Simply put, emotional intelligence is both the awareness of and the ability to regulate one’s own emotions and tune in to others’. The term was originally coined by Michael Beldoch, a psychologist at Cornell University, in 1964. The first model of emotional intelligence was developed by John Mayer (a psychologist at the University of New Hampshire) and Peter Salovey (now president of Yale University) in 1990. Their model defines emotional intelligence as a combination of:

  • The ability to identify, understand and express emotion
  • The ability to use emotions to facilitate thinking
  • The ability to understand and use emotional knowledge
  • The ability to regulate emotions in order to learn from them

The concept of emotional intelligence has been popularized by psychologist and author Daniel Goleman as well as the many coaches, consultants and training companies that use the term in their work. Goleman defines emotional intelligence as a group of four domains: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management, each of which is made up of a total of 12 competencies.

Goleman and Steven Stein, CEO of MHS Assessments, both say a common misconception of emotional intelligence is that it just means “being nice.” But, Goleman says, “that’s a simplistic view.” People with emotional intelligence may be confrontational. They may be assertive. They may set boundaries. These behaviors may not look “nice,” but they can be done with emotional intelligence.

Some researchers, including Goleman, believe emotional intelligence is a positive differentiator of job performance, especially for leaders. Is that bad news for people with low emotional intelligence? Not necessarily. “No human behavior is unchangeable,” writes Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, CEO of Hogan Assessments, for the Harvard Business Review, and Goleman agrees, saying, “Emotional intelligence is learned and learnable.”

“We have capacity as human beings to positively impact how we shape our own brains through practices both of a cognitive-behavioral basis and a contemplative basis,” says Michele Nevarez, head of leadership programs and strategic partnerships at Key Step Media. Stein says emotional intelligence training can improve leadership, team cohesiveness, productivity, employee and management engagement, hiring decisions, and work culture.

How do you take emotional intelligence from a “soft,” theoretical concept to a practical skill you can learn and apply? Goleman believes a range of offerings is best. He is working with Key Step Media on a partnership with mentoring platform Everwise to combine coaching, mentoring and online learning to provide emotional intelligence training.

Coaching and Mentoring

Stein believes that “perhaps the most effective” way to deliver emotional intelligence training is coaching. “Improving your emotional intelligence is an experiential exercise,” he says, and “coaches can give you specific exercises and receive reports on their effectiveness.” Chamorro-Premuzic writes that “a well-designed coaching intervention can easily achieve improvements of 25%,” and interpersonal skills in particular can be improved, in the short term at least, by an average of 50 percent.

Because of the importance of coaching in developing emotional intelligence, Key Step Media is developing an emotional intelligence certification for coaches themselves and training for leaders to become emotionally intelligent coaches. “One of the key competencies of outstanding leaders,” Goleman says, “is that they’re coaches and mentors themselves.”

“People are inevitably more accountable to other people than they will ever be to technology or badges,” says Colman Lydon, vice president of partnerships and business development at Everwise. By providing training that isn’t “purely a content experience but one that effectively [blends] content with action and reflection” and expert people, Everwise and Key Step Media are hoping to provide an action-oriented learning program that also provides that level of engagement.

In addition to coaching, Stein recommends simulations. For example, ask a group to complete a complex activity to practice problem-solving and interacting with others. These activities “help people learn more about what works and what doesn’t in their ability to deal with others, make decisions, manage stress and follow through on plans.”

Online Training

Even a seemingly impersonal online training approach can help employees develop emotional intelligence. Key Step Media uses Goleman’s research and content and distributes it through online training programs. For example, a short video or article teaches a specific emotional intelligence concept. Then, learners are instructed on how to apply that concept immediately. Finally, they journal, reflecting on their experience.

Overall, too many people, Goleman says, take a “spray-and-pray” approach to emotional intelligence training – providing a one-day training program, for example, and then hoping that something will stick. He advocates “a systematic way of helping people practice, over time, in the area that they’re trying to improve in, because we know that that seems to change the brain.”

Measuring Impact

Using technology, says Lydon, “there’s nowhere to hide.” If people are engaging with your content – or if they aren’t – you’ll know about it.

In addition, Chamorro-Premuzic writes that reliable and valid assessments, including 360-degree assessments, result in the best emotional intelligence coaching outcomes, and Stein and Goleman recommend these assessment tools as well. Goleman adds that leaders should review their assessment results with their coach, if they have one. He notes that emotional intelligence assessment results should not be used in performance reviews, because it’s all too easy for managers to “[dismiss] people as they are, rather than understanding that everyone can get better if they want to.”

The bottom line, Goleman says, is to “use whatever metrics make sense, are appropriate for a particular person in a particular role, and see if they actually do improve.” Pre-assessments can provide a baseline, and then post-training/post-coaching assessments can demonstrate improvement (or lack thereof).

Evaluating the return on investment for emotional intelligence training, particularly coaching, can be tricky. However, Nevarez says, “The discipline of coaching really does actually need to be moved forward in a way where we can start to understand the efficacy of coaching itself and specific drivers and interventions that are efficacious … so that we can truly move that work forward as a discipline.”

Nevarez says Key Step Media’s work with clients includes identifying key performance indicators to help measure ROI. Such KPIs might include productivity, sales goals, and engagement or well-being survey results. Stein adds retention rates (for example, the U.S. Air Force saw a 50- to 92-percent increase in retention rate among recruiters after implementing an emotional intelligence intervention), profitability and leadership emergence as important metrics.

Executives are increasingly aware that “soft skills” are no less – and perhaps are more – important than technical skills. There’s a lot of noise out there when it comes to emotional intelligence. Follow these guidelines, and use what you know about learning more broadly, and your learners can develop the emotional intelligence they need to lead your people and your organization.