If there's one soft skill companies are looking for in both leaders and teams, it's emotional intelligence or emotional quotient. That's largely because EQ can dramatically influence our ability to interact effectively with others and thus has a direct influence on the wellbeing and productivity of the entire group. So unsurprisingly, your grasp of EQ should go deeper than what you hear at the water cooler.
To break down what's most important or not well-known about EQ, I turned to Kerry Goyette, Certified Professional Behavior Analyst and Certified Forensic Interviewer. Goyette is also the author of The Non-Obvious Guide to Emotional Intelligence and has established an evidence-based approach that develops emotional intelligence in the workplace.
Here are the top things any leader should know about EQ:
1. EQ, decision-making and adaptation go hand in hand.
People sometimes believe that EQ is simply a high ability to accurately recognize what others are feeling. But Goyette explains that, from a neuroscience perspective, EQ is the intelligent use of emotion to make better decisions and more effectively adapt to our environment--that is, it's a process of properly applying the recognition of feelings to then select context-appropriate responses that benefit you, others or both.
What's more, Goyette says, you should ditch the myth that EQ is simply a "nice to have" trait or something to work on "when you have time." Because most everyday decisions are made in the emotional centers of the brain, and because your ability to socially connect and bring out the best in others determines how good of a leader you'll be, you shouldn't wait to develop emotional intelligence. You need EQ right now to reach your full potential.
2. Higher EQ can keep you emotionally and physiologically relaxed.
Goyette explains that there are two main brain systems that help you figure out if something is a threat and consequently initiate an emotional response--the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system, and the insula, which keeps an eye on physiological changes and what's happening to your organs as you feel feelings. And when you perceive something as a threat and feel fear or anxiety, this triggers the fight-or-flight stress response, which involves complex changes such as increased adrenaline and cortisone. This is great for making you more alert and having energy to escape the perceived danger.
Unfortunately, it also means that the limbic system starts to assert control and floods your prefrontal cortex--that is, the "thinking" part of your brain--with glucose. Subsequently, your ability to apply logic can drop by as much as 75 percent.
"Stress makes it impossible to regulate your emotions in an effective, productive way, which will diminish decision-making [and] problem-solving, [reduce] creative, strategic thinking [and] makes you less collaborative and more self-focused."
With all this in mind, Goyette says that having a higher EQ might be somewhat protective against stress and burnout. Individuals with higher EQ use the thinking part of their brain extremely well when they're appraising everything in their environment. They can reflect to determine whether something is a real or perceived threat, reframing and reappraising the situation, instead of letting the limbic system drive them by default. And this ultimately keeps them in control of the physiological response they have to what's around them.
3. Emotional intelligence has fallen, but it's never too late to reverse course.
In his book, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman claims that, although IQ has increased 24 points across demographics in the United States since 2018 (the IQ scale ranges from 0 to 160+, with 100 being average), emotional intelligence is declining. With this in mind, Goyette points out that Millennials largely have been shaped by a "me" culture, surrounded by technologies that have changed how well we focus and socially connect.
The good news, though, is that EQ is still equal opportunity. Anybody of any generation, even Millennials, can get better at it.
"Brain scientists are showing us that neuroplasticity, or the brain's ability to be malleable and learn new things, is present throughout one's life. It might be harder to change behavior when you're older because habits take time to change and reform, but it doesn't make you incapable of increasing your EQ," he says.
4. Intentionality makes a difference in EQ improvements.
Emotional intelligence is unfortunately subject to the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is a cognitive bias in which people tend to believe they are smarter than they are. They cannot spot a lack of competence because they don't possess the skills necessary to do so.
"One of the challenges [in improving EQ]," Goyette says, "is that typically individuals who need to build emotional intelligence don't think they need it, and vice versa. Research shows that self-awareness is critical to improving emotional intelligence."
So as a leader, don't automatically dismiss evaluations that rate you lower on EQ--you might not be able to see the extent of your own problem. And if you can see a deficiency in others, you need to find kind, evidence-based ways to show them the reality of their current EQ state. From there, it's all about collaborating to develop a clear, step-by-step plan for getting better.