The Emotionally Intelligent Software Engineer

The Emotionally Intelligent Software Engineer
Photo by National Cancer Institute / Unsplash

I've recently read the book Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman.

I wanted to read it because I wanted to be a better partner or become a better person in general.

Fast forward to the present day, I read the whole book and I couldn't help but notice that a lot of the "symptoms" that pertain to a lack of emotional intelligence happen in the tech industry.

I don't know why to be honest and I'm not sure if this is as prevalent in other industries. I suspect maybe it's due to the nature of the work being very "computer" like and the average age in the industry being fairly young.

That's why I felt the need for my sake and possibly for others to write this article, as we are gonna talk about emotional intelligence and how it can help us as software engineers.

The benefits of being an emotionally intelligent person go far beyond the workplace. You become a better husband/wife, friend, son/daughter, neighbour, and most importantly a human.


Due to the nature of the subject, I must separate this article into two parts. In the first part, we cover what are emotions and introduce the concept of emotional intelligence.

In the second part, we cover several different unfortunate stories in software engineering and how some little emotional intelligence could have helped the situation.

Part 1: Emotional Intelligence

What are emotions?

Before we delve deep into emotional intelligence, we have to first know what are emotions.

Emotions have a very long evolutionary history. Our emotional circuits are developing slowly and have stayed roughly the same for the past 50,000 human generations, not the last 500, certainly not even 5.

Despite the rapid rise of civilization and the explosion of the population from 5 million to 8 billion, little has changed in our emotional brain.

For better or worse, our responses to every encounter are shaped not just by our rational judgements but also by our ancestral past. With this, we often face modern problems with the emotional responses shaped by our ancestral brains.

An interesting fact is that we humans have technically two brains. One is the amygdala which is the processing center of emotions. The other is the neocortex which is the largest part of the brain and is responsible for our intelligence as humans.

Emotional Hijacking

Emotional hijacking occurs during short periods of emotional explosions, like extreme rage. This happens because the neocortex, our thinking brain, does not get the chance to analyze the situation.

This happens to us often but it isn't always bad. It can be an outburst of laughter or intense joy.

Here our amygdala, our emotional brain, scans every situation for trouble and if it detects trouble, it will send urgent messages to every part of our body. This results in us not being able to control our emotions. We are forced to action.

Being prone to emotional hijacking often leads us to unpleasant situations in real life but fortunately, we can train ourselves to recognize and control ourselves during difficult situations.

This kind of skill can be categorised under the term emotional intelligence.

Emotional Intelligence (EQ)

Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize, understand, manage and use emotions effectively in various situations.

It encompasses several skills, such as:

  • Self-awareness – The ability to recognize and understand your own emotions and how they affect your thoughts and behaviour.
  • Self-regulation – The ability to manage and regulate your emotions, especially in stressful situations, and to maintain control over your reactions.
  • Motivation – Being driven to achieve for the sake of achievement, maintaining a positive attitude and persistence in the face of setbacks.
  • Empathy – The ability to understand and share the feelings of others, and to be sensitive to their emotional states.
  • Social Skills – The ability to manage relationships, communicate effectively, and work well with others.

Side Note: Is IQ more important than EQ?

This has been proven to be false because academic intelligence doesn't prepare us for life's challenges.

Research has shown that students with high IQs in the 1940s did not achieve significantly more success in their adult lives compared to their peers with lower IQs, nor were they notably more satisfied with life overall.

Part 2: EQ in Software Engineering

Taken from real experiences.

In this part, we will discuss the different aspects of emotional intelligence with stories taken from the lives of software engineers.

All these stories are fictional but depict very common scenarios in software engineering.

Stress, Frustration, and Irritability

Alex, a senior software engineer, had been feeling frustrated and irritable due to a high-stakes project. Without reflecting on his emotions, he snapped at his manager, Sarah, during a team meeting when she gave feedback on his code. This outburst shocked his colleagues and strained his relationships.

You'd be surprised at how common this is in other high-stakes fields such as medicine, military and so on.

But those fields get special training on how to deal with highly stressful situations, unfortunately, software engineers have no such thing.

What Alex lacks here is self-awareness. He's feeling stressed and frustrated but did he acknowledge that to himself and give it some thought?

No, instead that frustration only grew and grew till the moment he snapped at his colleagues.

What is Self Awareness?

Self-awareness is the ability to be aware of your moods and your thoughts about that mood. Even though recognizing emotions doesn’t equal changing them, mere recognition is still the first step to handling emotions.

To put it differently, recognizing that you're angry gives you a sense of freedom. You have the option to act on that anger and the added option of trying to let it go.

Styles of Handling Emotions

According to Mayer, people tend to fall into different styles for handling their emotions:

  • Self Aware – These are the people who know their emotions. They’re typically in good psychological health and positive; if they’re in a bad mood, they don’t contemplate about it.
  • Engulfed – these people are helpless with their emotions; they’re not sure what they feel and have little control over their emotional lives.
  • Accepting – these people are aware of their feelings but don’t do anything to change them.

Some people have trouble identifying with feelings altogether. They seem to be lacking feelings but this is due to their inability to express their feelings. This condition is called alexithymia.

Criticism and Insecurities

Jordan, a mid-level software engineer, faced harsh criticism from a senior engineer, Mark, during a code review meeting. Jordan impulsively lashed out, feeling defensive and angry, arguing that his code was fine and the criticism was unfair.

His emotional reaction created tension and disrupted the meeting, leaving his colleagues uncomfortable. Despite his outburst, Jordan continued to brood over the feedback instead of addressing it constructively.

As a result, he missed an opportunity to improve his code and strained his relationship with the team, highlighting the impact of poor emotional regulation on professional success.

What our friend Jordan here experienced were extreme emotions. In his case, it was negative due to anger, defensiveness, embarrassment, and frustration.

We all have these moments in life. They aren't always bad, sometimes you get these extreme moments of happiness. But staying on these extreme ends can be dangerous as it can lead to you not being in control.

In Jordan's case it was him lashing out, in another case if you were extremely happy you'd go on a spending spree, or anything unconsciously bad.

I'm not saying you shouldn't have ups or downs in life but they should be moderated.

Managing our emotions

Managing our emotions is something of a full-time job. Much of what we do is an attempt to manage our moods. We choose to read books, watch movies, and spend time with our partners to make ourselves feel better.

The art of soothing ourselves is a fundamental life skill. Psychologists say that this is the most essential of all psychic tools. Anyhow, as humans, we don't have control over when we are swept by emotions or even what those emotions are.

But we do control how long they last. Most emotions pass with time and patience but that is not our worry.

Our worries are the extremes, the moment anger turns into uncontrollable rage or sadness turns into depression. At their most extreme, medication, psychotherapy, or both may be required.

Motivation and Negativity

Emma, a junior software engineer, was assigned a challenging task to develop a new feature for the company's flagship product. The complexity of the task and the tight deadline overwhelmed her. Without intrinsic motivation, Emma found it hard to stay focused and often procrastinated, feeling more anxious as the deadline approached.

During the project, Emma encountered a difficult bug that took days to resolve. Frustrated and discouraged, she avoided seeking help from her colleagues, fearing it would make her look incompetent. Her lack of motivation led her to put in minimal effort, just enough to get by.

As the deadline loomed, Emma's incomplete and buggy feature caused delays. Her manager had to reassign parts of her work to other team members to ensure the project stayed on track. Emma's lack of motivation not only affected her performance but also strained her relationships with her team, who felt burdened by the extra work.

There are multiple problems here but we can all agree that the important one is here negative outlook on things.

Her negative outlook on the challenge made her lose motivation hence it affected her job performance. This also caused other feelings to arise such as frustration and discouragement.

Being positive and optimistic is an actual skill that people have to develop. The more you have a positive outlook the more you can delay instant gratification. This makes you more resilient as a person and not get depressed or too anxious in the face of challenges.

Be Empathetic To Others

Carlos, a senior software engineer, led a team on a critical project with a tight deadline. Mia, a new and talented engineer, started missing deadlines and making mistakes, affecting the team's progress. Frustrated by the delays, Carlos called Mia into a meeting and bluntly criticized her performance without seeking to understand her situation.

Feeling unsupported and overwhelmed, Mia didn’t reveal that she was dealing with significant personal issues at home. The pressure from Carlos only added to her stress, worsening her performance. The team struggled with delays, and the work environment became tense.

Carlos’s lack of empathy and failure to address the root cause of Mia's struggles led to a decline in team morale and productivity. Mia felt increasingly isolated and undervalued, affecting her long-term engagement and growth within the company.

They say lack of empathy is the root of all evil. I don't know if that's right, but it has a good point. A lot of violence can be rooted down to a person not being empathetic enough.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. It involves recognizing and being sensitive to the emotions and experiences of others.

There are four key components to empathy:

  • Emotional Awareness – Recognizing your own emotions and the emotions of others. This awareness helps in understanding the emotional context of a situation.
  • Perspective Taking – The ability to see things from another person's point of view. This involves imagining how they might be feeling and why they might be experiencing those emotions.
  • Non-Judgmental Understanding – Accepting others' emotions and experiences without immediately judging or dismissing them. It means acknowledging their feelings as valid.
  • Compassion and Support – Showing concern for others' well-being and offering support or assistance when needed. Compassionate actions often follow empathetic understanding.
I also want to say that learning these things isn't easy but it's 100% worth it.


The cost of lack of emotional intelligence goes far beyond school or the workplace. We can see this in the world after the pandemic, people becoming socialially awkward and lots of people have become loners.

That's why I urge you to learn more about yourself. Think about why you do the things you do, why you feel the things you feel, because through this reflection you'll learn more about yourself and become a better person for you and others.

Thank you for reading.

If you wanna learn more, I'd would highly suggest reading the book Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman.

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