Emotional intelligence (EI) is about the ‘intelligent use of our emotions’ or ‘thinking about our feelings to guide our behaviour’. This applies to both ourselves and our relationships. For example, an individual who is feeling anxious about a presentation could practice a breathing exercise to promote relaxation. Or a presenter who notices that others are looking bored during a presentation could respond by increasing the engagement level with the audience.
Being aware of our feelings and the feelings of others is essential because it helps us to manage ourselves and our relationships more effectively. Consider the analogy of driving a car: A driver learns how to optimise a vehicle’s performance by:
Keeping it well maintained (our health and well-being)
Listening to the engine (our body and feelings)
Handling it skilfully (our habits and behaviour)
Navigating the traffic and roads (our awareness of others and managing interactions with them)
In essence, emotional intelligence is about becoming skilful and effective at managing ourselves and our relationships.
What are the main elements and different parts of emotional intelligence?
Over the last 25 years, research into EI has taken two distinct and contrary pathways (Figure 1). One examines EI as an ability, measured as maximum performance; the other describes EI as a mixed array of emotion-related traits or competencies, measured as typical performance. Typical performance concerns how we tend to behave most of the time and is usually measured using subjective self-report questionnaires. In contrast, maximum performance relates to how we perform when exerting maximum effort and is usually measured using objective, ability-focused questionnaires. This fundamental difference in how EI is measured may explain why only a weak correlation exists between ability and mixed/trait measures of EI.
Models of emotional intelligence
The earliest abilities model of EI was put forward by Peter Salovey and Jack Mayer who proposed four EI abilities:
Typical performance models of EI may broadly be separated into three groups:
Competency-based measures which include emotional and social competencies that contribute to effective performance at work
Trait-based measures that encompass the emotional aspects of established personality models
Mixed measures which include a wider range of skills and attributes that may overlap with both the competency and trait-based models of EI.
Mixed model of EI
One of the earliest mixed models of EI was put forward by Daniel Goleman that comprised of four elements for EI:
An extension on this approach to EI is an attitude-based model that provides an organisational framework for the different elements of EI.
Why is emotional intelligence important?
Emotional intelligence has influenced society, politics, corporate and educational life. The concept has been at the forefront of a fundamental shift in the western world, where psychological well-being, resilience, adaptability, neurodiversity, mental-health, mindfulness and other EI-related concepts have become mainstream considerations in the workplace. Over the last two decades, we have seen an exponential growth in interest around EI, driven by an ever-increasing demand from organisations.
There are many reasons why we should develop our emotional intelligence. Evidence shows that:
Emotional intelligence is an important factor in determining our job performance
It can improve our well-being
It helps build our emotional resilience so that we can recover more quickly from disappointment
It can increase our level of motivation and engagement
It can improve our relationships
It can also make us more effective leaders
How can emotional intelligence be improved and how can emotional intelligence be developed?
In order to develop emotional intelligence, it’s important to understand how people process emotions, and also the science behind EI.
Early models in psychology described human behaviour in terms of stimulus and response. That is, something happens, and a person responds to it. However, later psychology and neuroscience has shown us that there are several parts that fall between these two steps, including thoughts, feelings and attitudes.
Consider the following example:
Stimulus: Imagine the situation of a colleague criticising a person’s work.
Attitude: This may trigger an underlying attitude a person has about themselves, e.g. I am not good enough.
Feeling: Which may cause the person to feel upset or angry.
Thinking: This in turn may provoke the person to think: I give up, why should I bother making an effort if people are just going to criticise me?
Behaviour: The person may then respond by withdrawing or sulking.
Outcome: Which will likely result in a negative outcome, such as deterioration of the professional relationship.
Understanding these different stages of emotional processing is important because it helps explain how people can learn to manage their thoughts, feelings and behaviour to be more emotionally intelligent.
Stimulus: rather than associating with people who bring you down, you could seek out people or situations that bring out the best in you.
Attitude: rather than being critical of yourself, you could actively look for instances where you have been capable and effective in what you have done.
Feeling: A commonly used technique to change emotional state and calm down is to practice relaxation techniques such as taking slow, deep breaths.
Thinking: There are many practical ways to reduce negative thinking, such as through mindfulness training, physical activity and positive thinking.
Behaviour: In the example, instead of withdrawing from a conflict, a person could practice and rehearse being more assertive in these situations.
Outcome: A powerful way to make change happen is through visualising a different outcome and setting positive expectations.
Does emotional intelligence relate to job performance?
One of the most common questions from organisations that are considering using EI: Does EI predict performance, and if so, will it improve on our existing assessment tools and processes? This question has been widely addressed over the years with published studies demonstrating the predictive value of EI to job performance within many international organisations, including Amazon, BMW, Google, HSBC, Microsoft, Qatar Airways, Shell and Whitbread PLC, to name a few.
More substantive evidence comes from multiple meta-analyses, which combine data from several published individual studies. These meta-analyses show that mixed/trait EI is predictive of job performance criteria and helps to increase our prediction of future job performance when combined with measures of personality and cognitive ability.
One study described the correlations with performance as, ”large enough to generate significant savings and improvements for organisations that use measures of EI.” Another concluded that practitioners may choose to use mixed EI as, “a practical, shorthand alternative to a lengthy battery of several more traditional KSAOs (knowledge, skills, ability, and other personality instruments).”
Overall, research studies provide sound evidence that EI predicts job performance across a variety of roles. In particular, EI appears to be very relevant to roles which incur high emotional labour (e.g. customer service, sales and management).
Does emotional intelligence relate to an individual’s well-being?
The case for improving employee well-being is not just morally imperative but financially compelling. The cost of poor mental health across the globe is staggering and is a primary cause of long-term absence. A report by Gallup found that four out of five adults feel stressed throughout the day, with work being a major cause.
While supporting the well-being of employees may seem like an additional expense, the return on investment is high. In 2017, a study of almost 50,000 business units in 45 countries discovered that workgroups who received strengths interventions saw sales increase by 10% (to 19%) and profits by 14% (to 29%).
Developing EI has proven to be a valuable method for building resilience, reducing stress and enhancing well-being. Research indicates that greater EI facilitates more positive emotional states and fewer negative moods, thereby achieving a greater sense of well-being.
A comprehensive meta-analysis with more than 19,000 participants found a strong relationship between high EI and mental health, psychosomatic health and to a lesser extent physical health.
Why is emotional intelligence important for leadership?
Leadership has been described as an emotionally-laden process, and leaders’ emotions and behaviours have been found to profoundly influence followers’ emotional reactions. There is an abundance of organisational literature proclaiming the importance of EI to leadership. One meta-analytic study on 1,407 leaders found that EI adds significant value over and above leaders’ cognitive ability and broad personality traits in predicting subordinate job satisfaction. They recommend “including EI in leadership education, training, and development… [and when making]… personnel decisions.” Another review of the academic literature concluded that “emotional intelligence is an important driver of effective job performance and successful leadership.”
It is widely recognised that today’s leaders are operating in a fast-paced, challenging and often unpredictable work environment. These conditions create greater stress and demand on individuals to be more adaptable, creative and emotionally resilient; all features that reflect attributes of emotional intelligence.
How to be a more emotionally-intelligent leader?
The following model provides a useful framework for considering the different components of emotionally-intelligent leadership and tips for self-development.
This is the cornerstone to all aspects of EI. Greater self-belief will help leaders be authentic, self-directed and principled.
Tip: Show yourself compassion. If you notice yourself being self-critical, counter this with two positive affirmations.
Regard for others
Self regard needs to be balanced with regard for others to avoid self-serving, narcissistic tendencies. An effective leader will value and get the best out of others.
Tip: Look for opportunities to show others you appreciate them. Notice what they do well and how they help others.
Knowing oneself is necessary in order for leaders to accurately calibrate and not to over-estimate their capacity to deliver.
Tip: Ask a colleague for feedback on something specific you would like to develop.
Awareness of others
Leaders should also have humility and awareness of others, enabling them to select the right advisers to balance and support them in areas where they are less strong.
Tip: Dedicate 10 minutes every day to listen to one colleague. Ask questions and don’t interrupt!
Effective leaders demonstrate confident and resilient behaviour, and act as role models for others to follow.
Tip: Think about one person upon whom you have a had a positive influence. What was it about you that made a positive impact?
Building trusting and collaborative relationships will enable leaders to influence, inspire and motivate others.
Tip: Risk being more open. Let yourself be known by your colleagues, and express your feelings, concerns and wishes.
Why is emotional intelligence an important leadership trait?