Smart Sentiments

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High emotional intelligence is a hallmark of effective leaders

By Sara Canaday

You’ve probably read a great deal about emotional intelligence lately. A few months ago, a headline caught my eye on LinkedIn. Judging by numerous comments, I wasn’t alone. Clearly crafted to raise eyebrows (and clicks), it proclaimed, “Emotional Intelligence is Overrated.”

The story was meant as proof that corporate leaders are better off assessing cognitive abilities and relegating the assessment of emotional intelligence to the touchy-feely fields where “you have to deal with emotions every day, like sales, real estate and counseling.”

What is emotional intelligence and how do we measure it?

Emotional intelligence has to do with common sense and observation in the real world. It involves applying self-awareness, social fluency and behavioral intelligence. It doesn’t involve a passive state of being. Someone who possesses emotional intelligence knows when, how, with whom, and to what degree to apply it.

You’ve certainly encountered business leaders with a high degree of emotional intelligence. Picture the C-level executive who knows exactly how to communicate criticism to team members in a way that motivates them, rather than crushes them. Or the normally animated and enthusiastic leader who suddenly gets quiet in order to convey the gravity of an event. Think of the colleague who remains poised, calm and in control when challenged in a meeting. Or the CPA who has a larger client base than her peers because she knows how to deliver bad news without creating alarm.

These skills are not only important to a small, select slice of fields and people. They are the skills that benefit anyone, in any arena. Think of the ability to write well. It may not be the first skill you think of when you think of science, but anyone in the scientific community will tell you that the ability to write well will set a scientist apart from equally intelligent scientists who are poor writers.

Here are four suggestions to improve your emotional intelligence:

  • Determine where you are today. Gauge your current Emotional Quotient, or level of EQ. You can access several free resources to determine your “baseline” EQ. For a more substantive measure, seek out a certified coach who is trained to administer and interpret a reputable test. (Check out the Institute for Health and Human Potential assessment at www.ihhp.com/free-eq-quiz.)
  • Be conscious of your non-verbal responses. Facial expressions, movements, gestures, tone of voice and body language. Practice self-reflection, and be intentional about how you want others to see and experience you. Be open and seek out coaching and advice.
  • Acknowledge thoughts and expectations. Practice active listening skills. Ask questions that demonstrate your curiosity and verify your understanding. Actively engage with people who have different perspectives. Choose experiences outside of your comfort zone. Work to understand others challenges and circumstances before presenting your own.
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  • Know your emotional “triggers.” Notice the signs that indicate you might lose composure. Prepare behavioral distraction tactics to use when those signs appear. Keep track of when you display less-than-gracious behavior, and look for ways to mitigate those circumstances in the future.

Behavioral intelligence, social fluency, the ability to apply emotional intelligence—these are teachable skills that can launch greater professional and personal success. As Nowak concludes: “It’s not how smart you really are that matters in terms of work and life success, but how you are smart.”


Sara Canaday (sara@saracanaday.com) is a leadership speaker, consultant and personal branding strategist in Austin, Texas.