How to build emotional intelligence

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First popularized by New York Times science writer Daniel Goleman, emotional intelligence is defined as “a set of skills, including control of one’s impulses, self-motivation, empathy, and social competence in interpersonal relationships.” When discussing emotional intelligence (also known as EQ), it is often said that “it's your IQ that gets you hired, but it's your EQ that gets you promoted." Emotional intelligence is the most powerful predictor of success and, unlike IQ, it can be improved through learning and practice.

The five elements of emotional intelligence

According to Goleman, emotional intelligence can be distilled into five key elements:

  1. Self-awareness: The ability to know your own feelings, emotional triggers, and the impact they have on others.

  2. Self-regulation: The capacity to control your own emotions when they become disruptive. Self-regulation is having the discipline to control outbursts, the ability to discuss disagreements calmly and rationally, the propensity to suspend judgment, and the disposition to think before acting.

  3. Motivation: In Goleman’s model, motivation is defined as the intrinsic rewards we receive from working. These rewards include the satisfaction of being productive, the drive to achieve, organizational commitment, resilience in the face of failure, and the sense of gratification from overcoming challenges.

  4. Empathy: Empathy is the skill and practice of reading the emotions of others and responding appropriately. Listening carefully to what other people are saying helps develop a sense of compassion and empathy by being able to understand their emotional experience.

  5. Social skills: More than just being agreeable and well-liked, a leader with strong social skills is able to form networks, find common ground, and build rapport. These leaders have the ability to articulate points in a persuasive, direct manner so that people are inspired and clear about expectations. Leaders with strong social skills are able to convince others to sacrifice their personal interests in favour of pursuing shared goals and organizational success.

Emotional intelligence and leadership performance

A Harvard study compared high-performers to average performers in senior leadership roles. The study found that nearly 90 per cent of the difference in the performance profiles of the two groups was attributable to emotional intelligence factors rather than cognitive abilities.

In a 2011 survey of more than 2,600 hiring managers and human resources professionals, 71 per cent of respondents indicated they valued emotional intelligence more than IQ, and 75 per cent said they’re more likely to promote an employee with high emotional intelligence with a comparatively lower IQ than one where that ratio is reversed.

“No doubt emotional intelligence is more rare than book smarts, but my experience says it is actually more important in the making of a leader. You just can’t ignore it.” ─ Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric

Leadership performance is elevated by emotional intelligence, beyond cognitive ability and technical knowledge. Leaders who have a high EQ enjoy a variety of benefits, including a heightened sense of self-awareness, an exceptional ability to understand others, a broad and diverse social network, greater motivation, and a higher income. In an age where we are globally connected to clients and colleagues with diverse backgrounds and experiences, leaders who can adapt to change, manage their emotions, and work well with others are the most sought after.

How emotional intelligence can be improved

Although some people are naturally more emotionally intelligent than others, it’s possible to develop a high level of emotional intelligence – even if you weren’t born with it. Any of the five elements of emotional intelligence can be improved, but it takes time, effort, and determination.

One way to build emotional intelligence is through journaling. The process begins by identifying how situations at work make you feel and what triggers your emotions. Then, when similar situations arise, be mindful of how you feel in the moment and make a conscious effort to improve. Keep track of these incidents in your journal. When you reach the point where you can identify your own emotions, manage them, and know what causes them, you will also begin to improve at identifying other people’s emotions.

Emotional intelligence development can also be facilitated by working with a trusted colleague or mentor who can provide additional insight and observations regarding your performance. Ideally, this person embodies a skill that you want to improve and can act as a model. This individual may be a direct supervisor, co-worker, human resources specialist, or executive coach.

By training your brain to repeatedly practice emotionally intelligent behaviours, you will begin to build the neural pathways necessary to create habits. Before long, old habits are broken and you begin responding to situations with emotional intelligence without having to consciously think about it. As your brain reinforces the use of new emotionally intelligent behaviours, your old habits quickly disappear.

To learn your own level of emotional intelligence, take this short quiz from the University of California, or this longer test from Psychology Today.


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