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Why Emotional Intelligence Could Be Your Biggest Asset

Emotional intelligence will be a top skill in 2020. Here’s how companies can build it into their corporate culture.

In the past two decades, a dangerous paradox has emerged. Our IQ as a society has increased by 24 points, but our emotional intelligence, or ability to be aware of, control and express our emotions, has declined.

“We used to think that decisions were made in the thinking part of our brain, but they’re actually made in our emotional brain,” says Kerry Goyette, author of The Non-Obvious Guide to Emotional Intelligence. “So when we’re caught with an emotion of anger or fear, we can go into fight-or-flight mode and it can cause us to make very impulsive decisions.”

In an unpredictable, fast-changing business world, leaders are under pressure to innovate, stay ahead of the market and find quality talent. Those conditions are ripe for emotional intelligence to plummet.

In fact, 91% of the 1,000 employees surveyed in a recent Harris Poll said their bosses didn’t have effective communication skills because of a lack of emotional intelligence.

What is emotional intelligence? The term “emotional intelligence” was first coined by academics John D. Mayer at the University of New Hampshire and Peter Salovey at Yale back in 1990, but the idea was popularized by The New York Times writer Daniel Goleman, who in 1995 wrote the bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, based on their work.

Emotional intelligence, or EI, the author concluded, is driven by a set of skills, rather than personality. It includes self-motivation, empathy, social skills and impulse control. 

Brain research shows that when you react using the emotional part of your brain, or the amygdala and limbic system, you’re more likely to make poor decisions. You’ll fare better if you ignite the prefrontal cortex (which is responsible for reasoning, inhibition and decision making) and avoid an “amygdala hijack,” or the state in which the fear center of the brain goes into overdrive.

“Ninety-five percent of the time, we act from the limbic system, or the emotional center of the brain,” says Goyette.

Changing your mind

How do you ensure you’re leading with emotional intelligence? What about your team? How do you build it within your culture?

That’s a tricky task for execs and teams to figure out, says Goyette, who coaches clients including Shell, the Securities & Exchange Commission, Big Pharma and universities on emotional intelligence.

“It’s so conceptual,” she says. “They know we need it, but they’re not sure what it is.”

Brain training

Emotional intelligence, experts say, can be improved, and people can train their brains to respond, think and acknowledge emotions in response to what’s thrown at them—whether that’s social changes, interactions, negative feedback, facial gestures, or criticism.

The key, says Goyette, is to understand your personal triggers and what trips you up at work. “It has to be intentional,” she says.

A handful of fears are usually to blame, kicking that limbic brain into gear at work. The habits are surprisingly common.

The avoider

For instance, you may avoid making decisions to avoid any kind of criticism and stepping out of a comfort zone. But the price paid? You’ll react in a passive aggressive way or with volatile emotions.  

If you have high emotional intelligence, in that case, you would label your fear, face it, and seek advice on how to confront the issue. If nerves become a problem, Goyette suggests writing down a plan and responding to a situation in person. 

The impulsive manager

Impulsiveness is another key obstruction to success. You might act on the limbic brain’s impulses and the decision can take you to unintended places, ultimately alienating people along the way with unpredictable anger or frustration.

With emotional intelligence, you’d take time to reflect on previous decisions and look for the “clues” that led to impulsiveness in order to respond differently in the next situation.

The victim

Blameshifting is another biggie. You might tend to exaggerate negative situations and think of yourself as a victim, causing people to pull away because they get tired of hearing it, says Goyette.

If you identify common assumptions, such as assuming you’re faultless, powerless, or that someone else is bad or mean, then you can admit that you are not faultless or powerless, and that people don’t necessarily have bad intent. That clears the way for you to build relationships and admit your failures.

The control freak

Control is another common limbic fear at work. It’s typically a situation in which you might seize control to avoid failure, says Goyette, but you’re actually acting on fear. That ultimately causes people around you to shut down. Employees typically stop taking initiative, offering ideas and giving feedback. But when you act with emotional intelligence, you instead share goals and metrics and actively bring in team members to help, says Goyette.

A worthy investment

In the end, research shows emotional intelligence not only improves leadership, relationships and work performance but it boosts creativity and teamwork, too. Dozens of books have been published on emotional intelligence in recent years, offering tips on how to perceive, identify, and manage your emotions in relationships, love, work, and parenting. A number of emotional intelligence quizzes also promise to help you determine your EQ (as opposed to your IQ).   

Honest feedback can help you see your blind spots. “When you constantly ask for feedback and create a culture for feedback, it naturally increases the emotional intelligence around you,” Goyette says.

If you’re getting no real employee feedback or if all the feedback is positive, it may be a hint that you should shift your communication approach as a leader, says Hortense le Gentil, a New York leadership coach who works with C-suite executives from Fortune 500 companies. 

She counsels leaders to make self-awareness a top priority. Sometimes practicing emotional intelligence simply means shutting up, since the boss’s opinion can inhibit expression in others and stifle ideas.

“Listen. Truly listen,” le Gentil says. “Successful executives take care to be the last to speak, to hold their tongue until the conclusion of a meeting to ensure that their opinion does not overshadow or influence the opinions of others.”

Bringing space to your mind

To nurture emotional intelligence, it’s also important to take time to unplug and create space for higher-level thinking, says Goyette. It’s something we rarely do when a smartphone stays at arm’s reach. 

By simply going for a walk or finding time each day for quiet thinking, you can get rid of the noise and access a different part of the brain. “That’s where our true insights occur,” Goyette says.

Emotional intelligence will become even more important in the years to come—not just for business leaders but for all employees. Social skills—such as persuasion, emotional intelligence and teaching others—will be in higher demand across industries in 2020, more so than technical skills, such as programming or equipment operation and control, according to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report.

Teaching those EI skills will be critical. Emotional intelligence can be difficult in today’s always-on work environment, but it’s clear that self-awareness and self-management skills will be vital—not only to survive, but to win in business.