• Zorana Ivcevic Pringle

Emotional Intelligence Makes Creativity Happen

New study shows that emotional intelligence sets up conditions for creativity

A new paper in the Journal of Creative Behavior shows the power of emotional intelligence to make creativity happen. Researchers at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence collaborated with the Faas Foundation on a survey of a representative sample of close to 15,000 people across the U.S. and found that emotionally intelligent supervisors create a climate that benefits creativity and innovation in those they work with.

What do emotionally intelligent supervisors do? First, they are skilled at reading employees’ emotions, such as realizing when someone is upset or disappointed or when they are worried about changes at work. They not only can read emotions, but acknowledge them explicitly. Second, they help employees channel their feelings toward achieving important goals. They inspire enthusiasm and they model decision making that takes into account both optimistic and pessimistic voices (and concerns and hopes behind them). Third, emotionally intelligent supervisors understand how different decisions or events affect people’s experience at work. And finally, they are able to successfully manage their own emotions, as well as help employees when they are upset or frustrated.

The just published Yale study asked three groups of questions. One group of questions asked people to describe their supervisors’ behavior. For example, how often does their supervisor notice if someone is feeling upset about a work decision? How often does their supervisor generate enthusiasm to motivate others? Another group of questions asked about people’s emotional experiences of work. We asked them to describe how they typically feel about their work in their own words, and also asked them how often they experience a long list of specific emotions, from feeling content, respected, and proud to feeling frustrated, angry, or discouraged (and more!). Finally, we asked to what extent they have opportunities to grow and make progress at work and how often they are creative at work (e.g., contribute new ideas or original ways to achieve work goals).

The study results show that when supervisors acknowledge that employees have feelings and that these emotional experiences matter, work climate becomes more positive and supportive. Employees’ describe dramatically different emotional experiences if they have supervisors who act in emotionally intelligent ways or not. The quality of relationships spills into feelings about employees’ duties and tasks, and that in turn affects creativity and innovation in what they accomplish. The study shows that supervisors’ emotional intelligence is a job resource for their employees that helps both their wellbeing and successful performance at work.

When people are asked how they feel about work in their own words, we see that work is refilled with both positive and negative emotions; people commonly experience feeling good and proud, stressed and frustrated, tired and exhausted. Yet, two thirds of top feelings mentioned by those whose supervisors are emotionally intelligent are positive, while 70% of top feelings mentioned by those whose supervisors are not emotionally intelligent are negative.

The details are even more interesting. Those whose supervisors are emotionally intelligent mention being happy three times more often than being stressed. They describe feelings related to growth (e.g., being challenged, fulfilled), feeling motivated and enjoying work, and feeling appreciated. Research in psychology of work and organizational behavior shows that these feelings create the kind of environment that is conducive to optimal engagement and flourishing. By contrast, those whose supervisors do not show emotional intelligence most often say they are frustrated and stressed. These employees become angry – they say they are irritated, aggravated, annoyed, and mad. And they are also feeling underappreciated or unappreciated.

How do supervisors and leaders make a difference for their employees’ ability to be creative? Organizational behavior scholars Jing Zhou and Jennifer George show that emotionally intelligent supervisors know that emotions provide information about ourselves, the environment, and those around us. Emotionally intelligent supervisors are able to notice employee dissatisfaction, recognize that dissatisfaction conveys information about a real problem, and can find a way to approach this problem as an opportunity for improvement. Emotionally intelligent supervisors can manage their own and employees’ emotions to help with creative work. They can recognize when people are overly optimistic and can provide informative feedback to prevent settling on ideas prematurely and inspire persistence.

The Yale study shows that supervisors can create a climate where employees have opportunities to grow and are inspired and motivated in their jobs. Supervisors who acknowledge that employees cannot leave emotions at the door, who recognize employees’ feelings, understand where they are coming from, and who help employees manage their feelings, will have both happier and more creative employees. The results are relevant for anyone who influences others, such as teachers working with students or parents with their children. The emotional climate we create will influence both how those around us feel and what they are able to do.


Ivcevic, Z., Moeller, J., Menges, J., & Brackett, M. A. (2020). Supervisor emotionally intelligent behavior and employee creativity. Journal of Creative Behavior. doi:10.1002/jocb.436

Zhou, J., & George, J. M. (2003). Awakening employee creativity: The role of leader emotional intelligence. The Leadership Quarterly, 14(4–5), 545-568. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1048-9843(03)00051-1



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