Emotional Intelligence: Skills Worth Learning

A five-year rise in emotional intelligence in the workplace reversed course in 2008. Here's how to keep emotionally fit during hard times

TalentSmart industrial psychologists have studied emotional intelligence (EQ)—a person's ability to understand and manage emotions—in the workplace for well over a decade. Back in 2003 we embarked on a mission to measure shifts in America's collective EQ. Each year since then, we have measured the EQ of tens of thousands of people. To our pleasant surprise, we discovered the collective EQ of the U.S. workforce climbed steadily from 2003 to 2007.

In much the same way as global temperature changes are most noticeable at the poles, so too are changes in collective emotional intelligence at the extremes. In the 2003-2007 time frame we saw the percentage of people who are highly attuned to their own emotions and to the emotions of others rise from 13.7% to 18.3%. During that same period, the percentage of people with a poor understanding of how anxiety, frustration, and anger influence their behavior dropped from 31% to 14%.

When you apply these proportions to the 180 million people in America's workforce, it means that 9 million more people in 2007 than in 2003 almost always kept their cool during heated conflicts, 9 million more people showed they cared about their co-workers and customers when they suffered hard times, and 25 million fewer people were painfully oblivious to the impact their behavior has on others.

Contagious Skill Set

What makes this discovery so special is that prior to having their emotional intelligence tested, very few, if any, of the people in our sample had ever received formal emotional intelligence training or emotional skills development. Yet average EQ scores still increased. It's as if emotional intelligence skills—much like emotions themselves—seem to be contagious. The more you interact with empathetic people, the more empathetic you become. The more time you spend with other people who openly discuss emotions, the more skilled you become at identifying and understanding emotions.

That's the good news.

Unfortunately, the emotional contagion also has a flip side. In 2008, Americans' emotional intelligence began to slide for the first time since we began tracking it. There were 18.3% with high skills in emotional intelligence in 2007, and in 2008 there's only 16.7%. (We're still collecting information for 2009.)

That means we lost 2.8 million who could have been "infecting" others but are instead struggling to keep their own skills sharp. For most people, the mental duress subtly creeps into their system undetected. Before long, relationships are on the rocks, and they can't seem to function at work with as much vigor or efficiency as they need.

The signs are everywhere. According to the American Psychology Assn.'s survey of 1,791 adults last fall, the number of Americans experiencing irritability or anger jumped from 50% to 60% between 2007 and 2008. In 2008, 48% of people packed on an unhealthy amount of pounds, compared with 43% in 2007. And the number of people suffering sleepless nights rose from 48% to 52%. Clearly, rising tensions at work hitch a ride home at the end of the day. Emotions often remain fixed. Little by little that unrelenting work stress eats away the relationships and attitudes that buttress your quality of life.

The steady, five-year rise in EQ—and unexpected dip in 2008—show that emotional intelligence is a skill set that can be learned…and unlearned. Just as you can work hard to lose weight over the summer only to pack those pounds on again over the winter holidays, you can sharpen your EQ skills only to see them go dull again. And when you lose touch with—and eventually control over—your emotions, not only does job performance decline but your condition spreads to co-workers and employees (as well as people in your personal life). Keeping emotionally fit during hard times requires practice in two key areas:

Recognizing Your Emotions

Your body always responds to emotions physically even if you aren't consciously aware of them. So, take note of the physical signs that accompany a particular feeling. Do you sweat? Does your heart beat fast? Do you feel numb? Keep a close eye on these symptoms and then try to discover why you react the way you do. Ask yourself what is it about the person or situation that elicits this response.

Managing Your Emotions

In times like these, uncertainty about the future is the ultimate emotional saboteur. Will you lose your job? Will your company go under? Will you be able to pay your mortgage? The anticipation of disaster ends up taking a greater toll on your functioning than the actual occurrence of disaster. Lay your emotions to rest by preparing for change, instead of worrying about it. Set aside some time in your day for problem-solving and work on being flexible and adaptive in the face of change.

Admit to yourself that you can't change reality, but you can control how you react to your new circumstances. Lastly, jot down a list of positive outcomes that still exist despite the uninvited changes that might happen. Use that list to keep motivated as you focus on achieving your goals.

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