Emotional intelligence: 5 signs yours needs work

Strong, effective leadership requires emotional intelligence. Here’s how to tell if yours may be lacking – and how to improve it
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Two employees weighing heart and brain for emotional intelligence

It may be hard to accept, but it’s a fact: Many leaders lack emotional intelligence – which involves self-awareness, empathy, and the ability to understand and manage emotions – at least in some areas.

People often overestimate their abilities (see the Dunning-Kruger effect), but the reality is, we all could benefit from working on our emotional intelligence. 

Here are five signs that may indicate you may lack emotional intelligence in some areas.

[ How strong is your EQ? See our related article: Emotional intelligence test: 5 self-evaluation tools for leaders. ] 

1. You don't accept the things you need to work on or develop 

Leaders who believe they have everything figured out and there is nothing they need to improve on or learn suffer from what I call Epic Syndrome. 

Epic Syndrome is essentially the opposite of Imposter Syndrome, in which individuals feel that they know less than everyone else and attribute their success to being in the right place at the right time or sheer luck. In contrast, people who display Epic Syndrome believe that they know everything and that nobody has anything to show or teach them. 

Epic Syndrome should not be confused with positive self-esteem. In fact, some of the most confident and assured people I’ve met are eager to learn and readily admit they do not have all the answers.

2. You are not interested in other people

Many aspects of emotional intelligence relate to others, which is why it is often referred to “emotional and social intelligence.” It’s important for leaders to take an interest in and learn about others, but even for individual contributors, showing a genuine interest in other people is a big factor in creating healthy, mutually beneficial relationships. 

Showing a genuine interest in other people is a big factor in creating healthy, mutually beneficial relationships.

Imagine going on a first date on which the other person talks about him or herself constantly and shows no interest in you whatsoever. There wouldn’t likely be a second date. While the goals and objectives of business relationships are obviously different, taking an interest in others (or at least not being completely self-interested) is critical.

3. You interrupt people, blurt things out, or act hastily in ways you subsequently regret

If you’ve ever had to apologize to someone for saying or doing the wrong thing on an impulse, you might understand the importance of controlling impulsive behavior. 

Impulse control refers to your ability to manage thought processes, actions, and reactions to things you experience as you go through your day. Working with – or worse, for – someone with low impulse control can be challenging and frustrating: You may find yourself dealing with constantly shifting priorities or agendas (people with low impulse control struggle to maintain focus), poorly timed or inappropriate comments (they didn’t mean anything by it, honest!), and more. 

The good news: Impulse control is one of the easiest areas of emotional intelligence to develop.

People with low impulse control often find it difficult to control their thoughts and the things they say can damage their relationships with others. The good news: Impulse control is one of the easiest areas of emotional intelligence to develop as failures of impulse control are easy to become more aware of in your own behavior. For example, try and notice when you interrupt someone. When you do, stop talking and say “sorry, I interrupted you, please go ahead.” 

Because you are "watching yourself" in interactions, your brain will be more inclined to notice and alert you to when it’s happening. If you feel the impulse to have another cookie, or glass of wine, and you would rather not, go do something else like go for a walk, read a book, have a shower, whatever. Just don’t do that thing you were going to do. It won’t take long until you become more aware of thoughts as they emerge, which puts you in a better position to make a different choice.

[ Are you a toxic boss – or are you dealing with one? Read also: How to deal with a toxic boss. ]

4. You are unable to handle even reasonable amounts of stress

Let’s be honest – most of us live with more stress than we would like. With competing demands, packed schedules, endless videoconferences, and the constant “ding, ding, ding” of the email inbox going in the background, it’s no wonder most of us aspire to reduce stress in our lives. 

Stress can alter an individual’s emotional intelligence profile: A person who is normally calm and patient may become frantic and intolerant, and someone who is usually collaborative and easygoing might become directive and uptight. 

People with high levels of stress tolerance generally understand what factors trigger stressful feelings and recognize when they are slipping into a stressed state. This enables them to take preventative measures, be more self-aware, and better control how they react. 

5. You don't see things as they are

People with low emotional intelligence often allow their personal beliefs and biases to control and shape their perception of things. 

Consider the cognitive bias of reactive devaluation, which refers to the tendency for a person to dismiss or diminish the value of an idea or proposal because it comes from someone they don’t like. A person with a low level of what we call “reality testing” might look at an idea and think to themselves, “I don’t like the person, so I am not going to like their idea.” Conversely, someone with a high level of reality testing might think, “I don’t like this person, so I am likely to be less objective when evaluating their idea. What would I think of the idea if it came from someone I do like and respect?” 

This process is called bias deduction. Bias deduction is essentially the process of looking at a situation, considering what biases may be in play, and mentally “deducting” them from the equation. It’s a fascinating process that I have taught to many leaders, but it requires some effort. (There have been many occasions where I remembered to do the bias deduction only after the fact, and while this can help me see the error of my ways, it doesn’t always stop me making the error in the first place.)

Ultimately, the most significant indicator of low emotional intelligence is insisting that there is nothing you need to work on or improve. That’s one of the reasons I find this area so compelling. There is no end of things to understand, work on, or develop. The good news is that you can improve the way you use your emotional intelligence through small, simple, and repeated behavioral changes.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Drew Bird, MSc, MA, and author of "The Leader’s Guide To Emotional Intelligence," is a coach, trainer, facilitator and speaker. He is founder of The EQ Development Group. Over 20 years in the IT industry has helped Drew understand first-hand the opportunities and challenges senior leaders face in this complex field.

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