Chances are you know less about emotional intelligence (EI) than you think, but for those on the leadership track, a better understanding of it can make all the difference.
Being emotionally intelligent generally means you are skillful in recognizing and managing your emotions, as well as those of others. This creates more empathic interactions, stronger connections and highly productive relationships -- all essential in making leaders, followers and organizations successful.
EI’s value to leadership has been touted since Harvard psychology professor Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence hit the shelves in 1995. Among his other findings, Goleman noted that emotions are contagious and flow from the more powerful person outward. For leaders responsible for an organization’s success, it’s thus important to remember that how they perceive and manage their own emotions and behaviors has a direct impact on employees’ productivity, development and satisfaction.
What isn’t always spelled out is that EI covers much more than simply recognizing and managing emotions. It is often discussed in popular management literature as if it were a “thing” that one either has, doesn’t have enough of or doesn’t have at all. While we may speak of IQ in terms of high and low, EI rather encompasses a varying number (depending on whom you ask) of diverse but complementary aspects that together can determine a person’s overall emotional intelligence.
Several established assessment instruments attempt to measure emotional intelligence via a number of competencies. Goleman’s own ESCI features 21 of these core competencies, including optimism, transparency, adaptability and self-confidence. Other prolific instruments on the market include Reuven Bar-On’s EQ-i, the MSCEIT and our own Dr. Laura Belsten’s SEIP, which measures a total of 26 emotional-intelligence competencies, including innovation and creativity, initiative and bias for action and inspirational leadership.
The good news: Unlike IQ, which is rather fixed, you can develop these and many other specific emotional-intelligence competencies at any point in your life or career, provided you are sufficiently motivated to do so.
"I have personally worked with several of the world’s leading CEOs," said award-winning executive coach Marshall Goldsmith in Coaching for Leadership. "One reason that they are so effective in leading people is that they are always trying to improve themselves -- not just asking everyone else to improve."
The payoff is clear. Here are five steps to higher emotional intelligence.
1. Learn the language.
First, you need to know what EI competencies are -- focusing on those required in your organizational and leadership culture -- so that you can identify the areas in which your skills may need to be developed. The aforementioned sources, Goleman, Belsten and Bar-On are good places to start.
2. Know thyself: Collect feedback.
Know where you stand and how you’re perceived. Strengths and blind spots can be illuminated with an informal survey or 360-degree feedback if you work in an organization that offers it. Three-sixties are a great tool since evaluations are typically anonymous, and thus more likely to be specific and honest.
3. Narrow your focus.
After reflecting on your findings, pick one or two areas you want to work on, depending on your personal and professional goals, even organizational goals. Keeping your focus narrow ensures maximum attention on the most important growth areas and increases the likelihood of your overall success.
For instance, as a manager and emerging leader, you might focus on behavioral self-control and empathy, enabling you to stay composed and unflappable in challenging situations, and helping you better relate to the concerns of your team. But as an entrepreneur, you might instead focus on innovation and creativity, helping you take new perspectives, question accepted practices and try different approaches.
4. Create your own board of directors.
Look for two or three people with whom you don’t compete and who don’t work with you and use them to form your own “board of directors,” a strategy promoted by Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer. These trusted individuals, he said, should hold you accountable to personal-development plans. It is impossible for you to make an unbiased judgment of your own progress, so get frequent feedback from your board on how you’re doing.
5. Become a work in progress.
Once you get feedback that indicates you’ve accomplished your goals in the first areas you decided to develop, move on to the next set of competencies in the order of their relevance and importance to your very specific situation. Personal growth can snowball -- take advantage of the momentum.
No one is simply “emotionally intelligent,” but by strengthening the competencies that comprise EI, odds are, when leaders are needed, you’ll be on the radar long before your brilliant colleagues who think it’s their own contributions that matter most for success.