What Leaders Get Wrong About Emotional Intelligence (and 3 Ways to Improve It)

Emotional intelligence is a skill that you can hone, not a trait that’s set in stone.

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We are living in an era of emotional intelligence. Since the concept’s inception in the 1990s , it has become a sought-after skill among managers today.

Emotional intelligence is also a crucial part of leadership. Organizations often succeed because they have emotionally intelligent leaders who can create work environments that enhance employee EQ (“emotional quotient,” or how emotional intelligence is measured).

According to one study, restaurants with emotionally intelligent managers experienced a 22% annual profit growth versus the yearly average of 15%. Emotional intelligence also helps leaders gain trust and credibility from their followers when leading organizations through change. The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence found supervisors with high EQ make workers feel “50 percent more inspired” than those with low EQ.

What leaders get wrong about emotional intelligence

Despite the benefits of emotional intelligence on organizational performance, some leaders are still resistant to embrace it. For some, the psychologist-coined term maintains an air of the cerebral or intangible. More than just viewing EQ as a soft skill, they believe it’s an amorphous, undefinable trait–something “squishy,” and therefore not something they can improve. In other words, you either have it, or you don’t.

This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Just like any skill, emotional intelligence is a skill set that can you can practice, develop, and get better at. It’s not all or nothing, and it’s certainly not set in stone. We all possess some level of EQ, and anyone can improve specific aspects of their emotional intelligence to enhance their overall EQ. Once you understand it as a set of skills that lends itself to measurable behaviors, you can take the necessary steps to improve your emotional intelligence—and leadership outcomes.

I recommend working to improve just a few aspects of your emotional intelligence at a time to maximize effectiveness. To boost your EQ today, start by focusing on these three areas:

1. Improve your self-awareness

You can’t accurately connect with others or put your best foot forward to achieve success until you have a handle on self-awareness. By becoming more in tune with your own emotions, you can pinpoint when a situation is causing you to escalate emotionally and put distance between the stimulus and your response. This is a crucial practice of emotional intelligence.

I like to compare the practice of self-awareness to the role of a lookout in the crow’s nest of an old ship. Their only job was to sit in the basket at the top of the ship with a telescope, observe what was looming on the horizon, and make an accurate report. They weren’t judging it; they were reporting what they saw.

You should strive for the same thing when practicing self-awareness. The goal is to get an objective, accurate assessment of what’s happening inside of yourself. It’s not about changing the context or even strategizing your response; it’s about making sure you’re (accurately) assessing the difference between a looming iceberg and a beautiful island on the horizon. If you want to make the right choice, you need to be able to see what is going on.

2. Pay attention to others

Self-awareness allows you to respond in a more emotionally intelligent way. Social awareness, on the other hand, is about giving other people the time and space they need to communicate and that you need to process the information they’re sharing.

This may sound simple enough, but in today’s fast-paced, smartphone-addicted society, giving others our full attention is harder than it seems. Many of us are also out of practice. Learn to stop what you’re doing, listen, and put down your phone. Look people in the eye, read their body language and tone, and tune in to what they are presenting.

Everything in life, from happiness to business success, is based on relationships. That’s why you need to be mindful and intentional in your social interactions so that you can build your capacity for empathy.

3. Be proactive about connecting with people

This is where the rubber meets the road. Once you’re fully in tune with yourself and fully aware of others, it’s time to start connecting with people the right way, improving your approach to managing conflict and confrontation.

This starts with listening attentively. In addition to giving others the necessary space to communicate, ask questions and draw people out. Then, really listen. Get into the psyche of others to truly understand them and their experience. Think about how refreshing it is when someone truly listens to you instead of just waiting for their turn to speak.

If you disagree, do so productively. Leverage your emotional awareness to engage in conflict that isn’t combative but productive. Calmly state your position while remaining in a collaborative space with those who may not agree with you.

Lastly, don’t pretend to be someone else. The root of emotional intelligence is authenticity, both to yourself and others. Without it, emotional intelligence loses its purpose.

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