Why emotional intelligence is increasingly required in software development

TLDR; Because AI can’t automate human emotion (yet).
Read time ~ 7 minutes

“emotional intelligence—the ability to, for instance, understand your effect on others and manage yourself accordingly—accounts for nearly 90 percent of what moves people up the ladder when IQ and technical skills are roughly similar”


Emotional intelligence (sometimes referred to as EQ) is the ability to understand your own emotions and the emotions of others such that you are able to help, guide and influence situations based on those feelings and the expected consequences of them. There are countless articles, blogs and books on the subject (this being my favourite article), articulated in Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence” into the following model:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self-regulation
  3. Motivation
  4. Empathy
  5. Social skills

Using this framework, I’d like to explore why it’s relevant in the digital sector, with particular reference to software developers.You’d be forgiven for thinking that IQ is still the thing that matters in a technical landscape, and that how much you know about a certain domain or technology is still the dominating factor. Unless you’re able to navigate the model below, you’ll be limited to that 10% of development potential (by the way, this definitely applies to tech leads and managers too!).

In a 2011 Career Builder Survey of more than 2,600 hiring managers and human resource professionals, 71% stated they valued emotional intelligence in an employee over IQ; 75% said they were more likely to promote a highly emotionally intelligent worker; and 59% claimed they’d pass up a candidate with a high IQ but low emotional intelligence


1. Self Awareness

I’ve had hundreds of one to ones with software developers, many of them centred around personal development. What I spend most of my time doing with early conversations (and in some cases continue to do so for a long time) is figure out why they do what they do. Is it money (rarely)? Is it cool tech? Is it that they want to build a reputation as an accountable deliverer, or do they like making people happy by giving them solutions to problems?

Knowing your values, your strengths and your weaknesses is the first step in understanding why you react the way you do to certain situations. For me, my values are at the absolute core of the decisions that I make, at the micro and macro level – without them I’d have no North Star guiding me and certainly wouldn’t be able to understand my feelings when I see an opportunity or a threat.

I would argue that without mastery of self-awareness, practising other items in the model becomes backbreaking work.


  • This values exercise helps you understand and prioritise your values. It has been invaluable for my professional development, and recommend it to others wherever I can
  • Seek out some 360 feedback. There are several popular frameworks and tools available, I would recommend the Emotional and Competency Inventory Survey. However, a simple start / stop / continue conversation with your peers and stakeholders would would be a good first step

2. Self Regulation

Self regulation is the ability to regulate your own emotions based on your awareness of the impact of them on your surroundings.

Let me highlight one example. In Marshall Goldsmith’s book “What got you here won’t get you there” he outlines 20 habits that hold you back. Number eight is negativity. “Let me explain why that won’t work”. And boy, do some developers like telling you why ideas won’t work. You know that teammate? When you’re in a meeting, firing ideas around with your colleagues, and they keep responding with “let me tell you why that won’t work”? Whilst massively useful for managers (the good ones anyway, the ones that listen), highlighting risks in a constructive and sensitive way (offering solutions, establishing fact etc) is a skill that needs to be honed. If you’re always that person, and of course you’re aware that you’re that person, have a chat with your manager or someone you trust about how to effectively convey that risk whilst still offering solutions and being part of the change.

Self regulation of course applies to many other aspects and behaviours that all employees / managers deal with – integrity, how we deal with our emotions verbally or physically, adaptability. Again, a good feedback mechanism will allow you to measure and notice this more frequently.


Changing personality habits takes time, with frequent short bursts of practise. “The Coaching Habit” describes a nice model to create new habits to replace old ones, and Box of Crayons (the company founded by the author) has a good short series on creating new habits starting with this one

3. Motivation

“For artists, scientists, inventors, schoolchildren, and the rest of us, intrinsic motivation—the drive do something because it is interesting, challenging, and absorbing—is essential for high levels of creativity.”

“Drive”, Dan Pink

If your motivation is money, security or control in this industry, you’re going to get burnt out pretty quickly. Dan Pink explains it in his book “Drive” that there are two types of motivation – intrinsic and extrinsic. He argues wonderfully that in our creative industry, this intrinsic motivation is crucial for us to innovate, design and craft ideas. Lastly, in our VUCA world, coupled with the compounding uncertainty of the current COVID-19 situation at the time of writing, intrinsic motivation develops the essential life-skill of resilience – to quote a colleague, “the ability to get yourself back up when life kicks the shit out of you”.

Managers take heed – if you do not find the ability to foster creativity in your engineers, you will have a demotivated team.


After finishing the values exercise above, make sure you’re doing activities in your day job (or life for that matter) that match with your values, so that you can draw from that spring when life gets you down.

4. Empathy

Aside from the obvious benefits of empathising with colleagues, I wanted to focus on the customer. I previously wrote a blog on why developers should talk to customers, and this is why. Empathising with the customer is fundamental to developing what the customers actually need, not what we think they want. There are entire processes and methodologies centred around design thinking, human centred design and service design that mandate that humans – in all their irrational and emotional glory – should be at the core (of course, “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries is mandatory reading on this subject). And yet sadly, there are still engineers reluctant to step away from the 1s and 0s, relying on the vast corporate network of sales, marketing, product owners and directors to empathise for them. Great for the consultants, not so good for your company’s wallet.


I’ve tried to cover how developers can get closer to the customer in my previous blog, hint : it’s at the bottom

5. Social Skills

Something of course that we developers have in abundance. I once went to a ‘team-building’ event where the organisers completely mis-read the room. There was near mutiny when they announced to everyone’s surprise that there would be a 5 minute ‘skit’ that the vast majority of introverted scientific folk would have to perform. It was however team-bonding, in that we now unified in a single point of hatred, and I don’t regret the experience for a second.

And what is it with us creative types using Slack / Teams / Basecamp IM as our default mode of communication? The amount of times I’ve had to encourage engineers to pick up the phone to create a personal dialog with someone rather than relying on an electronic form of communication or ticketing system. It doesn’t develop the necessary discipline to form rapport with people, the fundamental requirement to reminding reminding yourself that the other party is a human being. Ever wondered why IT keep ignoring your requests, no matter how many times you put a ticket in or send them a very clever and strongly worded email? It’s because you don’t have a rapport built with the human being that has to deal with 100 other cleverly worded emails that are just words in one of their systems, devoid of context or empathy. This rapport is forged most effectively through face to face contact, one study citing a face to face request is 34 times more effective than an email. Kim Scott argues in her book “Radical Candor” that by caring personally about people, you are better able to empathise and understand the context of their position in any situation.

In conclusion…

This summarises my point nicely for all elements of this model: you cannot have emotional intelligence without creating relationships. Creating relationships and rapport is hard. It takes time and investment, and requires you to care about and empathise with other human beings.

One day, JavaScript will die. As long as there are humans, emotional intelligence will not.

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