During the last few years there has been a renewed interest in emotional intelligence in business and leadership. What does this potential superpower actually look like, and how do you cultivate it?
What is emotional intelligence?
Modern research on emotional intelligence, or EI, started when researchers Jack Mayer and Peter Salovey noticed that very smart leaders often made bad decisions. The missing ingredient? Emotional intelligence.
Based on their findings, Mayer and Salovey broke EI into four areas, including:
- perceiving emotions in yourself and in others
- using emotions to facilitate thought
- understanding emotions (and their causes)
- managing emotions – to respond effectively and achieve positive outcomes.
In short, emotional intelligence is the intelligent use of emotions.
How EI helps you succeed at work
Does your job involve working with people? You may already be using emotional intelligence more than you realise. Many researchers argue that EI matters more than IQ, knowledge and technical skills.
In an increasingly complex business world, emotional intelligence can mean the difference between flourishing and floundering. High performers depend on EI to work well with people, motivate themselves and others, and make good decisions quickly.
One core work skill underpinned by EI is the ability to build relationships. For example, pharmaceutical company Sanofi-Aventis provided EI training to some of its salespeople, then measured the results. Employees trained in emotional intelligence increased their sales by 12 per cent compared to those who didn't receive training.
The higher up the company ladder you are, the greater the impact of your EI. Plus, wherever you travel for work, emotional intelligence is universally valued across cultures.
How EI can improve your whole life
As well as affecting the business’s bottom line, EI influences your own income. In a German study of employees in a range of jobs, employees’ annual income was related to their ability to recognise others' feelings. Being able to read emotions in others' faces and voices means we skillfully navigate the social and political world of work for greater success.
Outside the office, emotional intelligence also helps you manage stress and strengthen relationships (which further buffers stress). Shoring up relationships is especially important when you’re frequently on the road.
Overall, higher emotional intelligence is related to greater life satisfaction – your evaluation of your life as a whole.
Can EI be learned?
Like other skills, the genetic lottery does play a role in your EI aptitude, as does your upbringing. For example, if you felt pressure to be “strong” and suppress emotion while growing up, then articulating your feelings may not come naturally. But that's far from the end of the story.
Whether you feel you’re already highly emotionally intelligent, or not, investing your attention in this skillset pays dividends in all areas of life. There’s more good news – research shows emotional intelligence tends to increase with age.
How to practise EI
Here are just a handful of habits that elevate your emotional intelligence. With deliberate practise, you can enjoy higher performance and wellbeing in yourself and your team.
1. Tune in to your emotions to make better decisions
Whether a course of action feels uncomfortable, or intuitively “right”, is valid. Alongside an analytical approach to decisions, let your feelings help you choose. Whether it's to apply for the Global Manager position, or push harder for a new client's business, gut feelings about your choice can be spot-on. Cultivating mindfulness increases your awareness of these feelings.
2. Reduce your blind spots
When others know something about you that you don't, it's like unwittingly wearing sauce on your tie. For instance, your stress on a bad day might be apparent to others without you even realising just how tense you are. Meanwhile, your colleagues wonder if they’ve done something to upset you.
To reduce your blind spots, proactively seek both positive and negative feedback. High-performers do this informally every day, and in structured processes like 360-degree surveys. Each time you’re flying out, why not make it a habit to send an email requesting feedback on the work you just did in that city?
3. Learn to listen
Yes, you already know this. But when you're under pressure, it’s easy to forget. Be patient. Let people finish. Ask questions, then paraphrase the answers to check you understand how they feel, and why.
Showing you’ve truly heard a staff member’s displeasure with their new travel schedule, for example, makes it easier for them to bear. And of course, demonstrate your full interest in their good news stories, too.
4. See difficult emotions as cues to take action
First, label the unpleasant emotion to gain some freedom from it. Don’t try to avoid feeling angry, defensive or anxious. Accept the feeling and remember it will pass. Next, rather than ruminating on the problem, take action to move towards your big-picture priorities.
So you missed your flight and let down a high-value client? Accept your stress and embarrassment as cues to repair the relationship. Feeling livid about the service at your hotel? Make a note to contact management, then refocus on your next meeting.
In the fast-paced business world, continually growing your softer skills should not be underestimated. As American activist Maya Angelou put it: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”