A team can have everything going for it – the brightest and most qualified people, access to resources, a clear mission – but still fail because it lacks group emotional intelligence.’ – Building the Emotional Intelligence of Groups, Vanessa Urch Druskat and Steven B. Wolff

Personality and emotions are hardwired in each of us. However, emotionally intelligent individuals choose their reactions to a stimulus. They learn to read and influence other people’s feelings and opinions. In the high-performing teams, where relationships are part and parcel of the unit’s success, helping employees develop this skill has big payoffs.

In their landmark research findings, published by Harvard Business Review as ‘Building the Emotional Intelligence of Groups’, Vanessa Urch Druskat and Steven B. Wolff emphasise how emotional intelligence underlies the productive processes of unbeaten teams.

Team emotional intelligence is more intricate than individual emotional intelligence as teams interact on multiple levels, says Druskat and Wolff. The team as an entity must be aware of each member’s emotions, the group’s collective sentiment, and the moods of other groups and individuals outside its boundaries.

Leadership should bring to life the necessary conditions in which team members can develop their emotional intelligence. Those conditions are 1) trust among members, 2) an awareness of group identity and 3) a sense of group efficacy.

Emotional intelligence cultivates assertiveness

Writing for Forbes, Michele Markey is a specialist in personal and professional development training. She guides managers to help build emotional intelligence in high-performing teams. Firstly, she says, leaders should themselves be self-aware and demonstrate pro-social behaviour. Then, they should create an atmosphere where team members have a voice and can express their feelings. However, explosive anger and/ or volatile frustration should not be the norm. Instead, leadership should encourage assertiveness.

Assertive means expressing oneself persuasively, standing up for one’s point of view, while also respecting the rights and beliefs of others.

Assertiveness often doesn’t come naturally to most people. However, a high-performing team consists of emotionally intelligent individuals who have mastered the art of this social competence.

An emotionally intelligent team that values assertiveness creates an open space for feedback.

Assertiveness bolsters team members to process (negative) feedback

Feedback – both positive and negative – is critical to helping team members enhance their best qualities and address areas of development. In their article ‘What Good Feedback Really Looks Like’, Craig Chappelow and Cindy McCauley say that “harsh feedback does not help people thrive and excel”.

Instead, effective appraisals need to be delivered with respect and care. Frequent or exclusively negative comments can spark self-shielding reactions that dampen motivation and increases distrust. However, ignoring weaknesses is one of the most significant contributors to team derailments.

When appraisals focus only on strengths, team members are lulled into a false sense of confidence. It also gives leadership an easy way out towards fostering necessary — and sometimes tricky — development in their reports, which ultimately compromises the team’s effectiveness.

Instead of encouraging people to avoid negative feedback, Chappelow and McCauley say that “we should focus on how to deliver negative feedback in ways that minimize the threat response.”

They suggest delivering feedback using the Situation-Behaviour-Impact (SBI) model. The model addresses both strengths and weaknesses in a clear, specific, professional and caring way. Feedback providers first note the context in which behaviour occurred. Then they describe the action — what they saw and heard. The final step is to explain the impact the conduct had on the team’s success.

Jennifer Porter, a corporate team coach writing for Harvard Business Review, says that leadership ought to include two more steps to the SBI model. The first is to give feedback on patterns of behaviour that leverage specific events as examples. Looking at patterns, Porter explains, assists in alleviating recency bias, where people tend to recall and over-estimate events in their short-term memory. The second is to suggest an alternative set of behaviours while simultaneously offering support to achieve that goal.

Leadership sets the pace with 360-degree feedback systems

While many of us struggle to hear it, constructive negative feedback serves as powerful fuel towards change. One must keep in mind that feedback is not an attack on one’s identity; it is a learning opportunity where certain behaviours are being addressed. The Elite Team’s collective mindset is always tuned in for feedback; they do not interpret it as personal confrontations.

Even leadership – and perhaps, especially leadership – of Elite Teams seek out their team’s honest evaluation. Research published in the Journal of Personnel Psychology has found that 360-degree feedback recipients who get unfavourable ratings tend to improve their performance more than those who get measured favourably. To take it even further, the Centre for Creative Leadership has found that successful executives credit all types of potentially threatening events (for example, making a business mistake or losing star performers) as key drivers of their development.

Reacting to criticism

It’s good to keep in mind that all feedback – even negative feedback – is a sign of interest and an indication that the team cares for each other’s performance. Negative feedback is an excellent opportunity to prove maturity and to show cooperation. Writing for Forbes, leadership specialist Jacquelyn Smith suggests absorbing negative feedback using the following psychological techniques:

  • Own it and hone it.

Accept the feedback, reflect on it, then make the necessary changes.

  • Assume good intentions.

They are commenting on your work, not you as a person.

  • Use it as a chance to clarify expectations and goals around your position.

You might have not completely understood what was expected of you.

  • Treat negative feedback as an opportunity to bond with your manager.

If you’re in a situation where you need help or support, this is the time to say it.

  • Utilise this opportunity to find a mentor.

Take charge of your development and find a mentor to back you.

Unfortunately, ineffectual leaders – or workplace bullies – do sometimes use unfair and overly negative feedback as a tool to demean and control others. In offering feedback, Chappelow and McCauley caution managers: leadership telling someone how to fix a problem is often the wrong approach. Leaders will foster more learning by asking questions that stimulate reflection and coaching team members into exploration and experimentation.


Smither, J.W., London, M., & Reilly, R.R. (2005). Does performance improve following multisource feedback? A theoretical model, meta-analysis, and review of empirical findings. Retrieved from http://leeds-faculty.colorado.edu/dahe7472/Smither%20performance.pdf.

Wilson, S.W., Van Velsor, E., Chandrasekar, A., & Criswell, C. (2016). Grooming Top Leaders, Cultural Perspectives from China, India, Singapore, and the United States. Retrieved from https://www.ccl.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/GroomingTopLeaders.pdf.

Porter, J. (2017). How to Give Feedback People Can Actually Use. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2017/10/how-to-give-feedback-people-can-actually-use.

Buckingham, M., & Goodall. (2019). The Feedback Fallacy. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2019/03/the-feedback-fallacy.

Chappelow, C., & McCauley, C. (2019). What Good Feedback Really Looks Like. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2019/05/what-good-feedback-really-looks-like.

Markey, M. (2018). How to Increase Emotional Intelligence On Your Team. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbeshumanresourcescouncil/2018/09/18/how-to-increase-emotional-intelligence-on-your-team/#154b3aac1fa1.

Rampton, J. (unsure) 7 Ways to Create Emotionally Intelligent Teams. Retrieved from https://execed.economist.com/blog/guest-post/7-ways-create-emotionally-intelligent-teams.

Knight, R. (2014). How to Give Your Team Feedback. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2014/06/how-to-give-your-team-feedback.

Heen, S. (2014). Get Better at Receiving Feedback. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/video/3166586126001/get-better-at-receiving-feedback.

Grote, D. (2015). How to Handle Negative Feedback. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2015/08/how-to-handle-negative-feedback.

Smith, J. (2014). 8 Ways Negative Feedback Can Lead To Greater Success At Work. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/jacquelynsmith/2014/01/29/8-ways-negative-feedback-can-lead-to-greater-success-at-work/#76c2acf72c69.

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