Can emotional intelligence be taught?

emotional intelligenceAt recent learning conferences and L&D industry articles, the term “emotional intelligence” has popped up quite frequently. In the learning world, we have lots to say about measurable skills, meeting compliance check boxes, and other tangibles, but where does this soft competency of emotional skill fit into the mix when it comes to leadership and our workforce?

Lots of people are talking about it, but what can we really do to address and perhaps improve it?

Brandon Hall Group’s latest whitepaper, HCM Outlook 2018, lists developing leaders with emotional intelligence (EI) as one of its key insights for the year, further explaining:

“What we need to focus on in our leadership development programs is creating a high degree of emotional intelligence in our leaders. Individuals are motivated and inspired by, and will follow, leaders with whom they can relate and form a strong personal connection.”

What is emotional intelligence?

By definition, it’s “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.” Also, known as Emotional Quotient (EQ), “The term ’emotional intelligence’ seems first to have appeared in a 1964 paper by Michael Beldoch, and in the 1966 paper by B. Leuner entitled Emotional intelligence and emancipation” according to Wikipedia. However, it wasn’t until 1995 when Daniel Goleman published the best-selling book “Emotional Intelligence – Why it can matter more than IQ” that the term became popular in the public (i.e. non-clinical) realm. Notably, according to Harvard Business Review, “Nearly 3,000 scientific articles have been published on EQ since the concept was first introduced in the 1990s…”

The buzz around this term got me thinking, “Can EQ really be taught?” Or is it more innate like eye color or blood type, where we’re simply born with a natural ability to manage our own emotions and read and react to those of others?

After some research and reading, the short answer seems to be, “Yes, EQ can be taught and improved.” That’s great news! The horrible boss you endured after your first year out of college, the mean-minded colleague who claimed credit for others’ work, the self-serving CEO whom people feared more than respected — yes, all of those people have the capacity to LEARN to play nicely with others. How wonderful. And science backs that up.

“…empathy can be trained in adults. The most compelling demonstration comes from neuropsychological studies highlighting the “plasticity” of the social brain. These studies suggest that, with adequate training, people can become more pro-social, altruistic, and compassionate” (HBR).

In a business setting and as companies consider new ways to develop leaders, the emotional intelligence factor must be part of the strategy. For a high-performing individual who may have a presumably high IQ, but is perhaps lacking in the EQ arena, there’s now evidence that with the right training, that person can in fact grow her/his emotional quotient.

Harvard Business Review asserts that first the person must want to change (i.e. the dream) and second, accept a bare-bones assessment of the status quo (i.e. the reality). Next, s/he must commit to a learning plan that specifically tracks toward a desired outcome.

“Once you have the dream and the reality, it’s time for a gap analysis and a learning plan. Note that I did not say ‘performance management plan,’ or even ‘development plan.’ A learning plan is different in that it charts a direct path from the personal vision to what must be learned over time to get there — to actual skill development” (HBR).

ATD recommends, “Programs aimed at developing EI need to target the EI dimensions of self-awareness, self-regulation, awareness of others, and regulation of others. Trainers should develop programs focused on each individual EI competency. For example, the top training priority for one group of individuals might be developing self-awareness; for another, it may be improving self-regulation.”

As you apply these ideas in your own company and create training programs to develop EQ in leaders and individual contributors, some additional content suggestions would be courses in conflict resolution, active listening, stress management, interpersonal skills, and empathy training. It’s an important line item in your leadership training game plan, one that will only become increasingly valuable as more and more companies move toward a human-centric management philosophy, where employee satisfaction is as valued and sought after as the bottom line, and where the former is recognized as having a direct impact on the latter.