Why Emotional Intelligence Matters: Relationships Trump Hierarchies

Yes, Emotional Intelligence Makes You More Successful.  But Why?

OK, so it’s pretty well understood that EQ makes you more successful:

EQ “is responsible for 58% of your job performance” and “people with high EQ earn $29,000 annually more than their counterparts” and “…the primary causes of derailment in executives involve deficits in emotional competence” and “When the firms started selecting (division presidents) based on emotional competencies, only 6% left and they performed in the top third of executive ranks”.

Despite having been around for twenty-five years, these findings continue to be presented as something surprising, something that doesn’t quite match the model of how organizations actually work.  Which would imply that either a) the research findings are inaccurate or b) our models are faulty.  I’m going to suggest b: we need better models.

Emotional Intelligence: A Quick Review.

Let’s back up a bit and review quickly what Emotional Intelligence is.  Here’s the original definition (Salovey & Mayer, 1990):

“the ability to recognize one’s own and other people’s emotions, to discriminate between different feelings and label them appropriately, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior”

Daniel Goleman broke emotional intelligence into four sets of skills:

Self awareness:  “I am getting irritated” and deeper – “I am getting irritated as I always do when Jim won’t get to the point”.  And deeper still: “when people don’t get to the point I worry that we’re wasting time, that things will start to head south – I get afraid”.

Self management: “there is no great value in expressing or engaging with my irritation.  I’ll let it go”

People awareness: “Jim has excellent technical insights, I know that.  He avoids the point when he’s afraid of bringing up some significant change”

Relationship management: “I’m going to gently interrupt and ask Jim what the technical issue is that’s concerning him”.

(In his original work, Goleman also threw in “Internal Motivation”, which is definitely a great skill, but since then hasn’t shown up in a lot of EQ descriptions).

In other words, Emotional Intelligence is about managing relationships: your relationship with yourself, and your relationships with other people.

Organizational Models Don’t Represent the Way Work Happens

Organizational models tend to look something like this:


They are rigid, hierarchical and role-based.  The boxes, which actually contain people, are labelled with titles and roles.  Decisions and information are seen to be traveling up, down and across.  The structure doesn’t change until there is a (usually dreaded) “re-org”.

Extrapolating this approach, much of the work we do is represented by models which are rigid and “box-like” (for want of a better term): spreadsheets, task-lists, project plans, calendars – all linear, relatively static, and independent of the feelings of the people doing the tasks.

But in parallel with these models, the work is being done by people who are in relationship to each other, who communicate in all kinds of ways and who do the work for all kinds of reasons, which may change day to day and even minute by minute:

And all those people have in relationships with each other, some of which match the hierarchy and many of which don’t.  And finally, those relationships are highly dynamic, very unlike the hierarchical model: sometimes hot, sometimes cold, sometimes high-bandwidth, sometimes impossibly hard to navigate.

I would say a model of how the work gets done looks something like this:


The relationships are how the works gets done.  Certainly if you are a leader of any kind, the quality of your leadership is going to depend on the quality of the relationships you have with your team, your boss, your peers, and, crucially, your customers, whether internal or external.

Even if you are a solo engineer, eventually your success will depend on how your code works with the overall system as a whole, and how it matches the end user.   How do you know it’s going to match the end user?   You either have a relationship with them, or with somebody (sales, product management) who is connected to them.

Emotional Intelligence Is a Set of Tools for Managing Your Relationship Mesh

Once we start to see organizations as a mesh of relationships, it becomes obvious how important Emotional Intelligence is.   

Emotional Intelligence is the set of skills that starts to build mastery over the other model of how an organization works: the protean, organic, always changing mesh of people interacting with each other to get the work done.

And, like the sets of skills we learn to master the “cold” models of our work, Emotional Intelligence can be learned.  For more, I would suggest, for now, checking out Emotional Intelligence 2.0, and, as an excellent guide to deeper EQ, Search Inside Yourself.

My belief is that EQ can be learned as a set of practical steps, skills and practices. I will be collecting and developing EQ skills at, and I invite you to sign up to stay in touch as the project takes off.


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