher too often taking the plaudits for successful bids and project delivery. Conversely, when bids are unsuccessful, professional staff can sometimes find themselves being the focus for frustration, and potentially the ‘fall guy’ for this failure. As a manager, displaying EI helps ensure staff recognize their manager as having a stake in ensuring their support. In turn, this can promoting a sense of security, which in turn can sustain motivation and performance.

Concluding comments

Let’s return to Michael Fabricant’s comments. In the months that have passed, the pandemic has now faded from our front pages as other events have overtaken it, including the Queen’s death, war in the Ukraine and the cost-of-living crisis.  Few of us would have anticipated any of these. However, in a world that’s increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) (Mack and Khare 2016), we can be sure that in the future other significant events will continue to present us with fresh challenges.

Proactively building a positive EI ‘credit rating’ is essential if teams are to trust in their managers – and indeed if we are to trust each other- to lead us through such turbulence and difficulties. As a first step, we argue that prioritizing empathy, one of the five commonly recognized characteristics of EI, is especially important. Yet it is insufficient to simply consider oneself to be empathic – our study highlights the importance of being recognized as such by others. On a practical level, this can involve a wide variety of behaviours, for instance demonstrating caring for others, understanding and a willingness to genuinely listen to them. It’s essentially about showing that ‘you’re one of us, we’re on the same side’. And if there’s one thing that the pandemic taught us, surely, it’s that when troubles come, regardless of our role, we are, genuinely, all in it together.


BBC News (2022) “Boris Johnson behaved like teachers, nurses in having lockdown work drinks”

Coleman, A., Ali, A. (2022) Emotional Intelligence: its importance to HE professional services team members during challenging times, Management in Education.

Mack, O., Khare, A (2016), Perspectives on a VUCA world, in  Mack, O., Khare, A., Krämer, A., & Burgartz, T., (2016). Managing in a VUCA World (1st edition), Springer, online.

McCleskey J (2014) Emotional intelligence and leadership: A review of the progress, controversy, and criticism. International journal of organizational analysis (2005) 22(1). Bingley: Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing Limited: 76–93. DOI: 10.1108/IJOA-03-2012-0568.

Marembo M and Chinyamurindi WT (2018) Impact of demographic variables on emotional intelligence levels amongst a sample of early career academics at a South African higher education institution. SA Journal of Human Resource Management 16(1). Tygervalley: Tygervalley: African Online Scientific Information Systems (Pty) Ltd t/a AOSIS: e1–e9. DOI:10.4102/sajhrm.v16i0.1051.


Dr Andy Coleman is a Lecturer of Leadership in the School of Strategy and Leadership at Coventry University, and formerly Head of Research at the National College for School Leadership.

Azhar Ali is a Senior Research Delivery Partner at Coventry University. He has over ten years HE experience and in 2020 completed his MA in Leadership and Management.