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Are Emojis Replacing Our Emotional Intelligence?

Brigette McInnis-Day
Brigette McInnis-Day

We’ve all seen it happen, or been guilty of it ourselves – texting or messaging someone sitting directly next to you at work: “Nexting.” While this informal communication isn’t necessarily new to the workplace, new digital forms such as emojis, GIFs and memes are making workplace communication simpler and even less formal. As organizational leaders, it’s important to take a step back and ask, how is this really affecting us?

One thing to pay close attention to is how this increase in quick, digital communication is impacting our emotional intelligence and our soft skills.

According to a new report by PayScale and Future of Work, hiring managers believe that soft skills such as communication, leadership, ownership, and teamwork are the skills that recent graduates are lacking most. This doesn’t mean that emojis are to blame or need to be banned from the office. The challenge for leaders is being able to use and encourage appropriate use of emojis and digital communication, to reap the benefits of this type of communication without sacrificing our ability to make personal connections and develop soft skills.

Benefits in the workplace

Emojis started to find their way into the workplace around 2012, and while many initially viewed them as unprofessional, that perception has evolved, with nearly every level of employee – from CEO to intern – using them in some capacity during their work week. This presents an opportunity to not just talk about the little smiley faces we send, but also the deeper meaning behind what this tells us about emotional intelligence in the workplace.

When we think about the deeper meaning of what we’re communicating when we add a winking face or high five at the end of an email or text, we can start to see more clearly the benefits of using emojis in the workplace. Once such benefit is providing context into email communication, which can sometimes be muddled with vagueness about tone or attitude. Many emojis are consistent around the world, where tone in an email might slow you down. If there is any room for interpretation about whether an email is positive or not, adding a thumbs up or clapping hands emoji shows genuine excitement and positivity.

Emojis also offer the benefit of easier work-life integration – an opportunity to juggle family, friends and work with emojis. It's fast, frequent and fun to stay connected with all important people in your life while working, traveling and living.

We can’t forget to consider the increased efficiency digital communication offers, by conveying emotions with symbols instead of words when we’re in a rush. This can also increase the ability to multitask – such as sending a meme or emoji if you are in a meeting, and can’t type out a full response. While this shouldn’t be used to give in-depth feedback or guidance, it can be a valuable way to promote recognition or show excitement in a quick and personalized way.

What to be wary about

Even with all the benefits of using emojis, it’s important not to rely on digital communication alone – being able to develop a personal connection with someone needs to be a number one priority. Don’t text a sad face emoji as a way to express disappointment – all that does is avoid conflict and create ambiguity. It’s also important to be sensitive to different cultures and different audiences – using an emoji when sharing revenue loss to your board probably wouldn’t be received very well.  

Whether you’re a seasoned executive or intern, be cognizant of the content you’re sending – don’t use emojis in a formal, mass communication. Just like with any email, be careful with your tone. Avoid being overly assertive with a smiley or wink face as part of a “friendly reminder,” that is actually a passive-aggressive way of telling someone that they’ve missed a deadline.

What this means for emotional intelligence

At the end of the day, being successful and rising up in your career depends on your ability to make connections and interact with all the people around you. It’s not about being the smartest person in the room – it’s about your ability to build relationships and make key decisions. Digital communication is just another method to building those relationships. They will never replace face-to-face conversations, but when used effectively and appropriately, they’ll help you succinctly and clearly communicate your message.

When we consider that 90 percent of sensory information sent to the brain is visual (according to 3M Corporation), digital communication can also have a positive effect on how your message is retained by key audiences.

How to lead with emojis

Senior leaders need to set the tone – if they do not adapt to this form of communication, there will be a disconnect with employees who are increasingly using new digital forms of communication.

Encourage establishing personal connections with people first, before reverting to digital communication. Whether it's talking to someone on the phone, in person, or via skype, this should be done first to ensure we don’t lose our abilities to connect with people. If we take this step first, emojis, memes, and GIFs create opportunities to show personality and have fun in a corporate environment.

Emotional intelligence in the workplace is critical to building a culture of motivation, acceptance, productivity and collaboration –but there is room for emotional intelligence to evolve with technological advances. Digital communication doesn’t have to mean the death of soft skills or emotional intelligence, as long as it’s not abused.


Photo credit: pikcha/Shutterstock

Image Credit: NanoStockk / Getty Images
Brigette McInnis-Day
Brigette McInnis-Day Member
Brigette McInnis-Day is the Executive Vice President for SAP Human Resources. She is a global leader, overseeing the Office of the CEO, led by Bill McDermott, and SAP’s Global Customer Operations. Brigette is passionate about people, transparency, building progressive cultures, and challenging others to think big and reach their potential. Brigette is a respected industry influencer, sharing her experiences in an open and transparent manner, and never passing an opportunity to challenge the status quo – just as she encourages SAP employees to do.