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What is Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and why is it Important?

What is emotional intelligence or EQ, how does it differ from IQ, how do you develop emotional intelligence, and why is it so important for an IT professional? Our expert, Senior Learning & Development Specialist at EPAM, Olga Avramenko discusses some key EQ concepts for IT professionals.

Senior Learning & Development Specialist at EPAM, Olga Avramenko

— I have been with EPAM for a year and a half now. Before that, I had experience in IT training, I was also a soft skills trainer, and worked for a private IT academy for children from 6 to 18 years old. Teaching activity was an irreplaceable experience, that helped me gain a lot of knowledge and skills. Now, I still engage in my training activities and I have a private consulting practice. I have been engaged in individual mental health counseling for 5 years now.

What is Emotional Intelligence (EQ)

— The very name of the concept contains everything we need to know. Emotional intelligence concerns everything related to emotions: from the causes of their occurrence to how we experience them, and how we can use them.

If we try to define emotional intelligence in comparison to general intelligence, we will see that they have a lot in common, not just the letters EQ and IQ. Emotional intelligence can be defined as a set of skills that help us with the awareness of, and use of, our emotions and the emotions of other people. When we talk about emotional intelligence, we first focus on our own emotions, and only then move on to the process of communicating with other people, and finally to understanding and being able to recognize their emotions and make informed decisions based on the situation.

There is also social intelligence. All of the “intelligences” are closely related to each other because they focus on the ability of our brain to analyze the information that we receive. IQ includes general information, one’s education or knowledge, and technical skills, while emotional intelligence concerns information related to emotions, things that may not always be verbalized.

Some people talk about their emotions, while others only show them, in which case we must try to recognize their signals. Social intelligence is responsible for analyzing information in the context of interactions with other people. It also pertains to understanding how to effectively communicate (with familiar or unfamiliar people), how we immerse ourselves in a conversation, and what information we will receive based on our approach.

Core components of Emotional Intelligence

— Current EQ theory comprises five core components:

  • Self-awareness. According to the results of a study published in the European Journal of Business and Management, of all the employees of the company surveyed, only 61% reported that they recognize and understand the cause of their emotions, roughly 18 percent said that they can sometimes do so, and 20 percent answered that do not understand their emotions at all. Self-awareness is a person's ability to understand their feelings, to analyze the cause-and-effect relationships between an emotion and the underlying reason for it. For example, if a person is angry almost constantly and cannot explain why or where their anger comes from, we can say their self-awareness is at a lower level.
  • Communication skills. We are not focusing here on what we talk about, but on what we perceive about ourselves and about our companion during a conversation. Can we tell from their signals (verbal or non-verbal) that the subject should be changed, or the conversation should be ended? Or do we not pay any attention to the reaction of others, and just keep talking?
  • Empathy. This is a component that is often misunderstood. Empathy involves the ability to understand and share the emotions that arise in another person. Let's consider an example: Maria is talking to Max and sees that he clenches his fists while talking about something in a very emotional way. Maria thinks: ”He must be angry.” This is not empathy. This is just a logical conclusion. In contrast, if Max talks about something and Maria can feel how angry he is at that moment, this is empathy. She is understanding and sharing his emotion. The higher our EQ, the stronger our ability not only to empathize, but also to distinguish our emotions from those of others. For example, Maria understands whether she is angry because she shares Max`s emotion, or whether she is angry on her own behalf.
  • Self-control. There was a period in the history of psychology when it was believed that you could completely control your emotions, that doing so could be easy, and that it would be beneficial both at work and in our personal life. In fact, emotions cannot be fully and completely controlled. They are complex constructs that affect us neurologically, bodily, and mentally. What we can control is our behaviour. And that's what self-control is all about. For example, we understand that we are angry, we know why, and we also know that we will not smash furniture or break walls because of our strong emotions. This means that we will show our emotions in a socially acceptable way.
  • Self-motivation. When we are in tune with ourselves, our emotions, and our experiences, we know what is motivating or demotivating us at that moment in time. We can still work, communicate with others, and maintain our functionality even if we are upset.

Why Emotional Intelligence is important in IT

— The importance of soft skills and their role in hiring and career development has been recognized since science began to actively deal with the topic of EQ. Large companies conducted internal research and determined that people with higher emotional intelligence developed their careers much faster and with improved quality compared to a group of individuals with lower emotional intelligence. Even when the higher EQ individuals shifted careers, sometimes radically, they were able to cope with the transition faster and easier.

I would not say that soft skills will prevail or already prevail over technical skills. They are, however, equally important, and we must pay sufficient attention to both. During the hiring process, especially in the IT field, there are several interview stages where different skills are tested. If we imagine a situation in which we do not have any technical skills, but our soft skills are impressive, then of course it will be nice to have a conversation with us, but we will not pass a technical interview. That's why I'm talking about equivalence: effective work plus effective communication.

Regarding the benefits of emotional intelligence in IT, there are several areas in which these can be observed:

  1. Improved Communication and Collaboration. The daily tasks of developers or business analysts are centred around communication, either with colleagues or with customers. A specialist's high EQ will enable them not only to establish a productive interaction with others, but also to listen more effectively. A designer hears a client's request and must quickly consider the problem in real time and offer an effective solution. Within the organization, effective communication helps to overcome barriers between employees, and to create an inclusive and comfortable working environment for everyone in a team.
  2. Intrinsically Motivated Staff. Intrinsic motivation refers to engaging in an activity for the inherent satisfaction it provides, without any desire to receive an external reward. An example is when a person acts for themself, to see their own progress on a project, or to increase their knowledge and expertise. Employees with higher EQ are more often motivated by internal factors. They do not need to be praised or encouraged in any other way; instead, they enjoy the feeling of a job well done. Motivation is extremely important for growth in IT. There may be situations, however, in which intrinsically motivated employees decline opportunities to move up the ladder; in which they do not want a higher position. They joined the team to do coding, they love their job, and they want to see the results of their efforts. They do not want to have to go to others and ask: ”How is your part of the code today, because deadlines are burning.”
  3. Client-Focused Empathy. Helping clients overcome their pain points is the crux of IT development. Whether it’s a specific page on a website that needs reworking or you’re writing new code to develop a particular feature, most tech jobs revolve around troubleshooting problems for clients. When it comes to offering up possible solutions, developers with a higher EQ have an easier time understanding the issue at hand and acting accordingly. In addition, empathy helps people give and receive feedback in a more constructive way. Although receiving negative feedback can be discouraging, being able to quickly digest the comments, think them through, and learn from them is an important skill for continuous development.

How to assess the level of Emotional Intelligence

The most obvious way to assess EQ is to consider its components individually and determine which of them are your strongest characteristics and how developed they are in you.

There are also tests to determine the level of EQ, but I warn you not to trust them too much, since general intelligence, emotional intelligence, and social intelligence are concepts that are still being researched. Existing tests can roughly help us determine the main parameters of our emotional intelligence. They are easy to find on open access sites. For example: this one or this one.

How to use Emotional Intelligence in the workplace

Understanding and optimizing interactions with other people, including colleagues, is a very valuable component of emotional intelligence. Consider small talk, for example: some people adore it, they are ready to lead it, and it sets them up for a productive conversation. Some do not like at all. They have no patience for it and would rather skip it and start working immediately, and they have every right to do so. We can sense this desire or reluctance in our colleagues, even if we rarely see them, or see them only through a webcam. Just watch how people behave.

Signals can be contradictory, though. A colleague may agree to small talk only out of respect or courtesy, but not actually be happy about participating. We can just ask to make sure we understand their position. And doing so shows our emotional intelligence — demonstrating our care and our understanding that another person may have a different opinion, and that we take the initiative to recognize it.

Understanding emotions is important when misunderstandings occur. In conflict resolution trainings, I like to use a method of conflict analysis called “Conflict Mapping.” The process for developing a conflict map includes several steps. First, you identify and list all of the parties, including the primary parties who are in conflict. After that, we try to understand the fears and needs of each party, focusing more on emotions rather than on any specific actions. In the end, it turns out that fears and needs are essentially the same thing. For example, an individual may have the need to maintain authority, and the fear of losing it. As a conclusion, the group creates ways to resolve the conflict.

Then, I ask the participants whether their attitude towards the specific situation changed after the analysis. The majority say ”Yes” because the underlying anger and dissatisfaction disappear, and everyone is more interested in why this situation happened. This shows that, at the beginning, the participants evaluated only the behaviour, which is superficial, and then — as part of the Conflict Mapping — they delved into the deeper emotional level, which cannot readily be observed. In situations like this, emotional intelligence helps, if not to resolve the conflict, then at least to avoid getting lost in it, and putting your mental health at risk by digging up troubles.

You can read more about ways to resolve conflicts in this article.

How to develop Emotional Intelligence

Everything depends on the starting EQ level and motivation of the individual. Developing EQ may be more difficult for some, but it is accessible to everyone.

  1. One of the most effective ways of developing emotional and social intelligence is training. No matter what the training topic is, they are all deeply focused on the development of EQ, because they take place in groups. Groups usually consist of people who do not know each other. To learn something at the training, you need to actively interact with the participants. This is the basis of interactive learning. In the process of interaction, people often learn something new about themselves as well. It sometimes happens that a person says that he is not socially active in real life, but then he is the most proactive during sessions. His level of self-awareness is quite low. After training, we usually observe the phenomenon called ”remote cause.” Regardless of what was learned in class (soft skills, hard skills, or languages), the processing and layering of the new skill ultimately increases self-motivation, self-awareness, empathy, or something else. The goal of this first method is to gradually transition from group studies and trainings to real life.
  2. The second method is a “Field Training.” This is your step out of your comfort zone. Go to the office, start meeting new people, get to know someone, talk about things. The key is not to overload yourself. It is important to understand that your comfort zone is not where it is comfortable, but instead is a place that is comfortable for you not to leave. If a person feels anxiety during this process, it is not for them, and there are other acceptable options. There is no need to put unnecessary pressure on yourself.
  3. And the third way, which I have to mention considering my second specialty, is psychotherapy. Both individual and group therapy can work for this purpose. Group psychotherapy can be most suitable for developing communication skills. It offers an incredible opportunity to increase your self-awareness and self-reflection. This process is not always pleasant, however. Sometimes, people cry, or show aggression, dissatisfaction, or even shout. But that's normal.

The conclusion

— Emotional intelligence may be the key to improving your relationships with colleagues, moving forward in your career, improving your well-being, and strengthening your communication skills.

Some people may think that if they develop self-control, they will always be fine and will never experience any negative emotions. That is not true. They will still experience negative emotions, but they will do so in a calm and balanced way, without self-blaming or hurting others. They will know that whatever emotion they are experiencing will soon subside and will cease to disturb them.

You can learn more about emotional intelligence in this research or read a book How Emotions are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett.