Are you intelligent enough for today’s economy? Research shows that as much as 75% of career success is driven by intelligence—but not the kind that would be measured on any IQ test. Emotional intelligence (EQ) is one of the most important (yet most misunderstood) skills for today’s chaotic business environment—whether you’re a leader, individual contributor, business owner, or professional in transition.

EQ is often mistaken for a “touchy/feely,” optional soft skill. In truth, EQ is actually a hard skill and is among the most critical for success in today’s complex business environment. Let’s take a look at what emotional intelligence really is, why it’s so important today, and steps you can take to quickly get some powerful EQ skills under your belt.

EQ in a nutshell: It’s not about being “touchy/feely”

Many hard-driving professionals believe they don’t have time to get “touchy/feely” or “emotional,” and therefore dismiss the topic of emotional intelligence entirely. Unfortunately, this misconception is actually very perilous from a career standpoint, and can lead to some very serious problems. In fact individuals who lack good EQ skills are often perceived as being overly emotional, or not demonstrating effective leadership presence in the work place.

People with high emotional intelligence are the ones who can remain cool and calm in even the most stressful situations; they maintain composure at all times and are very good at leading groups through difficult situations. They are often seen as very good listeners who are able to get to the root of an issue. Perhaps most importantly, they are very effective in influencing others toward the outcomes they want.

The emotional intelligence concept was born of research into what drives career success. We now know that the vast majority of success isn’t based on what we traditionally call intellect; in fact 59% to 75% of career success isn’t explained by IQ scores. We’ve all seen examples of people who can be 100% right and 0% successful—they may have great ideas, but for some reason they can’t communicate well with others or get the results they want.

Emotional intelligence has consistently shown to be a much more significant determinant of success than IQ, and people with highly developed EQ are very good at three things:

  1.  Self-Awareness: They understand their own emotions very well, and this allows them to stay calm and focused (i.e., not react emotionally) when under pressure. They can also maintain focus on bigger goals and avoid getting distracted in the heat of the moment.
  2. Understanding Others: Being in control of their own emotions frees emotionally intelligent people to understand emotions and drives in others. They’re extremely good listeners, can take an accurate “read of the room,” and often stay one step ahead in any exchange. This means they’re rarely blind-sided, which gives them the upper hand in leadership situations.
  3. Influence: Armed with self-awareness and an understanding of others, emotionally intelligent people are extremely good at influencing people. They’re instinctively aware of everyone’s goal and hot buttons, and they can use this awareness to steer outcomes in the direction they want. Emotionally intelligent people also tend to have a lot of influence even when they don’t have formal authority.

The very good news about emotional intelligence is that, unlike IQ, EQ is trainable over time, so everyone has the opportunity to improve.

Why EQ can be difficult and why it’s critical today

Becoming more emotionally intelligent requires overcoming part of how our brains have been shaped by evolution and shifting our thinking in ways more suited to the modern world. Evolution has wired our brains so that signals go through the emotional center first and then move to the areas where intellect and higher thinking occur. This means that we’re hard-wired to experience emotions first and only later get to apply higher reasoning.

For our ancestors, this emotion-first wiring was an advantage because it allowed the “fight or flight” response to engage very quickly.  That’s what they needed when surprised by a predator or other danger. However, for life in the hyper-stimulating modern world, an instant access to emotion, before our higher thinking can be engaged, brings the risk of being “emotionally hijacked”—getting caught up in a cycle of emotional reaction, failing to exercise good judgment in the moment, and taking actions that aren’t in our best interest.

The realities of our modern world make the consequences of emotional hijacking all the more dangerous. We now live in an interconnected global community, with extremely complex relationships and the pace of our communication is almost overwhelming. There are 2.4 billion Internet users; that’s over one-third of the world’s population, and everyone reading this article has the ability to directly communicate with anyone in that community. We send and receive 144 billion e-mails every day, in addition to the daily 23 billion texts and 400 million tweets that rocket around the world in seconds.

We’ve all heard stories about corporate careers, company reputations, and political careers irrevocably damaged in seconds by leaked e-mails or a Facebook post that went viral. In many cases, these were failings of emotional intelligence, and in an interconnected world, an EQ lapse can have global ramifications. We all face challenges on a daily basis due to the sheer volume of information and integration, and the speed and complexity of the world in which we now interact.  In this hyper-stimulated world, people who improve emotional intelligence:

  • Become more influential in their companies
  • Become better managers and maximize performance of their teams
  • Become better leaders and build high-preforming teams
  • Better understand customer needs and avoid PR issues
  • Better manage uncertainty and high-stress situations and establish an effective leadership presence
  • Present themselves in the most effective and compelling manner

Become more emotionally intelligent: 5 steps you can take today

With all the clear benefits to becoming more emotionally intelligent, there are now dozens of books on the topic and a number of very complex models. Unfortunately all this complexity has led to a lot of confusion, and many shy away. Here are five simple steps you can take right now become more emotionally intelligent today:

  1. Understanding your emotions. Research shows that only 36% of people are able to accurately identify their emotions in the moment. Start tracking what emotions you feel when you’re under stress. Don’t judge the emotion, just notice it.
  2. Observing your tendencies. After you start understanding your emotions, start observing your tendencies. For example, when you feel stressed or unsure, what do you tend to do? Notice whether these tendencies work in your best interest, or if there are opportunities for improvement.
  3. Improve your self-management. One of the most important skills is to control your own “self-talk” when under stress. Learn to replace any negative internal thoughts such as “I never get this right” or “I messed that up again” with a more positive perspective.
  4. Seek outside perspectives. When faced with a stressful situation, one of the most beneficial steps can be to seek an outside perspective from someone who is not emotionally vested. If possible, choose someone who you’ve observed demonstrating high EQ sills.
  5. Become more socially aware. Focus on listening and ask more questions. Great leaders often report spending 90% of their time asking and only 10% telling. Also make sure to notice body language in all situations. When you think you understand, test for accuracy by asking more questions to confirm.

Like most crucial skills, developing emotional intelligence takes time and patience, and there’s always room for improvement. Try the above techniques and track your progress. Emotional intelligence is also one of the most frequent skills I work on with clients, so feel free to contact me if you would like further help.