Emotional intelligence counts when considering a promotion

Cast a weathered eye over your team. Who has what it takes to make a successful step up the management ladder? 

It's likely you'll favour candidates who've demonstrated sound judgment, decisiveness and talent for getting things done.

There's one attribute you might not have considered, but experts increasingly recommend you ought: a healthy quota of emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence

Popularised by psychologist Daniel Goleman following his publication of an eponymous title on the topic in 1995, the term 'emotional intelligence' refers to the ability to understand and manage your own and others' emotions positively.

Executives frequently overlook its importance when carrying out talent reviews, in part because it's subjective and difficult to measure, says Right Management leadership consultant Nick Grage-Perry. 

You may be promoted because you're a good operator, but you need emotional intelligence to get others to work with you.

Nick Grage-Perry

As a result, candidates can be elevated to positions for which they have the intellect but are yet to develop the emotional maturity to make a good fist of it.

"You may be promoted because you're a good operator, but you need emotional intelligence to get others to work with you," Grage-Perry says. "A lot of organisations put people into positions but don't support the development of emotional intelligence."

Naturally sound 

Some have these skills in spades but others need to work at acquiring them; not an easy proposition if appropriate training and mentoring programs are not offered, Grage-Perry says.

Although difficult to quantify, emotional intelligence is easy enough to spot in up-and-comers, according to senior procurement executive Tracey Shearer, who believes it is essential for anyone seeking to step into management.


'Technical skills only go so far," Shearer says. "Emotional intelligence outweighs technical [expertise] as you move up."

Not sure who has it and who hasn't? Look for employees who welcome feedback on their own performance and treat it as the gift it is.

"They're willing to work and grow with you and they want to work to develop their skills … they're not defensive," Shearer says. "They're willing to look at new ways of doing things and progressing."

Performance matters

How staff perform in meetings – seeing whether they take cues from other stakeholders or push their own agenda regardless of any negative feedback they're receiving – is another good gauge, Shearer adds.

The replacement of multi-tiered hierarchies with flat management structures has made redundant the middle management training ground where up-and-comers used to hone their soft skills, careers specialist Edwin Trevor-Roberts points out.

These days, individuals being promoted have to take three or four steps up, rather than one – making it more likely that emotional intelligence will fail to develop apace with their technical expertise.

"You see more times when people have failed, because these gaps between the levels are greater," Trevor-Roberts says.

"People need to have broader experiences to get them to the point where they can succeed.

"As leaders move up the ranks the biggest hurdle can often be what got you there in the first place – technical expertise. It becomes less important; people need to learn how to let that go and focus more on managing people."

A continuous process

There's no formula to developing your emotional intelligence, Trevor-Roberts says – but practice, and exposure to a variety of challenging situations, can help.

"It's more about learning to become aware of your emotions and learning how to use your emotions in a very quick way; learning how to process anger constructively and fast, and building the capacity to deal with it better next time."

Smart operators with an eye to the executive suite make improving their own emotional intelligence a priority, GoDaddy country manager and former senior LinkedIn executive Tara Commerford says. She believes it's a continuous process, not a discrete set of skills.

"I think a component of having high emotional intelligence is accepting the need for ongoing learning and improvement," Commerford says.

"You can work on improving [emotional intelligence] but I don't believe it's a learned trait. Mentoring, coaching, taking time out for self reflection and 360 degree evaluation can aid in refinement but [emotional intelligence] is not a 'skill' that can be acquired."

Leadership skills

Being forced to operate out of your comfort zones in challenging and complex work situations is a sure way to improve your capacity - if you manage to stay the course.

"These are the types of roles that refine who you are as a leader," Commerford says.

"I've found that cross-cultural experience and awareness are also helpful. I've lived and worked in different countries, leading teams across different cultures, and feel this has helped with my own [emotional intelligence]; particularly in a non-English speaking business context, you are forced to develop non-verbal cues."

If you're not going to be left to sink or swim in an exotic locale any time soon, make it your business to seek out a good mentor – or several, Commerford adds.

"Personally, I have a team of 'advisors' – some play a mentoring role, others are for coaching, one in particular helps me stay focused on finding purpose and meaning through work … together, these are the people I have leant on most closely through my career."

Want to see more? Follow Executive Style on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.