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Emotional Intelligence

Unlock Your Emotional Genius

How emotionally intelligent are you, and why should you care?

Psychologists aren’t exactly sure how to define intelligence. Even after a century of debate about what it is, and how to measure it, we still have a wide range of theories and ways to test this elusive human quality. More importantly, psychologists still don’t have solid evidence to show that intelligence matters in improving the quality of our day-to-day lives. Forrest Gump perhaps provides the best fictional example, at least, of someone whose test scores placed him well below average in intelligence, but whose enjoyment of life—and success—were unquestionably high.

We don’t need to turn to fiction, however, to justify the idea that IQ, as it’s traditionally defined, isn’t necessarily related to the ways that people measure success and happiness in real life. Even those who claim that superior intellectual performance is vital to life success, such as British psychologist Graham Jones (2012), don’t limit themselves to IQ scores. According to Jones, who interviewed top athletes, CEOs, military leaders, and physicians, superior intellectual performance involves knowing how to use the skills you have, not just having those skills. It’s no use to have a brilliant intellect if you can’t work within the constraints of your environment or be motivated to use your brilliance to the max. This study, like the “successful Intelligence” theory proposed several years ago by psychologist Robert Sternberg (2009), makes it clear that intelligence is more than book smarts.

Successful intelligence requires that we know how to put our intellectual best foot forward. Sometimes this means having just plain common sense, or “street smarts.” Successful intelligence also involves having “emotional intelligence,” also called "EI," which is being to read people’s feelings—and your own.

With high EI, you can succeed in many areas of your life. Your close relationships can benefit from knowing how to read people’s feelings, regulate your own emotions (especially anger), and understand what you're feeling, and why.

EI is now moving front and center to corporate boardrooms where it is becoming the latest leadership buzzword. Organizational psychologists are finding that leaders must have the ability to understand social interactions and solve the complex social problems that arise in the course of office life. From resolving disputes to negotiating high-powered deals, business leaders need to be able to read each other’s signals, as well as understand their own strengths and weaknesses.

Now that we’ve swapped one thorny problem (defining intelligence) with another (defining leadership), let’s take a closer look at why good leaders need to be able to read the emotional tea leaves of their workers, if not their competitors.

Current leadership theories define great leaders as ones who show transformative qualities. Transformative leaders can act as models who inspire other people by their vision of change. They have charisma, promote creativity and innovation, develop an environment in which their workers feel supported, and convey ambitious goals to their workers (Cavazotte et al., 2012). In other words, a transformative leader is the ideal boss. It’s easy to see why part of the formula for becoming a great leader is that you possess emotional intelligence.

The qualities of a transformative leader are also valuable in your personal life. If you’ve ever had to organize your family or friends in order to get some cleaning done or an event planned, you know that the best way to get people to do things for you is to show these very qualities. You want others to look up to you, be inspired by your vision, and feel that you support them.

Having greater emotional intelligence can help you in almost any interpersonal situation where it’s important to read others and plan your actions accordingly. When it comes to intimate relationships you similarly can benefit from the qualities of the transformative leader. The people who love you might also be the most forgiving of your mistakes, but they will also be the most appreciative of the ways you can inspire them to feel hopeful and successful themselves.

Chi-Sum Wong and Kenneth Law, of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, decided to investigate the connection between emotional intelligence and leadership (2012). Their definition of EI harkened back to early psychologist Edward Thorndike who, in 1920, believed that being able to “act wisely in social relations” was a fundamental component of overall intelligence. Seventy years later, psychologists Salovey and Mayer (1990) published a paper that translated that brief phrase into four dimensions that Wong and Law used as the basis for their scale.

See how you stack up on these four dimensions of EI. Below each description are the items on the test. Just read each one and rate yourself on a seven-point scale from most to least characteristic of you. Be honest, as only you are reading your own scores!

Understand and express your own emotions. People with this ability know how they’re feeling before other people do.

1. I have a good sense of why I have certain feelings most of the time.

2. I have a good understanding of my own emotions.

3. I really understand what I feel.

4. I always know whether or not I am happy.

Perceive and understand the emotions of others around you. This ability means that you are sensitive to how others are feeling.

5. I always know my friends’ emotions from their behavior.

6. I am a good observer of others’ emotions.

7. I am sensitive to the feelings and emotions of others.

8. I have a good understanding of the emotions of people around me.

Regulate your own emotion. Regulating your emotions means that you are able to keep them under control, especially when you’re feeling distressed.

9. I always set goals for myself and then try my best to achieve them.

10. I always tell myself I am a competent person.

11. I am a self-motivated person.

12. I would always encourage myself to try my best.

Use emotion to maximize performance. Directing your emotions toward constructive activities allows you to use them to optimal advantage.

13. I am able to control my temper and handle difficulties rationally.

14. I am quite capable of controlling my own emotions.

15. I can always calm down quickly when I am very angry.

16. I have good control of my own emotions.

Now look at how you’ve scored and compare the items you felt were most like you and the ones that were least like you. Were your strengths in reading yourself, or in reading others? Do you have the most difficulty regulating your emotion? Is it hard for you to muster your emotional strength to put out the best performance possible? The way you answered these questions can provide clues to learning your EI strengths and weaknesses.

Wong and Law found that the people scoring the highest on their EI scale, as workers, were most likely to be satisfied with their jobs. However, the workers who performed the best not only were high in EI but also working in positions that required them to use their EI (that is, high in “emotional labor”). People high in EI in jobs that didn’t require emotional labor not only performed more poorly but were also less likely to feel committed to their work and more likely to try to find other employment. The leaders with the highest EI had employees with the highest levels of job satisfaction. Clearly, then, EI as measured with this 16-item test, influences how satisfied people are with their jobs and potentially with their leaders.

If your scores came out lower than you would like, is there any way you can improve your EI? By breaking EI down into these four components, you can tackle whichever one or more are giving you the most difficulty. If it’s help you need in reading the emotions of others, you can work on building your empathy by not being afraid to ask what the people you work with and live with are feeling, especially if you’re not sure, or if you’ve been wrong in the past.

Reading your own emotions better might be more of a challenge. One approach is to practice more emotion regulation. If you can stop before you act and ask yourself how you feel and why you feel this way, it might give you just enough time to gain insight into which emotions are driving your behavior. Because anger so often gets in the way of relationships to others, learning what triggers your anger can ultimately help you understand and control it.

Luckily, great leaders don’t just have to be born with great emotional intelligence. By learning what contributes to EI, you can develop your own. Not only can this make you a better leader but, just as importantly, a better friend and lover.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., 2013.


Cavazotte, F., Moreno, V., & Hickmann, M. (2012). Effects of leader intelligence, personality and emotional intelligence on transformational leadership and managerial performance. The Leadership Quarterly, 23(3), 443-455. doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2011.10.003

Jones, G. (2012). The role of superior performance intelligence in sustained success. In S. M. Murphy (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of sport and performance psychology (pp. 62-80). New York, NY US: Oxford University Press.

Salovey, P., & Mayer, J. D. (1990). Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 9 (3), 185–211.

Sternberg, R. J. (2009). The theory of successful intelligence. In J. C. Kaufman, E. L. Grigorenko (Eds.) , The essential Sternberg: Essays on intelligence, psychology, and education (pp. 71-100). New York, NY US: Springer Publishing Co.

Wong, C., & Law, K. S. (2002). The effects of leader and follower emotional intelligence on performance and attitude: An exploratory study. The Leadership Quarterly, 13(3), 243-274. doi:10.1016/S1048-9843(02)00099-1

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