Nutshell: Growing our emotional intelligence to flourish as leaders

Written by
Future Talent Learning

06 Apr 2020

06 Apr 2020 • by Future Talent Learning

Our emotions play a major role in our thought processes, decision-making and individual success, so we must learn to understand and harness them in the workplace.

In 2016, MI6, the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, posted a recruitment advert on parenting website Mumsnet, attracting numerous applications and a healthy dose of publicity. This indicated not only an admirable attempt at workforce diversification, but also an acknowledgement of what it takes to excel in the modern world of work.

Speaking to The Independent, MI6’s head of recruitment explained that intelligence officers were required to have a blend of emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills. A source quoted elsewhere added that they were looking for people with a real passion for human interaction, understanding others, and dealing with the sometimes complex nature of human relationships. James Bond, they joked, would probably not be successful in joining the intelligence service, if he were to apply.

But while emotional intelligence is gaining traction as a recognised skill set, this doesn’t mean that our workplaces are awash with emotionally intelligent leaders. We’re far more likely to find ourselves sitting opposite The Office’s David Brent than Mahatma Gandhi in our next 1-2-1. Knowing about ‘emotional quotient’ (or EQ) is one thing; really understanding it and integrating it into hiring, training and promotion processes is another. The James Bonds of this world can be a remarkably resilient bunch, even today.

The Ability Model

The phrase ‘emotional intelligence’ only entered common parlance relatively recently (becoming a formal area of psychological study in the 1990s), but we’ve always loosely understood that our emotions affect our actions and motivations.

Around 2,000 years ago, Plato wrote that “all learning has an emotional base”, while Aristotle showed his innate EQ when he acknowledged that, while anyone can be angry, “to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right person, in the right way” is much less straightforward. In other words, to harness powerful emotions, we must be able to draw on our own judgement, self-discipline and self-awareness in the heat of the moment – which is no mean feat.

More recently, various thinkers have dabbled with the idea of EQ in a bid to articulate it more overtly. For example, in 1920, American educational psychologist Edward Lee Thorndike talked of “social intelligence” being “the ability to understand and manage men and women... [and] to act wisely in human relations”. By the 1950s, Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was allocating a raft of emotional needs to its upper echelons. And in 1983, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner introduced the concept of multiple intelligences, including ‘interpersonal’ and ‘intrapersonal’ intelligence.

The first known use of the phrase ‘emotional intelligence’ came two years on, courtesy of American graduate student Wayne Payne in his unpublished doctoral dissertation A Study of Emotion: Developing Emotional Intelligence. And at around the same time, Israeli psychologist Reuven Bar-On was working on a measure of social-emotional intelligence (later developing the Bar-On EQ-i assessment).

However, the term was officially coined in 1990 by American psychologists John Mayer and Peter Salovey, whose landmark paper, Emotional Intelligence, defined it as “the ability to monitor one's own and others' feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one's thinking and actions”. (It is said that Mayer and Salovey developed their premise while painting the walls of the latter’s house, bringing new value to the pastime of watching paint dry and proving, yet again, the power of that diffuse mode of thinking.)

They have continued to develop the field, most recently collaborating with fellow psychologist David Caruso in 2016 to update The Ability Model of Emotional Intelligence, which revolves around the four fundamental abilities of:

  • perceiving emotion
  • facilitating thought using emotion
  • understanding emotions
  • managing emotions

Their assessment tool, the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT), gauges EQ through a series of questions based on everyday scenarios, testing participants’ ability to perceive, use, understand and regulate their emotions.

What makes a leader?

But despite Mayer and Salovey’s pioneering work, emotional intelligence is now synonymous with psychologist Daniel Goleman, a former science journalist for The New York Times, who popularised it to the extent that he is often regarded as the ‘father of EQ’ (or EI, as he prefers to call it).

In reality, he borrowed the term (with permission) from Mayer and Salovey for his seminal text Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, published in 1995. Goleman’s starting point is that we should not view IQ as the sole measure of ability, arguing that our emotions play a major role in thought, decision-making and individual success. IQ tests, Goleman believes, are designed to screen candidates based on their ability to process information, rather than their likelihood of success. He even goes as far as to describe IQ merely an “entry-level requirement”, especially for leaders. Harvard Business Review declared his thinking “a revolutionary, paradigm-shattering idea”.

Goleman has since been integral in creating a global movement around emotional intelligence, whether writing further bestsellers and academic papers, appearing on Oprah or organising a series of intensive conversations between scientists and the Dalai Lama. He’s a passionate proponent of getting EQ programmes into all schools and factoring it into healthcare.

And, of course, he sees EQ as crucial in the commercial world, emphasising direct ties between emotional intelligence and measurable business results. His research suggests that emotional competence is twice as important as IQ or technical competence for jobs at all levels. He also asserts that EQ plays an increasingly important role at the highest levels of the company, where differences in technical skills are of negligible importance.

While the qualities traditionally associated with leadership ­– such as intelligence, toughness, determination and vision – are required for success, they are insufficient; truly effective leaders are also distinguished by a high degree of emotional intelligence, which includes self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skill.

These five ‘domains’ underpinned the structure of Goleman’s original model, but were reduced to four in a revised version (with motivation incorporated into self-management). Self-awareness and social awareness refer to what we know about ourselves and others; self-management and relationship management are what we do with that information. They house 12 ‘nested competencies’, representing learned and learnable capabilities that allow outstanding performance at work or as a leader.

The first two domains are what Goleman calls personal domains:

Self-awareness boils down to knowing our strengths, weaknesses, drives, values and impact on others, with hallmarks including self-confidence, a self-deprecating sense of humour and a thirst for constructive criticism. It is our moral compass and the basis of good intuition and decision-making.

For instance, we may know we have a tendency to cut deadlines fine, and plan our time in advance to counter this. We may become aware of our need to say yes to every project that comes our way, which sometimes leads to us taking on too much work and letting colleagues down. Or we may reflect on the fact that ambiguity makes us uncomfortable, bearing that in mind when making decisions. Noting the particular personality traits that have the potential to ‘derail’ us in our careers is a critical first step for any leader (as we will explore further in our Sova Personality Assessment).

Self-management refers to controlling or redirecting disruptive impulses and moods, and can be noted in trustworthiness, integrity and comfort with ambiguity and change. It resembles an ongoing inner conversation, and requires us to handle our distressing emotions and to marshal our positive ones, motivating ourselves to achieve. Instead of yelling at team members when they fluff a presentation, for example, we should consider possible reasons for the failure, explain the consequences and explore solutions. Self-regulation has a trickle-down effect – fewer tantrums at the top mean fewer throughout the organisation, due to the phenomenon of emotional contagion, which refers to the transfer of moods between people in a group.

Goleman refers to the second two domains as social domains:

Social awareness involves considering others’ feelings when making decisions, plus the ability to read a group’s emotional currents and power relationships, and to identify influencers, networks and dynamics within an organisation. Its tell-tale signs include expertise in attracting and retaining talent, an ability to develop others, plus sensitivity to cross-cultural differences. Although EQ is universal, it can look different in different cultures – think Japan’s rigid social rules versus Brazil’s openness.

For example, we may recognise an introverted colleague’s preference for thinking things through quietly before coming to a conclusion, or another person’s need for a significantly higher degree of praise than their peers. A particularly anxious co-worker may require clearly articulated reasons for any upcoming changes well in advance. And a pitch made to a client in Japan may be a calmer and more conservative affair than an equivalent made to a customer in the US, since Japanese culture values modesty and humility, putting an emphasis on politeness and conformity rather than individuality.

All these skills are brought together in relationship management, which means building rapport with others to move them in desired directions, demonstrated by persuasiveness, the ability to lead change effectively and extensive networking. Ultimately, “EQ defines our capacity for relationship,” asserts Goleman in Primal Leadership.

How to build emotional intelligence

While we’re each born with certain levels of skill in emotional intelligence, the good news is that we can also develop it, building our skill through practice, persistence and feedback from colleagues or coaches. However, to do so, we must be motivated, since it takes time, patience and concerted effort to break ingrained habits and create new ones. Goleman recommends visualising where we want to be in five years’ time as a way to develop this motivation. Referring to popular culture can also prove insightful – hence our drawing on iconic figures (including David Bowie and Ella Fitzgerald) who embody traits such as authenticity and adaptability during this module and also throughout the wider curriculum.

The second step is to gain honest feedback about our strengths and growth opportunities. To acquire insight into our everyday impact, we should stay alert to verbal and non-verbal clues, encouraging dialogue with colleagues when problems arise (asking “what more could I have done to help you?” or “how can I support you better in future?” rather than closing down difficult conversations). Treating constructive criticism as ‘just another data point’ helps us to take feedback on board without becoming defensive.

To close gaps in our skill set, we must then embark on a learning plan, making an intentional effort to practise the competencies we want to improve (such as active listening or controlling negative emotions). Keeping a journal can aid self-awareness, helping us to keep track of our thoughts, emotions and the reasons behind them, while setting out our values will ensure we know what we stand for when making moral or ethical decisions. We may also choose to enhance our self-regulation by learning some deep-breathing exercises to work on being calm, or enhance our empathy by making an effort to read colleagues’ body language more closely. Learning how to praise others and how to resolve conflicts diplomatically (as we will explore in more detail in the module on relationships) will help to build our relationships – in every area of our lives.

Having somebody such as a personal coach to support us through this learning process (and to suggest how we might continue to improve) can encourage us to keep going; it’s estimated that it takes three to six months for a new behaviour to become a habit. That’s also one of the reasons our programme is so long: genuine behavioural changes rarely happen overnight.

A portfolio of skills

Unlike with IQ, there’s no single score that sums up emotional intelligence. “We don’t have an EI score; we have an EI profile,” Goleman stressed in a blog post in 2018. “We can be strong in certain domains and weak in others. We are all unique in our profiles, not to mention our motivations, goals and passions.”

Take Esther, who believes she has high EQ due to her sensitivity, sociability and likability. These are all qualities she patently displays; however, she lacks the ability to deliver difficult feedback to employees, the courage to ruffle feathers and drive change, the creativity to think outside the box. Her EQ skills are uneven: while she is strong on empathy, positive outlook and self-control, she is deficient in achievement, influence, conflict management, teamwork and inspirational leadership – areas she must work on to succeed.

Esther conforms to the gender pattern noted by Goleman in his research: women tend to be better than men, on average, at emotional empathy and social skills, while men tend to be better at self-confidence and managing distressing emotions. It’s notable, however, that when you look at the leaders in the top 10% for business performance, there’s no difference between men and women in any of the variables.

To excel, then, leaders need to develop a balance of strengths across the full suite of EQ competencies, with the best EQ improvement plans harnessing the energy and passion we feel for our individual purpose (whatever gives our work meaning), encouraging us to strengthen any deficient competencies that might help us to achieve these aims. Studies demonstrate tangible benefits of such development, not only for us as individuals, but for the teams we lead and the businesses we work for.

For instance, when Coca-Cola trained sales leaders in emotional intelligence, participants exceeded their performance targets by 15%, while leaders who did not develop emotional capabilities missed their targets by the same margin.

Meanwhile, a three-year study of AMADORI, a supplier of McDonald’s in Europe, assessed links between emotional intelligence, individual performance, organisational engagement, and organisational performance. Emotional intelligence was found to predict 47% of the variation in managers' performance management scores and was also massively correlated with increased organisational engagement with 76% of the variation in engagement predicted by manager EQ. Finally, plants with higher organisational engagement achieved higher bottom-line results, building a link between EQ, engagement and performance. During this period, employee turnover also fell by almost two-thirds (63%).

The dark side of EQ

However, despite findings such as these, not everyone is wholly in favour of a strong emphasis on EQ. Critics hint at its ‘dark side’, warning that its skills can be used for both good and evil.

“New evidence shows that when people hone their emotional skills, they become better at manipulating others,” argues organisational psychologist Adam Grant, pointing out that 'when you’re good at controlling your own emotions, you can disguise your true feelings. When you know what others are feeling, you can tug at their heartstrings and motivate them to act against their own best interests.'

Research by University of Cambridge professor Jochen Menges shows that when a leader gives an inspiring speech filled with emotion, the audience is less likely to scrutinise the message and remembers less of the content – despite claiming to recall more of it. Adolph Hitler’s study of gestures and movement and ability to “strategically express his emotions” enabled him to become a compelling public speaker, for example. The Renaissance political writer Machiavelli would no doubt have approved.

The ‘strategic use of EQ in organisational settings’ was the focus of a recent study by a research team led by University College London professor Martin Kilduff. They concluded that high-EI people (relative to those low on EI) are likely to benefit from several strategic behaviours in organisations including focusing emotion detection on important others, disguising and expressing emotions for personal gain, using misattribution to stir and shape emotions, and controlling the flow of emotion-laden communication.

Elsewhere, there have been warnings that low scores on an emotional intelligence test reduce hiring potential as well as job retention, and could alter an individual’s career track, even if they are successfully completing their job requirements. Such a focus on EQ is of particular concern for people with (disclosed or undisclosed) autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit disorder or many mental health conditions, and, it has been argued, could even derail some diversity and inclusion efforts.

Just like any test or diagnostic, we need to guard against over-confidence in EQ’s value as an assessment tool. Critics question the legality (and ethics) of implementing across-the-board EQ testing, and point to the potential stigmatisation of those who do not score highly. Some cynics go as far as to disagree that EQ is an intelligence of any kind, calling it “a hallucinatory desire to break down feelings into a math equation”; others feel that studying it is simply reinventing the wheel. They argue that emotional intelligence is no more than general intelligence plus a mix of the big five character traits by a different name.

Such debate is healthy within a relatively new branch of psychology and, given the growing inclusion of EQ in school – as well as leadership – programmes, it is certainly important to be aware of, and understand, any negative consequences. However, it’s also clear that the competencies and skills associated with emotional intelligence (however we describe them) can bring a wide range of benefits, from improved relationships to increased achievement and better psychological wellbeing – all crucial elements of a leader’s toolkit.

The ability to know and manage ourselves and to create and manage relationships with sensitivity and purpose are important skills for anyone at work today; for leaders, they are essential. There is little doubt that managers with a higher degree of EQ are more able to recognise the impact they are having on their team, to understand how to get best out of others and to foster deeper and more fulfilling relationships with their colleagues. 

In an age of rapid technological advancement, human skills such as influencing, persuading and social understanding (which cannot – as yet – be replicated effectively by our robot colleagues) become disproportionately valuable, enabling us to make intelligent decisions underpinned by empathy – and to complement the more clinical calculations of our computational counterparts.

While a few commentators (such as the historian Yuval Noah Harari) predict an imminent future where AI in the workplace will become just as ‘emotionally’ intelligent as humans (if not more so), that future has not yet materialised. For the time being, we can safely rely on the need to keep developing those all-important ‘people skills’ that form the cornerstone of effective leadership.


Test your understanding

  • Outline the relationship between Salovey and Mayer’s theory and Goleman’s work.
  • Explain the four key dimensions of EQ according to Goleman.
  • Describe two criticisms of the theory of EQ.