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Updated: October 17, 2022 outside the box

Emotional intelligence is a supreme competency

A picture of Bonnie J. Walker Image | Courtesy of Bonnie J. Walker Bonnie J. Walker
To read Bonnie J. Walker's other Outside the Box columns, follow the links at the bottom of the article.
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What you feel, why you feel that way, and how you express your feelings is important, and critical to how you lead. 

Emotional intelligence (Emotional Quotient Inventory, or EQ-i) reports emotional and social functioning. This evaluative test is used to determine personal development, emotional intelligence, and emotional social competencies. People who are highly emotionally intelligent understand their emotions and emotional responses and can manage them well across different areas, including self-perception, stress management, self-expression, interpersonal interactions, and decision making.

How we navigate these areas impacts the people and the organizations that we lead. Why don’t we prioritize honing this competency for all leaders? I hypothesize that folks with higher EQ-i’s do better at supporting a diverse workforce because they are more in-tune with others, across differences and cultures. The better we are at navigating change, conflict, and stress, the better we are at managing and cultivating diverse communities. When employees feel they are a part of something great, and bigger than themselves, and report to leaders who care about them and support their needs, they work with more purpose, passion, and productivity. Humans need to feel a sense of belonging, and this does not come from a shared intelligence; it comes from social-emotional connection.

It is not necessarily the smartest people that make the best decisions, but rather those with intelligence and high emotional intelligence. Problem-solving, for example, is not just about solving the problem, but about understanding how our emotions and the feelings of others impact our decisions, recognizing our implicit biases and unique and personal emotional responses influence us, and even ignite triggers, so we can remain mindful and present while experiencing heightened emotions, be objective, and mitigate impulsiveness. 

Decision making is a critical competency for leaders, and emotional intelligence elevates better decisions. In order to make decisions, we have to problem solve, including the ability to understand how emotions impact decision making. Who are we solving the problem for, and what factors must we consider to be inclusive of all constituents involved? How do we support the needs of those who are most vulnerable? This last question is what is asked in organizations committed to equity and inclusion.

We have to practice reality testing; the capacity to remain objective by seeing things as they really are, despite how we feel about any given situation. This capacity involves recognizing when emotions or personal bias can cause one to be less objective. Emotionally intelligent people can temper their feelings to get to the truth, solve the problem, create change, support inclusion, and cultivate community. Objectivity is a critical skill, and very much influenced by how we navigate our emotions about all sorts of things in front of us.

Impulse control is the ability to resist or delay an impulse, drive, or temptation to act and involves avoiding rash behaviors and decision making. For example, write that scathing email and then never send it or wait until you can re-write it appropriately to be sent. Those with the highest emotional intelligence, might not even have to draft the scathing email, rather they are able to sort through their emotions evenly and send the appropriate email despite how they might be feeling. My mother used to tell me often as a child, “Bonnie, it’s not what you feel that is the problem, it’s how you express it that is damning.” Delivery matters.  

Although Emotional intelligence has been underestimated, underappreciated, and underdeveloped as a leadership competency for too long in many businesses, this is shifting. TalentSmart has found across everyone and every industry they studied, 90% of top performers were high in emotional intelligence. Unlike IQ, the EQ-i can increase over time with intentional energy and focus. Let’s hold ourselves accountable for strengthening our EQ-i, in the same way we do other leadership competencies.

Bonnie J. Walker, a Worcester resident, is principal diversity & inclusion officer at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington.

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