Beyond empowering

Building an emotionally intelligent team

emotional culture

published : 04 March 2021

Written by Venesa Musovic, training designer and facilitator at Beyond Empowering 


Building a team from scratch is, at the same time, the most beautiful and the most terrifying thing I’ve done so far. Beautiful because you can feel the power of an aligned team and terrifying because you can see and feel how fragile trust and commitment are. Trust has to be built and protected every day in order for a team to last and be efficient. In this article, I want to share with you how we build our emotional culture, what exercises we use, and finally how we measure if we are successful on this journey. This is an inside story and my personal experience supported by research about what makes people thrive at work. 


Why build an emotionally intelligent team? 


Let’s start with some facts. The research with dozens of companies points to a simple fact that happy people are better workers. Our emotions influence our thinking, and consequently our performance at work. Psychologist Suzan David talks about the phenomenon of emotional and social contagion or our tendency toward copying and picking up other peoples’ emotions. Meaning, if your colleague is stressed out, you have higher chances to be stressed out too. Being under stress isn’t all bad but if you feel like that every day at work, it has a negative impact on your emotional state which leads to a decrease in your engagement and overall satisfaction. Professor of psychology John D. Mayer explains that emotional intelligence is the ability to accurately perceive your own and others’ emotions; to understand the signals that emotions send about relationships, and to manage your own and others’ emotions.


Teams have to protect themselves from behaviors that can make them dysfunctional teams. According to Patrick Lencioni,  there are five dysfunctions of a team: the absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, inattention to results.


It all starts with trust


In order to trust, one needs to feel safe and comfortable to express feelings fearlessly. With this in mind,  our team started building trust by asking ourselves questions about safety. We used the following inquiries common in compassion-based therapy. 


 What do I need? 


- To feel safe in this process

- To be comforted, soothed

- To protect, provide for, motivate myself

- To be supported?


Here are some possible answers: 


 “Being able to question things together and creating alignment at the end.”

 “To have a person to moderate the conversation and help us have a constructive dialogue.”

 “Laughs, honest thoughts and not jumping into actions.”


It is useful to have at least one team member or an external facilitator to make sure that these boundaries are respected. The facilitator should make sure that everyone on the team has an equal speaking time and is asked the same questions. This person should be responsible to reflect back on what is being said, a break when appropriate, ask supportive questions and navigate conversations. 


Learning to label emotions


Our team learned to label emotions by playing a card game called the Emotional culture deck designed by Elephant riders. These cards are an insanely simple and yet efficient tool for building your emotional vocabulary. By seeing different emotions displayed on the cards you can be accurate about what you need to feel in order to thrive in your organization. 

Once we know how to label emotions, we can use it to: 

1.    Map our current emotional culture

2.    Map our ideal emotional culture

3.  Define steps we need to take for the change to happen


In order to map your desired emotional culture, you can ask a simple question: How do I need to feel in order to be successful in this organization? Before asking this question, find a common definition of success. It is important to have a listening round, so you create a shared understanding of terms. 


According to Daniel Goleman, the author of „Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ“, there are three types of empathy: cognitive, emotional, and empathic concern


By holding conversations as explained above, over time you will develop all three types of empathy. They manifest in our ability to understand other’s points of view, to feel what they feel, and to recognize what they need from us in order to do better. 


How will we know that we are successful?


I suggest that before you start the process of emotional culture building, you ask your team the following questions: 

-   How will we know that we are successful by the end of this process?

-   What changes in behaviors and attitudes will we see?

-   How will our mindset change?

-   How will our culture shift?

-   How will this impact our performance? 


In this way, you will set your own, unique metrics for success and you will be able to evaluate and improve your process.  In our team, we identified five skill areas that we are developing through this process.

Skill areasQuestions
Diagnosing Are we able to set clear intentions? Are we able to assess our personal and professional needs?
Values-based decision makingDo we know and understand our values? Do we rely on our values when bringing decisions?
Safe space and trust Can we give and receive honest feedback? Can we speak up without fear of being judged? 
Emotional intelligenceAre we able to name our emotions? Are we able to recognize and acknowledge the emotions of others in the team?
Empowerment and supportDo we celebrate our successes? Do we support each other through difficult times? 

From here, we hold a focused conversation to track changes in our attitudes and behaviors every three months. 


Final thoughts

We are a small team of three members committed to creating a successful story. Building emotional culture in a small team is much easier than in an established organization of 300 employees. However, we see each team as a micro-culture and each manager or a team leader as a facilitator of emotional culture building. Each team will have an authentic emotional culture and mechanisms of coping with difficult situations. This is particularly relevant for cross-cultural teams who need to align their personal values, ideal affection with the organizational purpose. Our intention as a team is to shine some light not only on a cognitive level of organizational culture but on an emotional level too. It is time to face the fact that work is personal and understanding emotions in a work context can be only beneficial.





- A Comprehensive Overview of Self-Compassion in Therapy with Chris Germer, PhD, Clinical psychologist, Co-creator, Mindful Self-Compassion program, Author, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion.


- Lencioni, Patrick M.; Okabayashi, Kensuke. (2012). The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. 


- HRB Guide to Emotional Intelligence: Build trust and influence, strengthen relationships, lead with resilience.