Emotional intelligence and key principles to increase your capacity to succeed



Emotional intelligence (EI) is a topic of concern and curiosity for many project managers today. More companies are looking for better soft skills in their project managers and stakeholders who are involved with projects in their organizations. So why is EI such an important subject for today? It boils down to relationships and how we manage them, or mismanage them, in every day work environments. Why is this critical for project managers today? This paper primarily explains the five key areas involved in emotional intelligence for project managers. Self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship management, and team leadership are defined and, hopefully, understood as to their role in emotional intelligence.


Much has been said about emotional intelligence (EI) and its impact on project management and project managers specifically. Recent studies have shown significant differences in individual performance and career success with project managers who understand and utilize key EI principles and integrate them into their daily work. Studies at several large companies, including major oil companies, have shown that their people who were most successful in their companies had 15 traits in common. Of those traits, 73% were related to EI and 27% of the traits were related to IQ. Emotional intelligence matters 2 ½ times much as IQ (Goleman, 1988, p. 31). Therefore, EI is not an issue—it is the issue supporting success in the work place and in our personal lives as well.

Emotional Intelligence—Key Questions That Arise

What is the heart of emotional intelligence? The base is that paradigms (based on beliefs and values) power perceptions, perceptions power emotions, emotions power attitudes, and attitudes determine behavior (Young, 2007, p. 199). Therefore, if you, a co-worker, or a friend have a behavior problem (e.g., anger) you must go back to the perceptions and thoughts that power that emotion. In addition, if your perception is false then your resulting emotions may very well be false (incorrect). People who worry about everything have many false perceptions that feeds the anxiety resulting from worrying. If you worry long enough, your body will respond to the negative thoughts. Soon illness and disease can affect your body. The purpose of emotions is to get you to focus—not react. This is a key to understanding EI.

What is the compelling reason for understanding EI for project managers? First, it is to learn how to succeed as a leader and become a top project manager. Second, personal success then translates into increased job satisfaction and an improved personal life. Too many people spend their careers climbing the ladder of success only to get to the top and find their ladder is leaning against the wrong building.

How will emotional intelligence help you? First, it will help you understand your own emotions and develop a self-awareness of how you handle your emotions. Do you have any idea how dangerous it is NOT to be in touch with your feelings? Why worry about feelings? Our feelings, and how we manage them, are the key to successful relationships both professionally and personally. Hard work will not always make the difference in the outcome of the projects we handle. Career and relationship challenges are related to your emotions. The better use of emotional intelligence, the better a project is managed and, as a result, you become a better leader. It has been documented that project managers with strong EI understanding handle larger projects successfully with more people better than those with less EI knowledge. For example, there was a man and a woman that scored 800 on their SAT exams—very bright people. Twenty-five years later the man was head of a consulting company of one—himself. The woman was the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. The difference between the two was she that understood EI.

Second, EI will help you manage change and deal with conflict. The result is greater productivity and stronger relationships, which insure success in many projects. Anthony Mersino (2007) said, “The truth was that I wasn’t aware of my feelings or emotions. I was about as emotionally aware as a small green soap dish. If I could have taken an emotional intelligence [test] at that time, I would have been considered the village idiot…. I began to see a connection between my lack of emotional awareness and my limited success in project management” (p. 4.). How many project managers today can say the same thing? Mersino continued, “My project management style was as a taskmaster, I was all business. Unfortunately I placed a higher value on tasks, productivity, and outcomes than on relationships” (p. 4). How many of you recognize this scenario? Probably one of the biggest problems facing project managers today is relationships. We are not talking about impressing people, but understanding our emotions and others people’s emotions. It is having a mindset that nurtures relationships rather than hindering them.

The house that emotional intelligence built has five key segments (Exhibit 1):

  1. self-awareness,
  2. self-management,
  3. social awareness,
  4. relationship management, and
  5. team leadership.
Emotional Intelligence Framework for Project Management (Mersino, 2007, p.24)

Exhibit 1. Emotional Intelligence Framework for Project Management (Mersino, 2007, p. 24)


It is probably the most important because until you know how you tick, you cannot determine how you relate to others. More important, it is what you need to identify and change in order to relate more effectively with others. That is why it is dangerous not to be in touch with your feelings. Until you get in touch with your feelings, you will not really know what sets you off, what gets you back on track and, more importantly, why you lose control of your emotions in certain situations. Some answers are simple and easy to correct yet, others are much deeper and require more knowledge and understanding. You need to know how you operate. An example is anger; anger is a secondary emotion. So what is really behind one’s expressed anger? It could be something that happened last week or something that began in your childhood. Regardless, there are many reasons including rejection, abandonment, fear, resentment, unforgivingness, or abuse (verbal, physical, or emotional). The challenge is we probably never know the why in many situations including our own emotion outbursts.

So how do we determine how we tick and what sets us off? One technique is to start keeping a journal. Get a stenographer notebook and start today. Every day, write down what happened in your day, who was involved, and how it affected you emotionally. If you do this faithfully for 30 days, you will see distinct patterns in how you manage situations involving emotions, and you will find out your emotional quotient with co-workers and friends. You may find out someone you have always trusted puts you down continually and you didn’t recognize it. In your journal, write down situations that occurred, who was involved, how you responded emotionally, and how it went— good or bad. This will identify what are your hot buttons and what results when they are pushed.

When you write about situations that occur each day and YOUR emotional reactions, over time, you will understand what your hot buttons are and how often people push them. In addition, you will learn what activates emotions in you as well and how co-workers and friends react to you and to others during an average workday. You may find that someone you trusted has a extreme emotional reaction to many of your ideas. This requires adjustment in the way you interact with various people based on the understanding of your emotions. You will begin to learn a lot about who you are. After 30 days, take an inventory of the emotions that were good, bad, or indifferent. You may come to understand who you are. This is the beginning of the journey.

You can even learn how to interact with difficult people. You say, “But, I can’t trust them.” You don’t need to. You can have an effective work relationship (not personal) without trust, although it is desirable to have trust. The key to working with difficult people is the same as with regular people. Find out who they are and empathize with them. I always recommend taking them to lunch and paying for it (somewhere nice, not McDonald’s). After asking a few questions, the other person is able to talk about him or herself for an hour. So, the next meeting you are in, this person may react to the person on your right or on your left but not you because you asked how his daughter was that morning. That is relationship in process. You will that find many people are just broken and hurt because of what life has dealt them. It may have happened 10, 20, or even 30 years ago, but they are just looking for the closest person to lash out on and who will allow it.

You may find that someone you trust has severe emotional reactions to many of your ideas. How then can you adjust your emotions to interact with this person more effectively? Based on an understanding of the emotions that this person displays, you can form a new and better relationship. The next time you see them you will have something to talk to them about and practice emotional intelligence. That is substantially better than avoiding them when you see them. One of my students said on one of his projects that he had a consultant who was so demanding and vicious in his interaction with others that even the partners in his company avoided meetings with him. This student got along with the consultant because he took time to find out why this consultant acted the way he did. He determined that most of the people who interacted with him always brought partial information to meetings, and they were not prepared. This upset the consultant. He had no use for them and showed it! My student took the time to determine how he evaluated data, what to ask him, and was prepared when meeting with him. Instead of avoiding him, the other person became useful in completing project tasks. My student took the time to find out why he acted the way he did. See the difference?


To understand emotional intelligence, self-management is crucial. One key to self-management is to practice self-control. It results in people being further in their careers than those without self-control are. If you don’t manage and control your schedule you may not get your deliverables done in time.

Another key in self-management is to look for emotional triggers. These events set up emotional breakdowns. Moods of others or even your physical environment could cause a breakdown. Sometimes criticism, perceived or real, can trigger a strong emotional response. People who have experienced trauma in their lives (which may include most of us) can be especially sensitive to any form of criticism.

Fatigue is a common and unfortunate cause of emotional breakdowns in many situations. Actually, I believe after 9, 10, or many more hours, we become ineffective and counterproductive in our work. I have heard about an executive here in Dallas, TX, that doesn’t work beyond 7:38 p.m. He figured that when he stays beyond 7:38 p. m., he spends the next morning cleaning up messes caused because his inability to focus and think clearly late at night. Others just continue and spend time cleaning up messes the next day, and then call that progress. Your brain does amazing work but it gets tired much sooner than you think. Your brain folds and goes to sleep and you just keep trucking unaware of what has happened.

We need to identify our own emotional patterns by looking at ourselves and see how we interact with others. How often do we use the words “always” and “never?” Rarely is anything always or never. We say this based on our inner emotions when do not want to believe the best of someone. Look for emotional patterns in your own life. The best way to accomplish this is to begin keeping a journal as I suggested previously. This will allow a valid self-evaluation whereby you can tell what sets you off internally (slow burn) or externally (big bang—where you lose your cool). Be firm and realistic in your journal entries. If you blow it, be honest with yourself and say so. This is not a time to cover up your emotions. Too many of us are experts at covering our emotions, and we have had years of experience. We need to be realistic with our emotions’ patterns if we are going to change or improve them so we can be more effective project managers. One key to assist in self-management if to find someone you can use for a sounding board to pass situations by and get their input. This may be your spouse or someone at work you can trust to be honest with you. For a man it should be a man and for a woman it should be a woman. It is also good to have a mentor in your life to allow yourself to learn regardless of where you are. Accountability groups can serve a useful purpose

Social awareness.

This involves empathy which is putting yourself in another person’s place to understand how they feel or more importantly why they feel the way they do. The key to empathy is that you have to “suspend judgment.” Then and only then will you truly understand another’s plight or situation. The worst thing you can say in many cases is “You should do ___________.” That’s not empathy. That’s bossing or imposing your opinion on someone else without taking the time to understand their feelings and emotional condition. That’s why your best friends are listeners.

Also involved in social awareness is organizational awareness. This involves reading emotions and political realities in groups where social networks and key power relationships can be detected. For instance, pinpointing who advises whom and understanding how they have gained from using emotional intelligence (EI) in relating to others, you too can gain from the benefits of using EI effectively at an enterprise level as well as at an individual level.

See others clearly—what we feel, what they feel, and watch for emotional words. You need to recognize your own bias earlier defined as paradigms. Paradigms are the beliefs and values developed over your lifetime. Study others with an open mind and with no predefined conclusions that remove groups of people from consideration. I worked for a boss once that told me he hated fat people until he became one of them. That took care of that bias. Learn what others think and care about. The best technique I know is going to lunch with them and you paying for their meal. Do this with members of your staff and just listen. Do it with key stakeholders and members of your management. Knowing who people are and what goes on in their lives goes a long way towards having effective relationships. Remember you don’t have to jump into the ditch someone is in to empathize with the ditch they are in. I used to think if someone had a problem, my job was to fix it for him or her. That was short lived—people have too many problems and I am busy with my own problems.

Emotional boundaries are the last key element of social awareness. They are when one person’s emotion leaves and another person’s starts. For example, the moods of others will hook you. Remember you cannot fix others. You are responsible for YOUR emotions and feelings.

Relationship management.

It involves stakeholders as well as team members and those close to you. Stakeholder relationships are critical for any project. We must manage the project team and all project stakeholders (more difficult). We need relationship strategies based on the priority of stakeholder. Stakeholders are at many different levels and we have to span all levels sometimes simultaneously. We may have to coordinate with a vice president and a factory worker in the same day on the same project. Meet with key stakeholders periodically to ensure you are on the same page and meet sometimes without an agenda so you can understand and know who THEY are as a person. Relationships and trust are developed based on time together not just work effort. I know people who are great workers in their field but are not interested in people. This is a career-limiting attitude (CLA). I also know people who are not interested in other people AND appear to drive others away with their emotional outbursts and continual emotional meltdowns. These people are no fun to work with. Whether you have a good relationship with them or not depends on you, not them. We must always take the higher ground in establishing relationships.

Find the most difficult person you work with and take that person to lunch. Go to a nice place and say “my treat.” Ask inquiring questions like “Where did you grow up?” “What are your outside interests?” “What did you enjoy doing growing up?” These should get the conversation going. Let that person talk. You will learn more about them in 60 to 90 minutes than years of working with them at a distance emotionally. You will also, in many cases, find the hurt that has turned them against the world and people in general. Maybe this person missed a promotion or had a bad departure from another company. Often the source of the problem began in their childhood. The root behind difficult people many times is rejection, abandonment, abuse (verbal, emotional, or physical) or a host of other traumatic events in a person’s life. You are not there to counsel but empathize (put yourself in his or her place to understand). The next time you interact with them and greet them with “How is your daughter?” or “Have you been fishing lately?” It will be based on knowledge rather than going through motions to be polite. This is how relationships develop. You say, but they are really a sneaky person. You do not need to have trust to have a relationship; sometimes it is not possible immediately. You have to begin somewhere and sometimes the road is long.

We must have an attitude to develop others. Just as we like to have someone mentor us and others to be a sounding board , we must be ready to be a mentor to someone with less experience and maturity to help them get one up . This may be a co-worker or a youngster at a school down the street, there is someone somewhere whom you can be a positive influence. This requires a time commitment so you may not see every basketball or baseball game that season.

Team leadership.

This has four key areas to build the best team.

  1. Communicating is critical to understanding and managing the emotional tone of the team. A team can have an EI tone of its own. Recently, I heard a presentation about the new joint strike force aircraft being developed in Dallas and other parts of the world. The manufacturers select their employees based on their EI skills as well as the technical requirements. When the presentation was finished, I went up to the presenter and said, “You would not have a plane in the air IF you had not applied EI to your project and require your people to use it.” He said, “You are right.” Thousands of people in several countries working on the same project with thousands of parts and 750,000 activities and creating a product that they agree on is phenomenal.
  2. Managing conflict is a valuable component in team development. Using EI to solve conflicts is only natural; it has substantially less fallout and results in stronger relationships rather than weaker or failed relationships.
  3. Providing inspirational leadership is necessary. It involves casting a vision to motivate your team, engaging your team members, and inspiring them to achieve for themselves and the team.
  4. Improving project management team leadership is a key part of any team process. This involves getting the right people, communicating successfully, and motivating and preparing the path for your team members to succeed. This means spending time to take out roadblocks and landmines that may hinder or stop your team’s progress. It is like a shepherd with his sheep. Before going into a new pasture, a shepherd goes ahead and removes all vegetation that may be poisonous or harmful to the sheep. Sheep are not smart, and they eat everything in sight. The shepherd avoids disaster by looking ahead at what could happen. Project managers should do the same thing. This will make your team members available to do their work without distractions and increase their productivity. It’s a win-win situation for everybody.


You can change by controlling your thoughts, understanding your own emotions and others’, developing a positive attitude, and letting your behavior influence the atmosphere in your work place. When you analyze your thoughts, make a decision to accept or reject each thought. Applying emotional intelligence can give you an edge for your future success. Try it!


There are numerous principles that can assist us in being successful.

  1. Silence Cannot Be Misquoted (Murdock, 1990, p. 85), but almost anything else can be. Words are a key to your future.
    • •    It’s not what other people say about us that matters, it’s what you believe about yourself.
    • •    Words are your bridge to your future.
    • •    Every idle word can affect you and your future.
    • •    Be silent in advertising your own mistakes and discussing people you work with.

    When you hear something, you must evaluate it based on if it negative or positive. It is one or the other. Many people like to say something negative and then say, “I was only kidding.” They were not kidding. What is on the heart comes out of the mouth—good, bad, or ugly. Watch out for people like this, they are not friends. Check your close relationships and ask yourself “Do I feel encouraged or down after being with this person?” If the answer is you feel down, you probably need a new friend.

    It takes 20 to 30 positive encounters with a person to offset one bad impression. I was working on a project once and picked up the phone with someone yelling in my ear “Where is my $854,000?” There was no introduction before or after. The answer showed that her people had spent 70% of the amount of that money and our group spent 15%. That was my ONLY impression of that person. I never had 1, 2, or 20 other impressions to offset my original impression. I have never been impressed with yellers and most people aren’t. Watch your words—they’re powerful—one way or another. It expresses your character or lack thereof.

  2. When Fatigue Walks In, Efficiency and Competency Leave (Murdock, 1990, p. 23).

    Fatigue can be costly and rest time is repair time. Your success requires both. Tired minds rarely make good decisions. How many of us put in 10-12-14 hours and then wonder why all the defects occur somewhere in the last 2-3 hours. Think about it. Sometimes it is required in the short term. Working excessive hours for weeks, months, or years is crazy. You aren’t getting ahead to start with and you are too numb to realize it.

    A symposium attendee approached once after a presentation and said that he was working 12-14 hours a day for an extended period. He took a day off and took his wife to the beach. Guess where he ended up? In the emergency room with seizures. The doctor said his body was so used to the stress that when he took a day off, his stress levels spiked and put him in the hospital. Take some time off—your vision will not disappear because you take a day off.

    There is a lot of additional material to discuss but time doesn’t allow for it. Let’s take what we have and learn from it and hopefully dig in and learn more for our future.


Goleman, D. (1998). Working with emotional intelligence. New York: Random House.

Leaf, C. (2007). Who switched off my brain? Controlling toxic thoughts and emotions. Johannesburg, South Africa: Switch On Your Brain Organization.

Mersino, A. (2007). Emotional intelligence for project managers. New York: AMACOM.

Murdock, M. (1990). The double diamond principle. Denton, TX: The Wisdom Center.

Young, W. (2007). The shack. Newbury Park, CA: Windblown Media.

©2010, Gary Rechtfertig
Originally published as part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Washington D.C.



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