What is Emotional Intelligence? + 3 ways to improve it

There is a lot of hype and buzz about Emotional Intelligence (EQ) in the past few years. Strong correlation between EQ and job performance has been detailed by a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology (a meta-study of 36 separate pieces of research covering 2,168 adults).

Businesses recognise this too. According to research by recruitment firm Robert Half U.K., 60% of employers report it as a very important skill for their employees to have (Higginbottom, 2018). There are 7 key traits that are linked to strong job performance (Bailey, 2015).

7 Key Traits of Emotionally Intelligent people

1. Emotional stability. Emotionally stable individuals are better able to manage their own emotions and have higher tolerance for stress, making them more able to keep a cool head in stressful situations and avoid toxic conflict. Emotional stability is the most important predictor of EI, accounting for 29.5% of the variance alone.

2. Conscientiousness. Conscientious individuals have good impulse control and strive to achieve their goals. They’re dutiful and seek excellence, and this extends to social situations too – they “exert extra effort in adhering to emotion-related norms” meaning that they develop superior emotional ability.

3. Extraversion. Extraverts have an underlying desire for social contact and relationships, so it makes sense that in order to establish extensive social networks extraverts are likely to have developed strong emotion-related skills that help them build bonds.

4. Ability EI. Ability EI refers to individuals’ ability to perform emotion-related behaviours such as express emotions, empathise and reason using emotions.

5. Cognitive ability. Although many theories of EI say that it’s entirely separate to general cognitive ability (e.g. IQ), the results suggested that there is some crossover – because cognitive ability affects our ability to solve problems and adapt to our environment, which in turn boosts EI and performance.

6. General self-efficacy. We all have a certain level of confidence in our ability to cope with the demands of our job. And in general we all want to behave in a way that’s consistent with our view of ourselves. So people with high self-efficacy are more likely to have developed the social skills needed to maintain this positive self-image, while those who believe in themselves less may shy away from social relationships because doing so is consistent with their self-view.

7. Self-rated job performance. Several of the questions used to measure EI also seem to tap into people’s view of their own performance levels (e.g. “I perform well in teams”). It’s no surprise that EI is then related to actual job performance, if job performance was one of the factors used to conceptualise EI in the first place.

EQ is a framework which talks about these four elements:

  • self-awareness
  • self-management
  • social awareness
  • relationship management

There are two axis to look at these through; internal vs. external, and “what I see” vs. “what I do”

So now we know what emotional intelligence is, how can we build our emotional intelligence? Here are three quick ways to improve yours.

1.Create space through labelling emotions

Imagine you’re driving and someone cuts you off – that’s the stimulus. Your first instinct may be to respond maybe by road-raging. Is that really the best response you could do?

There’s actually a small gap between stimulus and response. What we want to do is increase that space. You can do that in a few of ways; practicing mindfulness, meditation and labeling your emotions.

Labeling your emotions just means simply stating in a little voice in your head “I’m feeling anger”, “I’m feeling insulted”.

This will trigger a different part of the brain which distracts you briefly from the emotional response. That brief pause gives you the space and the chance to think. This space then allows you to mentally navigate the two axis above; how you’re feeling and how you’ll react.

2. Keep it 50/50

EQ is about personal and social awareness; which means you need to balance your talking and asking. When your mouth is open you’re not learning anything.

Next time you’re in any conversation just think to yourself:

“Am I doing more than 50% of the talking?”

Many extroverts would benefit to dial back how much they speak, by either being quiet or asking open-ended questions.

For introverts, particularly when dealing with extroverts, you need to be a stronger advocate for your own views. This can be done via creating space in the process up front – such as suggesting that the conversation go around the table to ensure everyone gets to discuss your view. Else you can try to signal that you need the space to talk (“I need the space to properly respond. Can you please give me that space?”).

3. Reflection

Both self reflection and peer evaluation useful tools for building EQ.

Self reflection is particularly good at analysing and reflecting on behaviours displayed. Listing the facts surrounding the events, what you did, what other parties did, and the events that led to those behaviours. You can then engage in thought experiments about what other ways events could have unfolded, or what you would do differently.

Peer evaluation is a great way to get a 360-degree view of how you are perceived by others. Given an element of EQ is social awareness, getting this inside view of how people think and feel is invaluable to then calibrate your own social compass.

I asked a colleague to evaluate me and to highlight my top three strengths and three areas to improve on (rated 1-5).

Getting a number of 5’s I was happy with. I also got a number of 3’s.

My gut reaction was to defend myself and say “hey I’m actually pretty good at those!” However I took a step back, I made the space and acknowledged this is how someone else perceives me (rightly or wrongly). This feedback let me know that I need to either work on my ability in these areas, or the perceptions others have on me in these areas. How would you expect anyone to know you can chop down trees, if no-one is around to see you do it?


Bailey, S. (2015). Emotional Intelligence Predicts Job Performance: The 7 Traits That Help Managers Relate. [online] Forbes.com. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/sebastianbailey/2015/03/05/emotional-intelligence-predicts-job-performance-the-7-traits-that-help-managers-relate/#3e844e1d4124 [Accessed 16 Mar. 2019].

Higginbottom, K. (2018). Emotional Intelligence Undervalued In The Hiring Process. [online] Forbes.com. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/karenhigginbottom/2018/08/21/emotional-intelligence-undervalued-in-the-hiring-process/#c916a4e52ab0 [Accessed 16 Mar. 2019].

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