Explainer: what is emotional intelligence and why do you need it?

Don’t let stress get the better of you. Michal Kowalski/shutterstock

British politician, Andrew Mitchell is clearly a highly intelligent man. He’s well-educated, good at his job and was once tipped for the political heights. But his behaviour that came to light as a result of the “Plebgate” saga showed him to lack another ingredient which is increasingly being seen as vital in an effective leader: emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence has been touted to matter as much as IQ. The concept started to gain popularity in the 1990s and has been the subject of much debate within academic circles, as well as organisations, over what it constitutes and its significance. Research has tended to focus on showing the value of high emotional intelligence to leaders and organisations. My research also considers the relationship between a lack of emotional intelligence and leadership failures.

Defining the concept of emotional intelligence is an issue in itself. Is it about traits? Is it about competency? Is it really an “intelligence” or is it about ability? If it is about traits or competencies, which traits and competencies comprise our emotional intelligence? If it’s about the way you relate to other people, then isn’t it more to do with social intelligence than emotional intelligence? There does tend to be agreement, however, that both self-awareness and an ability to regulate how you act on your emotions are crucial components of emotional intelligence.

Beyond the soft and fluffy

Within organisations, debate is often more centred on how something that sounds so soft and fluffy can really contribute to leadership success. For those organisations where strategic thinking, rational decision making and financial results are prized above all else, emotional intelligence can sound a bit too woolly.

The research suggesting that it does contribute is compelling and is typified by a study of more than 300 managers, which found superior performers scored higher in all emotional intelligence attributes including self-awareness and self-management. The Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organisations summarises much of the early research into emotional intelligence, making a clear link between emotional intelligence and an organisation’s ability to meet its bottom line.

Learning from low emotional intelligence

Interestingly the focus of much of the research is on demonstrating the relationship between high emotional intelligence and leadership success. We can however learn as much, if not more, about the importance of emotional intelligence to leadership success through observing those that fail to demonstrate it. Lack of emotional intelligence – in particular lack of self awareness and self control – are key leadership derailers.

Andrew Mitchell, former government chief whip. Yui Mok/PA Wire

Andrew Mitchell’s fall from grace is far from the only example of a politician derailed through momentarily lapses of emotional intelligence or an overall lack of it – and in the past year we’ve seen other high-profile cases, including the demise of Paul Flowers, former chairman of Co-op Bank, largely as a result of dysfunctional behaviours. There is a harsh reality to lack of emotional intelligence in leaders.

Losing self control

In leadership development and talent management the predominant focus on strengths and positive traits or attributes leads to an overall lack of understanding of the causes of derailment. For many leaders, it is their response to difficult, challenging or stressful events that is the significant contributor. When under stress, both our self-awareness and our emotional self-control are challenged.

In stressful situations our brain’s primitive fight-or-flight reflex, our amygdala, is triggered. In the grip of our emotional reaction we can lose perspective – particularly, an awareness of how our emotions are directing our behaviour – and lack the self-control to step back, evaluate and regroup. It’s in these situations we say and do things we regret later when we’re calm. We’ve probably all been through this at some point in our lives. For leaders however, poor self-awareness, losing perspective and lack of self-control can have significant consequences.

It starts with self awareness

For leaders, self-awareness is crucial to developing emotional intelligence and preventing derailment. Simply knowing our own values, attitudes, beliefs and motivators goes some way to helping us to understand our own behaviour and, in particular, how we respond when these values feel compromised. Recognising what triggers our stress response and pre-empting this before we’re in the grip helps us to maintain composure and control.

With clear evidence linking high emotional intelligence to high performance in leaders, and regular illustrations of high-profile leaders derailing due to the lack of emotional intelligence, there is a compelling case for leaders to focus attention on developing emotional intelligence in order to sustain leadership success.