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What Is Emotional Intelligence?

Experts: 'People smarts' are good business and can be learned

Human resource leaders at Amadori decided in 2008 that the large Italian-food company needed to add emotional intelligence to its leadership culture. The following year the McDonald’s supplier teamed with emotional-intelligence consulting organization Six Seconds to help managers develop stronger people skills and insights, an effort later expanded to others in the company’s plants.

A multiyear study of Amadori found that high emotional intelligence (also known as EQ or EI) significantly influenced individual performance and organizational engagement, which, in turn, improved company performance, according to a case study that Six Seconds posted earlier this year.

According to the report: “There is strong evidence that emotional intelligence is predictive of individual performance; we found that 47 percent of the variation in performance is predicted by variation in EQ. Plants with more emotionally intelligent managers had higher organizational engagement. Plants with higher organizational engagement reached better performance.”

The findings help reinforce the notion that good people smarts go hand in hand with overall success. The study found a “strong, significant link between the ‘hard’ outcome of results and the ‘soft skills’ of emotional intelligence,” suggesting that “massive individual performance benefits can be reached by developing these skills and by selecting managers who already exhibit these skills.”

Not a New Concept

Nearly a decade ago, former General Electric Co. Chairman and CEO Jack Welch, in a Wall Street Journal column, touched on the importance of emotional intelligence in leaders.

“A leader’s intelligence has to have a strong emotional component,” he wrote. “He has to have high levels of self-awareness, maturity and self-control. She must be able to withstand the heat, handle setbacks and, when those lucky moments arise, enjoy success with equal parts of joy and humility. No doubt emotional intelligence is more rare than book smarts, but my experience says it is actually more important in the making of a leader. You just can’t ignore it.”

Emotional intelligence is the ability to use emotions effectively, “the key competence for relating to people, sustaining drive and making optimal decisions,” Six Seconds Chief Operating Officer Joshua Freedmansays on his blog. In The Business Case for Emotional Intelligence, a 2010 white paper, he wrote that “the growing base of research consistently finds a powerful relationship between emotional intelligence and leadership effectiveness.”

Although some people may have been born with high emotional intelligence or raised in a family that developed it, many business leaders and staff members could benefit from training.

“There’s just no question people can learn—even the toughest nut”—if they care, said Roxi Hewertson, president and CEO of Highland Consulting Group, near Ithaca, N.Y. A 53-year-old she worked with regretted that he hadn’t learned emotional-intelligence skills 30 years earlier. At first he didn’t know how he’d get over the fact that he’d previously been a bad leader , but, eventually, he let go of the past.

“Everyone can learn emotional intelligence and grow it,” said Hewertson. “Once they get it, they really get it, and they want to be good at it.”

Hewertson, who has a master’s in industrial and labor relations from Cornell University and trains people in emotional intelligence, has observed that five main strengths help great leaders excel:

  • The ability to understand their own emotions and see the effect on themselves and others.
  • Knowledge of their own gifts and shortcomings.
  • Possession of a good sense of self-worth and of their own abilities.
  • The ability to think and act with optimism.
  • The desire to seize opportunities to contribute to the greater good.

On the flip side, she said, are failing leaders, who discount others’ feelings and views, are blind to organizational cues and networks, blame others for poor results and isolate themselves or their team.

“Oftentimes what I see … is that leaders don’t even know that they’re in trouble until it’s almost too late, if they don’t have very much social awareness or self-awareness,” Hewertson noted.

People “often don’t understand how their attitudes and behaviors are impacting other people and impacting the work,” she said in a recent interview with SHRM Online. “They just go about doing their tasks, just thinking that as long as they’re getting their results, everything is fine.” These leaders may end up with short-term results but long-term pain, she added.

Leaders often lack empathy—“understanding where other people are coming from”—and don’t deal well with conflict, Hewertson said. She cited bosses who are much more directing and controlling than collusive and collaborative, which isolates people.

Great leaders pay attention, observed Hewertson, who said she used to think it was a great idea to lay out her vision at the outset of staff meetings. She didn’t realize that her passion for her own ideas quieted others. “I wasn’t getting the kind of input that I wanted, and I didn’t know why,” she recalled.

Hewertson eventually changed her meeting strategy, refraining from discussing her own vision until she had heard from others. “When I stopped doing that, everything was so much better,” she said. “When you’re so wrapped up in your own stuff, you’re not going to get the best out of people.”

Leaders also need to know their own strengths and limitations. Hewertson mentioned a boss who’d answer every question regardless of whether he knew the answer. This diminished his leadership credibility and got him into trouble, she said. “Nobody knows everything about everything … nobody knows everything about anything,” she added, noting that she likes to hire people who are better than she is in certain areas.

People also need a solid sense of their own self-worth, said Hewertson. She explained that people send clear signals when they are arrogant rather than self-confident: Those who are arrogant are usually insecure or fearful, while those with confidence are secure in their abilities—“and it kind of just emanates from people.”

Similarly, Hewertson noted that people tend to have either a “scarcity” or an “abundance” viewpoint. Those with the former view may feel insecure about their jobs; so they need to learn that lifting others up won’t bring them down. Those with an abundance viewpoint act with optimism and look for solutions.

Some leaders wrongly regard this “soft” side of business as something that’s nice to have if they have time, but it’s much extremely important, according to Hewertson. “The reality is—and the jury is in; it’s not out—that those people who have and practice high levels of emotional intelligence are significantly more successful, both personally and as far as bottom-line results, than those who don’t. It’s not even close.”

She explained that “it’s really not touchy-feely, because everything we do in life and in work is all about relationships,” including relationships with vendors and regulators.

Without emotional intelligence, people get attached to agendas and don’t care about the success of the organization as a whole, she said, citing the recent federal government shutdown.

EQ Training Brings Results

If there’s any doubt about the bottom-line importance of a high emotional intelligence, just consider the case of a Motorola manufacturing plant, which Friedman cites in his white paper, where 93 percent of employees became more productive after the facility adopted stress-reduction and emotional-intelligence programs. Another factory reduced “lost-time” accidents, boosted productivity and sharply lowered formal grievances after supervisors received training in “emotional competencies.”

In another case, a Sheraton hotel achieved much greater customer satisfaction and market share and a significant reduction in staff turnover after a one-year EQ-development program, Freedman noted.

A manager is more likely to lead with emotional intelligence if the company values it, said Hewertson. If the company rewards a supervisor for tasks—the number of widgets sold, for example—and not relationships, the manager will think relationships are not important, she explained.

“What you reward is what you will get,” said Hewertson. Lacking a reward for building good work relationships, a leader will focus on the widgets, even if the widgets are defective and employee turnover is high.

Dinah Wisenberg Brin, a former Associated Press and Dow Jones Newswires reporter, is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer.


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