Emotional Intelligence: What is it? Why does it matter?

A photo of children playing at recess.

It was recess and we were on the playground. I couldn’t help noticing how many kids wanted to play with Jill. Jill was popular, friendly, and influential. In my third-grade mind, she had it all. I bargained with her: I would give her a piece of candy and in exchange she would tell me her popularity secrets. Well, she got the candy, but I can’t recall any of the secrets. Nonetheless, we would become best friends. 

There may not be a secret formula to being popular, influential, and effective, but there are skills we can develop. You’ve probably heard of emotional intelligence. “Emotional intelligence” was first coined by two researchers (Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer) in 1990. They described it as “a form of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s  and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and action.”

Unfortunately, emotional intelligence is not “like riding a bike.” Building our emotional intelligence is more like physical fitness. We need to know how to build our emotional intelligence “muscles” and find ways to keep them toned. As we do this, we can be better prepared for handling everyday situations, working with others, and leading change.

Leaders who are high in emotional intelligence enjoy greater success in both work and personal endeavors. They know themselves well, manage their emotions, manage themselves, communicate effectively, build constructive relationships, and develop their teams. In short, they exemplify leadership. They can get things done with and through people.  People want to work for them; people want to achieve goals for them. These are leaders who get things done.

And guess what? There’s an added bonus! They are likeable. They are like Jill. They form meaningful personal connections with others. They know that people are emotional beings and they relate to others in a personal way. They are approachable. Leaders with high emotional intelligence know that everyone has something to contribute and they believe that others are worth their time and attention, regardless of status, position, or ability. These leaders are even-keeled, kind, generous, and humble. They walk their talk. They can inspire others to join them in their shared vision. They challenge, encourage, and develop others. In short, they are more effective and they enjoy their roles more.

Self- awareness is always the first step in the process. How can you build your self-awareness so that you can harness your own emotions and manage yourself? Here are three suggestions that can get you started:

  1. Keep a journal of your emotional reactions. Write at various times of the day, recording your emotional state. Take the time to name your emotions. Think about what happened that may have impacted your emotions. Did you just get a congratulatory email from your boss? Did you just find out that your department budget will be cut? What did you do to either savor the positive or recover from the negative emotions?
  2. Ask a trusted friend or colleague for specific feedback about how you “show up” emotionally? What emotions are they seeing in you that perhaps you thought you were hiding? What did they see that you weren't even aware of? Ask them if they notice any patterns that you might be able to use as you learn to pay greater attention to how your emotional state impacts you and those around you.
  3. After an upsetting incident, (where your emotions prevented you from being at your best), make a point of setting time aside to examine what events preceded the incident, and then take a look at what beliefs you hold and thoughts you carry about how things ought to be. If you find any “shoulds” in your thinking, take the time to analyze them. For example, “This shouldn’t happen to me.  My boss shouldn’t be acting this way. My team should be keeping me better informed.” When we walk around with lots of “should’ statements, we are wasting time and emotional energy that could be used for more constructive purposes. How might you reframe these thoughts and move toward your own role in the incident? If you’re brutally honest, could you have done something differently?  What can you do to change your behaviors or habits so that you are better prepared to respond more constructively?

Emotional intelligence can be developed. Good leaders have emotional intelligence. Great leaders have emotional intelligence and keep working towards even greater emotional intelligence.