Emotional intelligence: Why does it matter?
Written on the 26 June 2012 by Sue Langley and Sophie Francis
“We cannot check our emotions at the door because emotion and thought are linked—they cannot, and should not, be separated.” David Caruso.
We are working in increasingly complex and competitive environments. Organisations and the people in them are trying to achieve more with less resources and greater pressure. Many are challenged with engaging employees and establishing competitive advantage during rapid change and constant uncertainty. Raising productivity, integrating new approaches and succeeding in global markets, demands greater flexibility, cultural sensitivity and collaboration. Those who create and sustain strong business results in this climate engage hearts and minds, managing complex, often competing, agendas with savvy and awareness.
From professional services to retail to manufacturing, Emotional Intelligence skills are increasingly seen as critical and strategic. Global organisations, such as IBM, PepsiCo, L’Oreal and Motorola, are building Emotional Intelligence (EI) into their workforces to ensure high performance and enhance people smarts.
Far from a ‘soft’ skill, EI has been yielding bottom-line results across diverse industries and gathering scientific data explaining why.
Solid research over two decades has demonstrated the business impact of developing and recruiting for EI on leadership performance, employee engagement, organisational climate, teamwork, sales and customer loyalty. Here is a snapshot of business impact studies :
Studies such as these provide clear evidence that higher levels of EI—in leaders, sales people, customer service reps, influencers, advisors, professional service providers or anyone whose job involves interacting with people—increases individual and organisational effectiveness.
Emotional Intelligence helps people connect and communicate effectively, make decisions, and manage stress, pressure and conflict . It enables people to instil confidence and belonging in others, engage and influence across boundaries, and respond with sensitivity and care even when challenged.
People with high EI are described as “aware, authentic, empathic, expansive, resilient, empowering and centred” rather than “disconnected, guarded, insensitive, limited, temperamental, indifferent and reactive” . With insight into themselves and others, they recognise the emotions that drive thinking and behaviour, and use that understanding to generate positive outcomes and mood. Attuned to emotions that can disrupt engagement and productivity, they are able to convert fears and concerns into opportunity and frame challenges constructively.
In practice, people with emotional intelligence skills are more able to accurately assess situations, determine appropriate responses and keep things in perspective. By better understanding and meeting human needs, they build relationships that inspire productivity and commitment.
While some people naturally tune into what others feel and put them at ease, the good news is that EI can be taught and developed over time. Learning to be more intelligent with emotions is not a quick fix. Instead it offers deeper and more sustainable results that go beyond personal effectiveness to measurably improve the fiscal and psychological health of organisations.
Emotions influence and guide our thinking and behaviour—what we think, how we think, how we make decisions and how we act on them.
Modern neuroscience has turned around the way we think about emotions. In his influential 1994 best-seller Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio demonstrated that rational thinking and decision-making depend on input from emotions. Decisions are never made ‘unemotionally’ and actions are never fully ‘rational’. “Far from interfering with rationality,” he asserts, “the absence of emotion and feeling can break down rationality and make wise decision making almost impossible.” 
In fact, the sense that something is ‘real, true, and important’ comes not from the reasonable neocortex but from the emotion centers of the brain’s limbic cortex . The limbic system is designed to process stimulus and experience leaving our cognitive centres free for higher order thinking. Even when we feel we have made a rational decision, chances are our emotions made it first. Reasons are then established to justify our instinctive gut feeling.
Emotions contain data about ourselves, other people and the world around us. They attribute value to our choices, enabling us to navigate daily life safely and effectively. Remaining open to feelings gives us valuable early data points that help us think and act more intelligently.
Emotions happen quickly and automatically, usually without conscious thought. Their primary function is to mobilize the organism to deal quickly with important interpersonal or threatening events. Imagine, for example, you’re in a hurry driving to work. A change in the environment—the sound of a police car siren—triggers a rapid emotional response. This emotion makes you pay attention and generates thought. You realise you have been speeding, possibly endangering the lives of others. This motivates certain behaviour—you to slow down. This adaptive theory of emotions shows how critical emotions are to our survival.
When our pre-frontal (thinking) cortex and limbic (emotional) system are not communicating effectively, we may behave emotionally rather than intelligently, or make logical assessments without considering the emotional implications of our behaviour.
Emotional intelligence is about harnessing these two aspects to ensure we are managing our own emotions rather than allowing our emotions to manage us. It is about learning to use emotions intelligently to respond effectively, rather than reactively. It is about increasing our range of strategies to achieve positive outcomes for ourselves and the people around us.
Read more in our Emotional Intelligence at Work white paper.