A global study by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services (HBR-AS) and presented by Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts calls for a corporate culture transformation driven by the power of emotional intelligence (EI).
For many years, EI has been the cornerstone of empowered, engaged and energetic corporate cultures. Yet the study outlines a troubling trend: companies worldwide are underestimating the value of EI, and there is a growing disconnect between what executives are saying about the importance of company culture and what they are actually doing.
Emotional intelligence is a combination of self-awareness, self-control, empathy and social skills. It is the bedrock of deep personal relationships and fosters an environment wherein employees can innovate, solve problems and feel empowered to serve as ambassadors for their brand. Nonetheless, EI is often downplayed as a ‘nice-to-have’ soft skill when compared to other skills such as mental toughness, drive, and analytical ability.
Four Seasons has long celebrated the importance of EI in building its world-renowned service culture and is internationally recognized as an employer of choice, including having been named a “Great Place to Work Legend”. Inspired by this legacy, Four Seasons sponsored the HBR-AS study to elevate the discourse around corporate culture and champion the “EI Advantage” as an important driver of company culture innovation.
“Long before the term emotional intelligence was coined, Four Seasons Founder and Chairman Isadore Sharp understood that empathetic, self-aware employees would build a sustainable competitive advantage in a fiercely competitive industry,” says Christian Clerc, President, Worldwide Hotel Operations, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts.
Change is hard, and cultural change is even harder,” continues Clerc. “More than ever, customers are seeking connections with the companies who serve them, and emotionally intelligent employees are the key to delivering authentic customer experience. For companies to succeed, they must keep pace with social change and the expectations of new generations. They must have a purpose that extends beyond financial goals, and a work environment that brings out the best in its people. In this context, prioritizing emotional intelligence represents nothing less than the evolution of the modern workplace.”
The study takes a close look at EI in the workplace to better understand the gap between theory and practice, as well as the reasons why some organizations embrace EI skills and why others dismiss it as a ‘soft skill’. Mastery of EI skills has become more critical as employees, particularly those on the front lines, make decisions that can materially impact a brand’s reputation and its connection to customers – for better or worse.
“Companies love to talk about the importance of their people and the strength of their human-centric workplace, yet many fail to promote EI among their leaders and their workforce,” says Alex Clemente, managing director, HBR-AS. “This research shows that many companies struggle to champion EI and reap the myriad benefits for their organizations – including happier, motivated, and effective employees. Even more, employers wanting to create the workplace of the future – the one that millennials are demanding – must understand that ignoring EI not only has a grave impact on their human capital but ultimately on their future success.”
HBR-AS Research Report Key Findings 
The study presents ample evidence to illustrate that emotionally intelligent companies report higher levels of productivity and employee engagement than those that ignore EI. This advantage gives them an innovation premium through stronger customer loyalty and profitability, as well as employee engagement and satisfaction. In study after study, poor corporate cultures and those with languid purposes are often the primary culprits standing in the way of everything from achieving digital transformation to creating exemplary customer experiences. According to the survey, sidelining EI has significant consequences, including low productivity, lukewarm innovation, and an uninspired workforce.
Key findings from the report include:
- The EI Advantage: Employees with high EI skills are more likely to form creative teams, bring multiple perspectives to challenging issues and find innovative solutions. EI gives organizations an “innovation premium” by fostering the cultural ingredients that spur innovation, including empowerment, communication, collaboration and a higher tolerance for risk. Among emotionally intelligent companies (those that emphasize and promote EI), almost two-thirds (64%) strongly or somewhat agree that their organization “offers a high degree of empowerment with clear decision rights, incentives, and risk tolerance.”
- EI Enhances the Customer Experience: Emotionally intelligent organizations report significantly stronger customer experiences (37% vs. 8%) and higher levels of customer loyalty (40% vs. 12%) and customer advocacy (31% vs. 8%) than companies that don’t perceive the value of EI or foster its development among their employees. The results of the study are clear: when corporate cultures embrace risk and encourage strong interpersonal skills, employees are more engaged, leading to better products, services, and experiences for customers.
- The EI Deficit and Disconnect: Less than one-fifth (18%) of respondents have EI engrained in their corporate culture. Half of the respondents are either neutral or uncommitted to EI, and one-third (33%) don’t perceive its value to their organization. Even more troubling is that only one in ten organizations assess company-wide EI skills, demonstrating that there is still significant room for improvement. What’s more, there is a stark disconnect between employees and the companies they work for when it comes to investing and valuing EI skills. In the survey, employees placed a high value on EI skills such as self-awareness, empathy, and sense of humor, whereas their employers placed little to almost no value on these skills, instead of valuing skills such as drive and mental toughness.
- Millennials Matter: Study after study echoes the refrain: millennials are the future workforce, replacing a generation of baby boomers gradually entering retirement. Twenty-seven percent of survey respondents believe Millennials expect purpose and meaning in their work, and place purpose high on their list of career priorities, well above incentives and rewards (10%) and technological advancements (5%). Millennials are alienated by organizations that are neither inclusive nor have a shared purpose, and organizations that don’t recognize and prioritize EI skills will have increasing difficulty attracting and retaining Millennial employees.
- The Gap Between Theory and Practice: While emotionally intelligent companies are making progress on the implementation of practical steps to prioritize EI, there’s still room for improvement. A small number embed EI skills into job descriptions and performance reviews (27%), and a somewhat larger percentage provides classes, seminars and online courses (40%). One-half or fewer provide EI-inspired coaching and mentoring. The struggle to tangibly invest in EI may even begin in college: one respondent noted that “top-tier MBA programs actually destroy a student’s emotional intelligence” by focusing on so-called “hard traits” such as analytical skill and decisiveness.