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More than a feeling: Can EI be taught?


Can you train someone to be more self aware, or coach them to have better intuition? Professor Malcolm J Higgs tells Verity Gough that emotional intelligence is all a matter of motivation.

Every so often emotional intelligence (EI) seems to become de rigueur, and now is one of those times. In the last year alone, organisational psychologist and leadership development expert, Professor Malcolm J Higgs has been asked to work across five organisations in order to develop the emotional intelligence of the top executive teams. What's more, the fact that EI training is being built into the majority of leadership development programmes coupled with the plethora of EQ accreditation courses springing up in the market is testament to its popularity.

IQ versus EQ

While IQ has long been used to measure intellect, the importance of emotional intelligence calculated by emotional quotient (EQ), has been lauded by psychologists for some time now. The first mention of it was in the 20s when a psychologist called Thorndike developed the theory of social intelligence, followed later by Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. However, while the phrase 'emotional intelligence' was first coined in 1990 by Salovey and Mayer it wasn’t until Dan Goleman’s ground-breaking book 'Emotional Intelligence and Primal Leadership' in 1995 that the idea of EI was brought to the masses. Interestingly, this is what got Higgs himself hooked.

"We have done studies to show that it can be developed but you can’t put a person through an EQ training course.” 

Professor Malcolm J Higgs

“I read Goleman’s book and thought it had some interesting ideas, but I am an occupational psychologist and work with organisations so I was convinced that while his theories work in an educational setting, we didn’t think they would work in an organisational one,” he explains. Higgs however was shocked to find that Goleman’s theories fitted just as well into organisations and could be adapted to fit leadership development which consequently saw Higgs go on to conduct his own research and carve a name for himself in the field of EI development for leadership programmes. So what exactly is EI and can it be taught?

“Emotional intelligence is really a combination of a few things,” says Higgs. “What makes you behave the way you do, what are the consequences? What happens to your behaviours? If you are angry you can’t change being angry but you can understand that you become irrational or deal badly with others when you are angry so it is understanding all that and based on that understanding having the ability to be able to do something about it,” he explains.

“Part of it is, for want of a better word, self-awareness: Let me be self-aware, let me know how my emotions impact on my behaviours. Secondly, let me try and manage that and use that knowledge to become more effective and the third piece is to understand how other people react to situations and why they may be behaving the way they do and then try to adapt my behaviour to try and take that into account,” he says.

Who has EQ?

It has long been known that successful leaders tend to be equipped with strong social skills and can tick off the list of attributes required to have a high EQ, however, looking at modern leadership, who does Higgs believe stands out? “We have done quite a lot of research to show that leaders have high levels of EI, and for example people tend to say that Tony Blair has a high EQ, however, I wouldn’t necessarily agree. But if you look at the business world Richard Branson stands out as someone who has developed EI and there is lots of evidence to suggest he has.” But, says Higgs, but not all entrepreneurs do.

"People won’t develop unless they want to or are motivated to do so. That is how it tends to work –it’s not saying you have or haven’t got it  - you just need to want to improve"

“Take Alan Sugar, I think he probably has more EI than he looks to have through The Apprentice, though I have no evidence to support this. He probably has good self-awareness, most certainly he’s got high levels of resilience and his long term motivation is there, but I would wonder about his interpersonal sensitivity. He can obviously influence others and can make judgement calls so has good intuition, he obviously applies himself hard, and there is no evidence to suggest he is unethical, so if he wanted to develop to be the best, then his interpersonal sensitivity would be the one area he could work on.”

But, warns Higgs, no amount of training will make an ounce of difference if the person has no motivation to develop their EQ and similarly, the individual needs to have at least an average IQ to be a suitable candidate for development. “It’s like the old psychologists joke: How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? The answer is three but the light bulb has to want to change, it’s the same thing with EQ; people won’t develop unless they want to or are motivated to do so. That is how it tends to work – it’s not saying you have or haven’t - got it, you just need to want to improve.”

Training and coaching

When it comes to developing an individual’s EI, what type of training is undertaken? Is it easy to get accreditation? Higgs says that unlike other forms of leadership development, EI training is largely dependent on a desire to improve. Once that is established, training is best done on an individual basis and while workshops are a good way to assess individuals and help them understand the kind of things that will develop emotional intelligence, much of the 'training' is simply practice undertaken by the individual.

"EQ training is not about being good, or pink and fluffy. It’s about understanding people, and getting them on your side through influence and persuasion."

“You can develop it – we have done studies to show that it can be developed but you can’t put a person through an EQ training course,” he says. “It may well be that the person wanting to develop works with their team and asks them for feedback, where they can improve, and then they spend time reflecting.” To this end, Higgs suggest that scenarios and role-plays are a good way to measure improvement. “You might look at your behaviour in a meeting and how you react to others - it’s really about keeping practising and really wanting to develop."


When it comes to seeking out leadership development trainers that will focus on EQ, how does it work? Would trainers benefit from adding emotional intelligence assessment to their skillset? “There are a lot out there already,” says Higgs, “But if you were looking to find someone to come into the organisation, you would use all sorts of approaches. Quite a few people in organisations are trained to use EQ assessment instruments which is where it should start, and then a coach would be good to work with the outcomes of the assessments because we found that it takes around four and six months to get any kind of shift in any one of the dimensions. They most likely won’t be licensed to do the assessment but would be good to come in and work with you afterwards,” he advises.

Proving the business case

As such a focus is placed on the return on investment of training in all its forms, what about the business case for EI development? “We can show all the hard benefits through our own research but I suppose you would prove it by referring to the research and tie it into what the organisation is trying to achieve,” he explains. So will this continue to be a trend in leadership development? Higgs is reflective: “I have been involved in it for eight years now and I tend to think it keeps reaching a peak in popularity, then it goes it a bit quieter and then there is a sudden boost of interest again.”

Whether EQ training remains fashionable, those in the know are confident of its success: "Emotional intelligence training is not about being good, or pink and fluffy," concludes Higgs. "It’s about understanding people, and getting them on your side through influence and persuasion. There is interest in it because it’s proven to work."

The characteristics of Emotional Intelligence

  • Self-awareness
  • Emotional management –being aware of your emotions and how you play those out
  • Motivation - being able to defer gratification
  • Interpersonal sensitivity – empathy with other people
  • Ability to influence others
  • Intuitiveness - the ability to make a decision when you don’t have all the data or ambiguous data by drawing on deep experience
  • Consciousness – that is linked to integrity

Source: Professor Malcolm J Higgs

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