What is Emotional Intelligence, and how to improve it?

This is one of the most frequently asked questions I get asked during training breaks, executive coaching sessions and office corridor conversations. As much research demonstrates, Emotional Intelligence plays a vital role in the success and happiness of one’s life. It is so important, particularly in today’s day and age. Therefore, I decided to spend some time writing my take on Emotional Intelligence so that many can benefit from it.

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) history:

EQ is not a new term or a hidden knowledge to humankind, and the truth is we have been aware of it for many centuries. For example, in Greek mythology, the phrase “Know thyself” is nothing but the first quadrant of EQ, which is self-awareness. Due to advancements in the field of science, specifically neuroscience, we are now able to understand how it works and, most importantly, substantiate the benefits through various research. In the early 1900s, it came to the surface but was called Social Intelligence, and in the mid-20th century, the term evolved into Emotional strength. Today it is famously called Emotional Intelligence – same thing, just different labels.

The simple definition of EQ is “The competency to manage yourself and your interactions with others.” EQ is something in each of us but can be slightly intangible.

Until the early 1980’s it was believed that IQ is the single most factor that determines the success of someone’s life. Therefore, our education system was designed to test cognitive intelligence (IQ) to make workforce selection. Based on the academic rankings, people were and are generally hired by businesses.

Earlier studies found that people with the highest intelligence (IQ) outperformed those with average IQ’s by just 20%, while people with average IQ outperformed those with a high IQ 70% of the time! This puzzled many physiologists and scientists because it was assumed that high IQ was the most prominent reason for success up until that point. After verifying the results, scientist realized there must be another variable that explains success above and beyond IQ. Years of research and studies pointed towards EQ as the critical factor of success. When emotional intelligence was first discovered, it served as the missing link in a peculiar finding.

Extensive research from Harvard Business School now states that “EQ, Emotional Intelligence counts for twice as much as IQ and technical skills in determining who will be successful.” Travis Bradbury and Jean Greaves, who wrote the book Emotional Intelligence 2.0, say that EQ is responsible for 58% of professional success in all organizational positions. Additionally, 90% of all top performers had a high EQ. A 2003 study at the University of Queensland revealed that emotionally intelligent leaders are responsible for 34% greater annual profit growth, increased customer satisfaction, and higher employee retention.

The critical point I’m making is that this so-called soft skill is the single most crucial skill in delivering hard cash bottom line improved results. Those with higher EQ make on average $29,000 (~AUD 37,000) more per annum than their peers. In fact, a study found that for each point of higher EQ, a $1,300 average salary increase is directly associated with it. Summing up, I would say, “IQ might get you hired, but EQ will get you promoted”.

It wasn’t so much in demand in the 20th century for leaders. Now, however, there are so many changes in the landscape of the workforce, such as an increase in female employees, a larger representation of ethnic minorities and 5 generations in the same workplace at the same time for the first time in history. Moreover, millennials are taking most of the leadership positions in the world, and their children will enter the workforce soon, at the same time that their grandparents are still working! Therefore, Emotional Intelligence is one of the essential skills to lead and drive motivation out of people to stay on the common mission and achieve the results.

What is Intelligence Quotient (IQ) in the first place?

Intelligence Quotient or simply IQ is the ability to learn something. In other words, people with a higher IQ can learn to grasp things more quickly than people with a lower IQ. This is measurable. Most people (about 68 percent) have an IQ between 85 and 115. However, only a small fraction of people retain a very low IQ (below 70) or a very high IQ (above 130). As per the 2021 country ranking, Singapore tops the charts with an average IQ of 108, and Australia takes 13th place with 100.

IQ is not flexible. It is sort of a dramatic event and is fixed from birth. You don’t get smarter by learning new facts or information. Intelligence is your ability to learn, and it is the same at the age of 15 as is at age 50. The reason why a select group of kids always took the top ranking in your class was because they were blessed with higher IQ. The kid who always came last in the class didn’t want to finish last, but unfortunately, they were not blessed with a higher IQ from birth.

The good news is that IQ is not the one that determines success. Otherwise, we can just measure our IQ at the age of 5 and give up trying against people who got higher IQ.

EQ, on the other hand, is a flexible skill that can be learnt and improved. While it is true that some people are naturally emotionally intelligent than others, a high EQ can be developed even if you are not born with it.

What is EQ, and how it works?

To help you all understand, I will use this analogy. EQ is like our Operating system (OS) – The system under which all other software programs such as parenting, team player, leadership sits atop of. If you install a new software program on a computer with a faulty operating system, it crashes. Now the user can make the mistake of blaming the software, but the reality is once you fix the underlying operating system, everything that sits on top will run more successfully.

Everything we see, through our sensory systems, such as smell, touch, sound, taste and sight, travel through our body in the form of electrical signals. These signals pass from cell to cell (neurons) until they reach their ultimate destination, which is our brain. The signals first enter through the base of the brain near the spinal cord (Limbic system). They must travel to our frontal below behind the forehead before reaching the place to rational and logical thinking (Neocortex) takes place.

Image 1.1 Sensory processing

The trouble is they pass through our limbic system along the way, the place where emotions are produced. This journey ensures we experience things emotionally before our reason takes place. The rational area of your brain can’t stop the emotion felt by your limbic system. But the two regions do influence each other and maintain constant communication. The communication between our emotional brain and rational brain is the physical source of emotional intelligence. That is why after yelling at our partner or children for no reason, after a few seconds, we realize that what we did was wrong. It is because the limbic system was in action when we first showed the emotion, in the form of anger, before the neocortex took part in the event.

There is three-part of the human brain, as shown in image 1.2 below:

  • Neocortex = Thinking (Sage) brain
  • Limbic system = Emotional (Monkey) brain
  • Basal Ganglia = Action (Robot) Brain

The sage brain is conscious, thinking and a learning brain. It controls language, thoughts, and reasoning. It is the same brain you have been using while you are reading this article so far. The monkey brain is the emotional centre. It stores the value judgements, memories and behaviours produced by positive and negative experiences. Information from the monkey brain is essentially subconscious, meaning it is the information just below the surface of our awareness. The robot brain is the root of the brain. This is our instinctual central, and it runs all of our automating systems. It has the sole purpose of keeping us alive. Information from the robot brain is completely unconscious and inaccessible. Our monkey brain is where our emotional centre is. When our robot brain is on threat alert, it is our monkey brain that runs 95% of the show. Our monkey brain constantly seeks stimulation, attention, and amusement, and it is also extremely childish and freaks out easily. It fears missing and being left out and constantly paranoid that somebody is judging and talking bad.

Our monkey brain is one that pushes to spend money on the things that we don’t need to and forces you to look at your phone frequently. Our monkey brain is also one that drives our impulses, outbursts, freeze and flight responses. Like it or not, and the monkey brain is the one who makes 100% of our decision. First made emotionally by the monkey brain and then intellectualized and rationalized by the sage brain, if you remember our earlier example, after yelling at someone feeling bad about it.

Here is how it rationalize – when our monkey brain makes a decision, it generally takes between 500 milliseconds and 7 seconds, depending on the situation, for our sage brain to get the notification. But the decision was already made, and now the sage brain has to deal with it. For example, if someone accidentally cuts you off on the freeway, what most people do is slam their hand on the horn and yell at the windshield, venting anger. If their partner, who is sitting next to them, happens to look at them, then their sage brain finally steps in and tries to explain – ‘Did you see what that guy did? He cut right in front of us, and he endangered our lives blah blah…’ It tries to do a positive spin on the emotional outburst.

How to improve Emotional Intelligence:

If you want to know how to improve your EQ, you need to understand the below four competencies of Emotional Intelligence.

  1. Self-awareness – you recognize and understand your emotions and reactions. You understand and admit your weakness, you know how to play to your strengths, and you understand your effect on others.
  2. Self-management – you can manage, adapt, maintain, and control your emotions, impulses, moods, reactions, and responses and avoid acting irrationally. You can drive yourself to take appropriate actions, stay committed, follow through and work towards achieving goals.
  3. Others-Awareness (Social Awareness) – you have empathy which allows you to recognize the emotions of others and utilize that understanding to relate to others effectively.
  4. Relationship management – You can use your self-awareness, self-management, and others awareness to build genuine relationships and bond. Express care and handle conflict in healthy ways. You can foster collaboration, negotiate conflicts, work as a part of the team, inspire and influence and lead others effectively.

In order to self-manage your emotions, first, you need to be self-aware of your emotions. Secondly, you need to know what your emotional triggers are. If you identify the triggers, you can possibly train yourself to delay your response from 500 milliseconds up to 7 seconds until your sage brain kicks in. The following two competencies will help you identify others emotions and help you succeed in relationship building. This is how the famous saying came up, Don’t react, but respond!

There are much training and many books available to educate you on the strategies required to improve each competency score, which will enhance your overall EQ score.

I personally liked the book titled “Emotional Intelligence 2.0” by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves, which will assist you in testing your EQ (although it is not an accurate testing method as compared to IQ test) and then suggest to you the top 3 strategies to improve each competency from the available 60 competencies.

I hope this article has demystified the complex and scientific topic of Emotional intelligence and helped you understand the importance of working on your EQ to increase your success and happiness in your life.