By Mary Margaret Yodzis 

Jen Shirkani, an expert on emotional intelligence (EQ), closed AGA’s National Leadership Training (NLT), Feb. 12–13, 2020, with insights from this field of behavioral science. A learned skillset to improve stress management, interpersonal communication, empathy, and conflict resolution, said Shirkani, EQ is “a critical factor in success at work and at home.” Although intelligence, or IQ, can be relevant along a career path, “success or failure in a job most often comes down to how we manage ourselves and our relationships with others, not how much we know.”

The study of EQ emerged in the 1980s, when a clinical psychologist noted differences in his patients’ ability to bounce back from a negative experience. Some patients could use the opportunity to learn about themselves and others and move on, without allowing it “to permanently damage their sense of hope,” Shirkani said. “It’s resiliency” from the practice of three actions — recognize, read and respond:

  • Recognize is the ability to know one’s self. “Know your strengths, but also accept your weaknesses. Know your moods and how they affect your behavior; know your personality type and communications style. It’s high self-knowledge.”
  • Read means “reading people and situations accurately. Empathy is not ‘I feel your pain;’ it is understanding the world from another’s perspective. The greatest form of empathy is listening to others without judgment and getting the message behind the message.”
  • Respond is reacting “appropriately for a given situation, instead of taking a one-size-fits-all approach. It’s interpersonal adaptability, based on the situation or environment, and managing impulses to not say or do things, even when we really want to.”

Although NLT attendees, like most audiences Shirkani surveys, guessed women would show more EQ than men, neither women nor men have an EQ advantage, she explained. “We all have to work equally hard at it. EQ is a set of skills we choose to use or not use. It is something we turn on and off, rather than something we have or don’t have, because there is some effort in ‘recognize, read and respond.’ I take the burden on myself to adapt to my environment or the person, and I’m going to judge if it is worth doing.”

EQ does not correlate to IQ, said Shirkani. “You’ve all seen ‘The Big Bang Theory.’ At the highest levels of IQ, we actually see an inverse correlation. For the rest of us, it’s not that IQ doesn’t matter. It does, but it’s just the threshold. I need some IQ to learn EQ. Also, IQ stops at a certain age — for most people, around 18 or 19 years old. Longitudinal studies on IQ show the scores do not change, but the good news is EQ does increase as we get older. It increases past 18 until about retirement age. Studies show it starts to decline around 65-70, but it doesn’t take a nosedive until about age 90.”

Shirkani says EQ increases on its own through responses to experiences. “Even if you have no EQ training or ongoing EQ skill development, and I tested your EQ at age 20 and again at 30, at 40, at 50, EQ will increase each time. How much it will increase is individual. Some will increase a lot, some a little, because of a mix of nature and nurture, upbringing and experience.”

Emotional intelligence is quantified through the EQ 2.0 tool, which measures the emotional and social competence inventory, or ESCI. Translated into 50 languages and normed for seven cultures, the online ESCI test provides a 24-page report with scores in overall EQ as well as the 15 sub-skills that make up the emotional intelligence quotient. Skills are organized into five composites; each composite includes three skills, such as self-regard, emotional self-awareness, empathy, flexibility, assertiveness, independence and problem-solving. “The tool shows us where we need balance to represent all of the skills in a comfortable way when we need them,” noted Shirkani.

The importance of EQ in leadership, she said, is the ability to emotionally engage employees. “They are the ones who go above and beyond. They do extra things because they want to, not because they have to. If I want an engaged employee, I have to demonstrate engagement myself and show that I am also committed to doing the extra things. Some of that is getting to know them, what they like, what they don’t like, what motivates them, what doesn’t motivate them. And it’s reciprocal. The more EQ I show, the more EQ I build into my team.”

Shirkani cited a benchmark EQ test of a working group in which researchers provided EQ training only to the leaders. After one year, a retest showed improved EQ scores throughout the group. “The whole team’s EQ went up with no training, just with more emotionally intelligent leadership,” she remarked.

One crucial EQ skill is stress tolerance, said Shirkani. “It stretches like a rubber band. At times we can handle lot of stress and, at others, even small things throw us off because other things are going on in our lives. It is really important we take care of ourselves in times of high stress, because sometimes we will be able to accomplish things we never thought we could do. And that builds the strength for another difficulty down the road.”

EQ is also a measure of sensibility, she added. “People with higher EQ are not as easily offended, for example. Common sense isn’t very common, because these are skills; they are not things you are born with. EQ is not taught in traditional curricula, yet it’s one of the most critical skills out there. While IQ is a good predictor of GPA — and that will get you the job, usually what you need to keep the job is some EQ to get along with the team, to be coachable, to accept bad news and move on."

For AGA leaders, EQ skill development can be a win-win. “It’s one of those crossover competencies that helps you not only at work but also at home,” concluded Shirkani. “It improves the way you look at everything once you start focusing on this. When we see an increase in EQ, people also tell us they are happier.”