Understanding Emotional Intelligence

In this post, I will share my reflections on ‘Emotional Intelligence Has 12 Elements: Which Do You Need to Work On?’.

Key Ideas

Many people define Emotional Intelligence (EI) too narrowly, often focusing on aspects such as “sociability, sensitivity and likability”. In fact, persons who are strong in these areas may well lack the strengths in other aspects of EI to make well-rounded individuals and leaders.

The article, written by Daniel Goleman and Richard E. Boyatzis, argues that EI is really made up of four domains: Self awareness, Self-management, Social awareness, and Relationship management. Each domain has its own set of EI competencies. You can refer to the full model of EI domains and competencies below.

So for example, someone who is known to be sociable, sensitive and likable could be stronger in emotional self-control, positive outlook and empathy. However, if they are conflict averse, they may lack the EI competencies that enable them to influence and manage conflict well, in tandem with their other strengths.

The article in question does not actually go through each of the competencies, but for completeness’s sake, I’ve included their definitions below (taken from this link):

  • Self-Awareness:
    • Emotional Self-Awareness: The ability to understand our own emotions and their effects on our performance.
  • Self-Management:
    • Emotional Self-Control: The ability to keep disruptive emotions and impulses in check and maintain our effectiveness under stressful or hostile conditions.
    • Achievement Orientation: Striving to meet or exceed a standard of excellence; looking for ways to do things better, set challenging goals and take calculated risks.
    • Positive Outlook: The ability to see the positive in people, situations, and events and persistence in pursuing goals despite obstacles and setbacks.
    • Adaptability: Flexibility in handling change, juggling multiple demands, and adapting our ideas or approaches.
  • Social Awareness
    • Empathy: The ability to sense others’ feelings and perspectives, taking an active interest in their concerns and picking up cues about what others feel and think.
    • Organisational Awareness: The ability to read a group’s emotional currents and power relationships, identifying influencers, networks and organisational dynamics.
  • Relationship Management
    • Influence: The ability to have positive impact on others, persuading or convincing others in order to gain their support.
    • Coach and Mentor: The ability to foster the long-term learning or development of others by giving feedback, guidance and support.
    • Conflict Management: The ability to help others through emotional and tense situations, tactfully bringing disagreements into the open and finding solutions all can endorse.
    • Inspirational Leadership: The ability to inspire and guide individuals and groups towards towards a meaningful vision of excellence, and to bring out the best in others.
    • Teamwork: The ability to work with others towards a shared goal; participate actively, sharing responsibility and rewards, and contributing to the capability of the team.

Goleman and Boyatzis rightly point out that there are two ways to assess your EI using this framework. The first being a self-assessment where the individual reflects on his or her own strengths. The other would be to complete a formal 360 assessment, through observational feedback from others and by completing surveys such as the Emotional and Social Competency Inventory. Research finds that the larger the gap between a leader’s self ratings and how others see them, the fewer the EI strengths the leader actually shows, and the poorer his or her business results.


I do think the article has taken some missteps on positioning Emotional Intelligence. For one, I think that the people who “define Emotional Intelligence too narrowly” are probably correct. In fact, the diagram introduced really pulls the concept of Emotional Intelligence a bit too far out there by including unintuitive competencies like “Achievement Orientation” and “Teamwork”. Now, who’s to say that an emotionally intelligent person must necessarily have either of these?

The truth is that the framework being introduced is in fact a list of Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competencies. It does not aim to define EI as much as it aims to say what competencies an emotionally intelligent leader should (or maybe, could) possess. I think this distinction is critical because conflating both could introduce more misunderstandings about both EI and leadership competencies. While both can be cultivated through coaching and courses, strong EI does not always make for a better leader or workplace performer. However, I do believe strong EI makes one a much more well-rounded individual that is better able to contribute to a variety of contexts (whether at home, at work, or in society) that would eventually be beneficial in a workplace setting anyway. It should not be viewed of in just the workplace leadership context, or we might risk – just like the article itself posits – defining EI too narrowly again. It might also send organisations in the wrong direction; just because their fleet has strong EI doesn’t mean their performance would subsequently improve, where in fact the problems could be due to poor leadership competencies, or due to other root causes.

So, in summary, the article is misleading about what EI really is. To better understand EI as a standalone concept, I would much rather use Salovay and Mayer’s definition:

“The ability to perceive emotion, integrate emotion to facilitate thought, understand emotions and to regulate emotions to promote personal growth.”

Goleman’s earlier work on EI’s components is also clearer. I’ve summarised it below:

  • Self-Awareness: Knowing one’s strengths, weaknesses, drives, values and impact on others
  • Self-Regulation: Controlling or redirecting disruptive moods or impulses
  • Motivation: Relishing achievement for its own sake
    • For the record, I find this most at odds with the other definitions, as “achievements for its own sake” could be at odds with EI itself. For instance, I could pursue achievements “for its own sake” while being toxic or asocial. I think it’s more coherent to define it in line with the other terms, maybe like “Possessing the drive for personal growth”.
  • Empathy: Understanding other people’s emotional makeup
  • Social skill: Building rapport with others to move them in desired directions

Setting aside the problems I have with the EI framework introduced in the article however, and looking at it for what it is, my weak areas lie mostly in the Self-Management domain. I would need to work on stress management for better self-regulation.

One thought on “Understanding Emotional Intelligence

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