Emotional Intelligence: What if They Just Don’t Have It?

We hear the phrase “Emotional Intelligence” (EI) used a lot in leadership circles. Since Daniel Goleman introduced the phrase “Emotional Intelligence” many years ago, it’s gained more and more acceptance as a key part of a successful leader’s personality. In fact, it’s so common to hear someone remark something like, “She has a lot of emotional intelligence,” or “He lacks the emotional intelligence to understand how he’s being perceived,” that we often don’t even think about what it means. We just recognize it, or, perhaps we just recognize its absence.

However, that becomes a problem when we ask the question, “How does a person with a low level of emotional intelligence improve?” Some would argue that by the time a person is far enough into his/her career for emotional intelligence to be seen as a problem, it’s too late to do anything about it. However, that seems like a pretty cynical and pessimistic attitude, and one that I refuse to embrace. On the other hand, if we cannot break it down into recognizable and distinct components, then the pessimists may be right. It will be difficult to help a person improve.

Fortunately, as is so often the case, if you go back to the original writer, you discover that Goleman had a lot to say about exactly what “Emotional Intelligence” is. As he breaks it down, it becomes evident that these components can be isolated, observed, and developed. What are they?

  • Self-awareness – The ability to recognize and understand your own moods, emotions, and drives and how those things are affecting others around you. People with a high level of self-awareness will possess a realistic assessment of themselves.
  • Self-regulation – This is the ability to control or redirect negative impulses or moods. This kind of person practices Covey’s theory that “between stimulus and response, there is space.” They are comfortable with functioning in the midst of ambiguity without letting anxiety control their behavior.
  • Motivation – This means that a person recognizes his/her intrinsic motivations and is propelled by these more than extrinsic motivations. People with high motivation are able to remain optimistic, even while honestly facing the brutal facts.
  • Empathy – This is the ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people and to know how interact with them, in light of their emotional mindset. This is why people with good “Emotional Intelligence” are great at building and retaining talent, and those who struggle with EI will always struggle at building and keeping great teams together.
  • Social Skill – Goleman used this term to refer to the power to manage relationships and build rapport with people based on common ground. He suggested that people with good social skills are persuasive and effective at leading change.

Here are my three takeaways from this related to developing EI in leaders:

  1. The first three traits are about managing yourself. You cannot lead, nor manage others, if you cannot manage yourself and your own emotions.
  1. The last two traits are about managing relationships with others. Social skills is the culmination of EI. However, it seems we often expect people to be high in this area, even though they are clueless in the previous four categories.
  1. If we want to improve a person’s EI, we have to start at the foundation, which is self-awareness and move up from there. It isn’t easy, but it’s not impossible; and without doing it that way, there is no hope for improving emotional intelligence.

Mike Mowery

Written by:
Mike Mowery
Chief Operations Officer, Strategic Government Resources

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