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Thought Leadership

Why Emotional Intelligence Matters More Than Ever for Organizations

Brainstorming professionals in office.

A leader’s ability to apply their knowledge and perform well is a critical measure of not only their own professional development, but also the effectiveness of their organization as a whole. After all, if teams cannot successfully achieve their goals, then the organization will stagnate, which is a precarious state of affairs in this ever-changing business environment. But while supervisors and hiring managers highly value technical skills, research suggests that emotional intelligence (EQ) and the ability to build relationships within teams and beyond can be even more critical for achieving organizational success.

“Personal” Versus “Social” Competence

Unsurprisingly, research shows that leadership and professional skills come in many forms. According to a paper by the Center of Innovations on Learning, technical knowledge, or “personal competence,” refers to technical skills and cognitive ability or, simply, one’s ability to learn and complete tasks. In contrast, “social competence” refers to EQ and the social skills that support building successful interpersonal relationships. A leader who possesses a developed skillset in both categories will demonstrate technical proficiency as well as social adeptness in the workplace.

Why Social Competence Matters for Effective Leadership

Traditionally, the important role that emotions play in the workplace has been ignored or even criticized. Researchers describe how, in many workplaces, “emotions…are a sign of weakness, failure, and error,” and business leaders are directed to only focus on “rational thinking and…decision-making.” As a result, the hiring and promotion functions have traditionally emphasized candidates’ technical aptitude and achievements over soft skills like relationship building and self-awareness.

However, research shows that greater social competence is associated with effective leadership. A 2015 study found that “emotionally intelligent leadership” creates better long-term outcomes by focusing on the larger business context. In addition, EQ helps us better navigate fast-paced business environments by assisting with emotional regulation, stress management, and adaptability.

Business people having casual discussion during meeting.

Enhancing Social Competence: Two Strategic Approaches

Organizations aiming to foster social competence can adopt the following approaches to hiring and developing existing talent.

1. Emphasize Social Competence in Recruiting

When recruiting for EQ, hiring and talent managers should focus on how well candidates work with others. Annie McKee, senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, recommends a two-fold approach. First, when interviewing candidates, use open-ended questions. Ask them to describe situations with both good and bad outcomes, and then ask them to expand on details about how they felt during both types of situations. Second, interview references and ask how the candidate works with others. This is a winning strategy because letters of recommendation may gloss over details or stick to boilerplate responses.

2. Facilitate Ongoing Development

Building social competence is not a “one and done,” but an ongoing process of developing new and existing skills. For this reason, organizations should consider investing in EQ training as part of their overall learning and development portfolio. Researchers suggest focusing on these key areas:

  • Learning about self and others: Self-awareness is a crucial part of good leadership. Choose a leadership development program that helps participants explore their “values, strengths, emotions, perspectives, privileges, and identities.”
  • Connection to caring: Caring, or interest in self-improvement and growth, is another key facet of leadership development. It can be nurtured through introducing “new feelings, interests, and values.”
  • Emotionally intelligent leadership: As learning and skill development expand participants’ understanding of themselves, they will also need to understand their leadership style and how it impacts others. This includes empathy as well as contextual information that can affect decision-making.

Develop Social Competence for Long-Term Success

While organizations need leaders with strong technical skills, social competence is just as valuable for achieving organizational success. By recognizing and nurturing emotional intelligence, organizations can cultivate leaders who not only excel in technical endeavors, but who also have the skills needed to motivate, inspire, and build strong relationships both within their teams and beyond.