The technical skills that helped secure your first promotion might not guarantee your next. If you aspire to be in a leadership role, there’s an emotional element you need to consider. It’s what helps you successfully coach teams, manage stress, deliver feedback, and collaborate with others.

It’s called emotional intelligence, and accounts for nearly 90 percent of what sets high performers apart from peers with similar technical skills and knowledge.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to understand and manage your own emotions, as well as recognize and influence the emotions of those around you. The term was first coined in 1990 by researchers John Mayer and Peter Salovey, but was later popularized by psychologist Daniel Goleman.

More than a decade ago, Goleman highlighted the importance of emotional intelligence in leadership, telling the Harvard Business Review, “The most effective leaders are all alike in one crucial way: They all have a high degree of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence. It’s not that IQ and technical skills are irrelevant. They do matter, but...they are the entry-level requirements for executive positions.”

Over the years, emotional intelligence—also known as EQ—has evolved into a must-have skill. Research by EQ provider TalentSmart shows that emotional intelligence is the strongest predictor of performance. And hiring managers have taken notice: 71 percent of employers surveyed by CareerBuilder said they value EQ over IQ, reporting that employees with high emotional intelligence are more likely to stay calm under pressure, resolve conflict effectively, and respond to co-workers with empathy.

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The Four Components of Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is typically broken down into four core competencies:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self-management
  3. Social awareness
  4. Relationship management

In order to improve your emotional intelligence, it’s important to understand what each element entails. Here is a closer look at the four categories:

1. Self-Awareness


Self-awareness is at the core of everything. It describes your ability to not only understand your strengths and weaknesses, but to recognize your emotions and the effect they have on you and your team’s performance.

According to research by organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich, 95 percent of people think they’re self-aware, but only 10 to 15 percent actually are, and that can pose problems for your employees. Working with colleagues who aren’t self-aware can cut a team’s success in half and, according to Eurich’s research, lead to increased stress and decreased motivation.

In order to bring out the best in others, you first need to bring out the best in yourself, which is where self-awareness comes into play. One easy way to assess your self-awareness is by completing 360-degree feedback, in which you evaluate your performance and then match it up against the opinions of your boss, peers, and direct reports. Through this process, you’ll gain insights into your own behavior and discover how you’re perceived in the organization.

2. Self-Management


Self-management refers to the ability to manage your emotions, particularly in stressful situations, and maintain a positive outlook despite setbacks. Leaders who lack self-management tend to react and have a harder time keeping their impulses in check.

A reaction tends to be automatic. The more in tune you are with your emotional intelligence, however, the easier you can make the transition from reaction to response. It's important to remember to pause, breathe, collect yourself, and do whatever it takes to manage your emotions—whether that means taking a walk or calling a friend—so that you can more appropriately and intentionally respond to stress and adversity. 

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3. Social Awareness


While it’s important to understand and manage your own emotions, you also need to know how to read a room. Social awareness describes your ability to recognize others’ emotions and the dynamics in play within your organization.

Leaders who excel in social awareness practice empathy. They strive to understand their colleagues’ feelings and perspectives, which enables them to communicate and collaborate more effectively with their peers.

Global leadership development firm DDI ranks empathy as the number one leadership skill, reporting that leaders who master empathy perform more than 40 percent higher in coaching, engaging others, and decision-making. In a separate study by the Center for Creative Leadership, researchers found that managers who show more empathy toward their direct reports are viewed as better performers by their boss.

By communicating with empathy, you can better support your team, all while improving your individual performance.

4. Relationship Management


Relationship management refers to your ability to influence, coach, and mentor others, and resolve conflict effectively.

Some prefer to avoid conflict, but it’s important to properly address issues as they arise. Research shows that every unaddressed conflict can waste about eight hours of company time in gossip and other unproductive activities, putting a drain on resources and morale.

If you want to keep your team happy, you need to have those tough conversations: In a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, 72 percent of employees ranked “respectful treatment of all employees at all levels” as the top factor in job satisfaction.

Why Emotional Intelligence Matters

Leaders set the tone of their organization. If they lack emotional intelligence, it could have more far-reaching consequences, resulting in lower employee engagement and a higher turnover rate.

While you might excel at your job technically, if you can’t effectively communicate with your team or collaborate with others, those technical skills will get overlooked. By mastering emotional intelligence, you can continue to advance your career and organization.

Do you want to dive deeper into your emotional intelligence? Explore our online course Leadership Principles. The course offers a 360-degree self-assessment to help you better understand who you are as a leader and how you’re perceived by others, so that you can enhance your emotional intelligence.

Lauren Landry

About the Author

Lauren Landry is the associate director of marketing and communications for Harvard Business School Online. Prior to joining HBS Online, she worked at Northeastern University and BostInno, where she wrote nearly 3,500 articles covering early-stage tech and education—including the very launch of HBS Online. When she's not at HBS Online, you might find her teaching a course on digital media at Emerson College, chugging coffee, or telling anyone who's willing to listen terribly corny jokes.