Emotional intelligence skills key to navigating COVID-19

Given the current COVID era of anxiety, distress, stress and uncertainty, and based on empirical evidence that emotional intelligence (EI) predicts a range of positive outcomes in the workplace and in higher education, institutions may need to rely on their EI skills to navigate the challenges emanating from COVID-19.

Emotional intelligence skills are essential to create a positive learning environment, especially in COVID-19 conditions. For the purpose of this article, I adapt the 1990 definition of Mayer and Salovey of EI as a person’s ability to understand their own emotions and the emotions of others and to act appropriately based on this understanding.

History of emotional intelligence

EI dates back to 1920 with the work of the American psychologist Edward L Thorndike who argued that true intelligence was composed of academic components as well as emotional and social components.

David Wechsler, a Romanian American psychologist who played a role in the development of Intelligence Quotient (IQ) tests, agreed. He said, “I have tried to show that in addition to intellective there are also non-intellective factors that determine intelligent behaviour.”

Internationally renowned EI expert and trainer Mavis Mazhura said: “Emotions can get in the way or get you on the way.”

So, if educators want their students to learn during these times of distress, they must encourage them to talk openly about their emotions.

Multiple intelligences

Due to advances in research and new knowledge generation, intelligence researchers recognise that intelligence is broader than the cognitive and technical skills measured by the traditional IQ tests, Henry Reiff, Nanette Hatzes, Michael Bramel and Thomas Gibbon wrote in a 2001 article, “The relation of LD and gender with emotional intelligence in college students”.

Howard Gardner, research professor of cognition and education at Harvard, in 1999 observed in his book The Disciplined Mind: Beyond facts and standardized tests, the K-12 education that every child deserves, that an overemphasis on the role general academic intelligence has played in predicting life success contributes to only about 20% of the factors that determine such success.

American EI expert Daniel Goleman argued that, although IQ tests have been accurate in predicting academic success, they are far from perfect. The part of the variance in success unaccounted for by IQ could be explained by characteristics that constitute emotional intelligence measured by emotional quotient (EQ).

Therefore, EI as a construct has become a key factor in research examining a range of learning and workplace outcomes, I wrote in the 2009 article “Emotional intelligence and performance: Need for additional empirical evidence”.

On the important notion of multiple intelligences, Harvard developmental psychologist Howard Gardner in 1983 proposed eight types of intelligences: visual/spatial, verbal/linguistic, logical/mathematical, kinaesthetic, musical or rhythmic, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalistic.

Both intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence skills are identified as two forms of emotional intelligence skills that can be learned and applied in higher education settings.

Practical application of EI skills

Based on research on EI, there are five emotional intelligence skills that can greatly assist educators and leaders in higher education in their work: intrapersonal, interpersonal, adaptability, stress management and general mood skills.

COVID-19 causes death, unemployment, loss of profits, business closures, stress, distress, panic attacks, depression, anxiety and fear, among others. To deal with this pandemic requires cognitive engagement, emotional engagement and behavioural engagement, hence the importance of using emotional intelligence skills to tackle the pandemic, especially in higher education.

Intrapersonal skills

Intrapersonal skills which, according to Reuven Bar-On, an Israeli psychologist and pioneer in EI, are measured by five subscales: self-awareness that refers to educators having a solid understanding of their emotions and full understanding of their impact on others, in this case their students and co-workers; self-regard, referring to the need for educators to first respect themselves by accepting their personal strengths and limitations; self-actualisation, which requires educators to find deep meaning in their work; emotional expression, which requires educators to convey their emotions and feelings in a way that is non-judgmental and not hurtful to their students; assertiveness, which requires expressing their perspectives in a respectful, firm and direct manner when making decisions; and independence, which refers to educators being self-directed and free from emotional dependency in their work.

Interpersonal skills

Bar-On said in 1997 interpersonal skills are measured by three subscales including interpersonal relationships, which refers to the need for educators and leaders in higher education to build trust and meaningful relationships with students and colleagues; empathy which refers to the educators’ ability to recognise, understand, and appreciate the way their students feel; and social responsibility, which emphasises the need for educators to act in a moral and responsible way and aim to promote the greater good.

Adaptability skills

There are three important subscales that researchers have used to measure adaptability skills. These included problem-solving which refers to the urgent need by those in higher education to tackle problems head-on and find solutions when emotions are involved; reality testing, referring to the EI ability of being objective and seeing things as they really are; and flexibility, which refers to the ability of those teaching or working with students to adapt to the shifting priorities due to COVID-19.

To survive the pandemic, we must be prepared to adapt to the health and government guidelines such as wearing masks, washing hands and social distancing while staying emotionally engaged.

Stress management skills

There are two subscales that researchers have effectively used to measure stress management. These are stress tolerance, the ability for those working with the students in higher education to withstand adverse COVID-19 events without ‘falling apart’ by actively and positively coping with stress. It also requires impulse control. Those in higher education working with students should think and reflect before acting when confronted with COVID-19-related situations as they pertain to learning.

General mood skills

General mood skills refer to two subscales: optimism which, when applied to higher education settings under COVID-19, requires that those working with students have a positive attitude and outlook on life, despite the challenges; and happiness, which refers to the notion that, despite the difficulties, some level of patience, humour and fun is still necessary to navigate the COVID-19 learning environment.

The Jerusalema song and dance challenge that originated from South Africa has become an international phenomenon among school children, teachers, soccer players, lawyers, politicians, nurses, and even doctors. This is a perfect example of the need for fun, even under stress. Master KGs and Nomceba Zikode Jerusalema has had millions of views since it was played towards the end of 2019.

The good news

While it has been argued in this article that EI is critical when it comes to help students in higher education cope with the challenges they are facing due to the COVID pandemic, the good news is that we all can learn and over time acquire EI skills.

In the 1998 article “The emotionally competent leader”, Goleman wrote that that, unlike IQ which is inherited, EQ can be learned over time with great success. Therefore, those of us working in higher education should be encouraged to develop EQ skills.

On the importance of training in EI, Nicholas Clark said, “Given increasing evidence that emotional intelligence abilities are associated with many of the key skills and competences required for operating successfully in today’s organisations, studies that further our understandings of how emotional intelligence abilities can develop should have particular significance for a wide range of organisational settings.”

For anyone interested in research published on emotional intelligence, the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations makes available all studies published on this topic. In addition, there are many free videos on EI available on YouTube.

Fredrick Muyia Nafukho is professor of educational administration and human resource development and associate dean for faculty affairs in the College of Education and Human Development, Texas A&M University, United States. He can be reached at