Why Emotional Intelligence Is Important for Your Success

UPDATED: September 18, 2023
PUBLISHED: January 25, 2016
A Black woman with glasses in a yellow turtle neck speaking to an Asian man holding a coffee cup using her hands in an emotionally intelligent way

When emotional intelligence (EQ) first appeared to the masses, it served as the missing link in a peculiar finding: People with average IQs outperform those with the highest IQs 70% of the time. This anomaly threw a massive wrench into what many people had always assumed was the sole source of success—IQ. Decades of research now point to emotional intelligence as the most important factor that sets star performers apart from the rest of the pack.

EQ is the “something” in each of us that is a bit intangible. It affects how we manage behavior, navigate social complexities and make personal decisions that achieve positive results. Emotional intelligence is made up of four core skills that pair up under two primary competencies: personal competence and social competence.

Personal competence comprises your self-awareness and self-management skills, which focus more on you individually than on your interactions with other people. The personal competence aspect of emotional intelligence is important because it’s your ability to stay aware of your emotions and manage your behavior and tendencies.

  • Self-awareness is your ability to accurately perceive your emotions and stay aware of them as they happen.
  • Self-management is your ability to use awareness of your emotions to stay flexible and positively direct your behavior.

Social competence is made up of your social awareness and relationship management skills. It is your ability to understand other people’s behavior, moods and motives in order to respond effectively and improve the quality of your relationships.

  • Social awareness is your ability to accurately pick up on emotions in other people and understand what is really going on.
  • Relationship management is your ability to use awareness of your emotions and others’ emotions to manage interactions successfully.

Emotional intelligence, IQ and personality are different

Emotional intelligence is important because it taps into a fundamental element of human behavior that is distinct from your intellect. There is no known connection between IQ and emotional intelligence; you simply can’t predict EQ based on how smart someone is. Intelligence is the ability to learn, and it’s the same at age 15 as it is at age 50. Emotional intelligence, on the other hand, is a flexible set of skills that can be acquired and improved with practice. Although some people are naturally more emotionally intelligent than others, you can develop high emotional intelligence even if you aren’t born with it.

Personality is the final piece of the puzzle. It’s the stable “style” that defines each of us. Personality is the result of hard-wired preferences, such as the inclination toward introversion or extroversion. However, like IQ, personality can’t be used to predict emotional intelligence. Also like IQ, personality is stable over a lifetime and doesn’t change. IQ, emotional intelligence and personality each cover unique ground and help to explain what makes a person tick.

The importance of emotional intelligence

How much of an impact does emotional intelligence have on your professional success? The short answer is: a lot! It’s a powerful way to focus your energy in one direction with a tremendous result. TalentSmart tested EQ alongside 33 other important workplace skills and found that emotional intelligence is the strongest predictor of performance, explaining a full 58% of success in all types of jobs.

Your emotional intelligence is important because it’s the foundation for a host of critical skills. It impacts most everything you do and say each day.

Of all the people studied at work, 90% of top performers have been found to be also high in emotional intelligence. On the flip side, just 20% of bottom performers are high in EQ. You can be a top performer without emotional intelligence, but the chances are slim. That’s why emotional intelligence is so important to your success.

Naturally, people with a high degree of emotional intelligence make more money—an average of $29,000 more per year than people with a low degree of emotional intelligence. The link between EQ and earnings is so direct that every point increase in emotional intelligence adds $1,300 to an annual salary. These findings hold true for people in all industries, at all levels, in every region of the world. We haven’t yet been able to find a job in which performance and pay aren’t tied closely to emotional intelligence.

You can increase your emotional intelligence.

The communication between your emotional and rational “brains” is the physical source of emotional intelligence. The pathway for emotional intelligence starts in the brain, at the spinal cord. Your primary senses enter here and must travel to the front of your brain before you can think rationally about your experience. However, first they travel through the limbic system, the place where emotions are generated. So, we have an emotional reaction to events before our rational mind is able to engage. Emotional intelligence requires effective communication between the rational and emotional centers of the brain.

“Plasticity” is the term neurologists use to describe the brain’s ability to change. As you discover and practice new, important emotional intelligence skills, the billions of microscopic neurons lining the road between the rational and emotional centers of your brain branch off small arms (much like a tree) to reach out to the other cells. A single cell can grow 15,000 connections with its neighbors. This chain reaction of growth ensures it’s easier to kick a new behavior into action in the future.

As you train your brain by repeatedly practicing new emotionally intelligent behaviors, your brain builds the pathways needed to make them into habits. Before long, you begin responding to your surroundings with emotional intelligence without even having to think about it. And just as your brain reinforces the use of new behaviors, the connections supporting old, destructive behaviors will die off as you learn to limit your use of them.

Why emotional intelligence can matter more than IQ

Piles of research over the last two decades has shown the importance of emotional intelligence. It is likely the single most powerful success factor yet discovered, affecting everything from job performance and annual income to mood and satisfaction in life.

Emotional intelligence has been tested alongside other critical skills, and it subsumes the majority of them, including time management, decision-making and communication. It’s no wonder that emotional intelligence is the single greatest driver of leadership and personal excellence.

But how does emotional intelligence play such a large role in so many important skills? Emotions are the root of all human behavior. Whether we’re aware of it or not, the motivation behind every action (no matter how small) is inherently emotional. As you master emotional intelligence, you master the ability to understand and control the motivations for your behavior. Working to improve your emotional intelligence increases your abilities in a host of other important skills because EQ gets right to the heart of the matter. Emotional intelligence is powerful and efficient—it allows you to focus your energy in a single direction for tremendous results.

Increasing your emotional intelligence can help you achieve these five important skills.

1. Time management

In this age of abundance, time is the one thing nobody seems to have enough of. Perhaps that’s why Google receives 111 million searches a month for “time management.” Few people recognize how important the emotional intelligence skills of self-management and relationship management are to effective time management.

Creating a good schedule is a very rational thing, but sticking to that schedule is decidedly emotional. Many of us start out every day with the best intentions to manage our time wisely. But then we receive a complicated email from a co-worker, a consuming phone call from a friend or otherwise get sidetracked until our well-laid plans go up in flames. We spend the rest of the day trying to put out somebody else’s fire or working to resolve issues that weren’t there in the morning. Before you know it, the day is gone and you’re completely off schedule.

When the distractions are your own, sticking to a schedule requires self-management. When the needs of others try to impede on your plans, it takes a great deal of social awareness and relationship management to finesse the relationship while ensuring your priorities are still addressed.

2. Change tolerance

Show me somebody who claims to love change, and I’ll show you a well-intentioned liar. Change is uncomfortable for everyone at times, and for many of us, it makes our skin crawl every time. Those who apply well-honed self-awareness and self-management skills tolerate change much more successfully than others. Self-awareness enables you to adjust comfortably to change because it gives you the perspective needed to realize when change is coming and when change is getting the better of you. 

Self-management keeps you cool in the moment—often with a reminder that even the most stable, trusted facets of your life are not completely under your control. Those most averse to change, who possess great self-awareness and self-management skills, even set aside a small amount of time each week to list possible changes and what actions they can take in response.

3. Presentation skills

Few things strike primal fear in the heart of the average person like standing in the spotlight in a room full of people. (Your heart just sped up, didn’t it?) Even the most eloquent among us can be reduced to spewing verbal garbage once the sheer anxiety of public speaking takes hold. That’s why a knock-’em-dead presenter’s most inspiring presentation is often the one they deliver to themselves. A bit of positive self-talk—reminding themselves of all the times they have succeeded and how qualified they are to speak on the topic—enables the effective speaker to use their performance anxiety to sharpen their focus and make them more articulate. If you think that’s silly, then you probably haven’t tried it. Emotional intelligence is important because it doesn’t just make you aware of your emotions; it equips you with strategies for keeping them from holding you back.  

4. Decision making

It has taken the world far too long to wake up to the fact that emotions simply cannot—and should not—be ignored when making decisions. Neuroscience now shows us that sometimes the most rational thing you can do is trust your emotions when making a decision. But in order to make this work, you have to be aware of the emotions you’re feeling, why you’re having them, and how they factor into the situation at hand. Here, there is no substitute for the important emotional intelligence skills of self-awareness and self-management.

5. Assertiveness

Emotional intelligence is commonly mistaken as a synonym for “nice.” In fact, the most emotionally intelligent response is often one where you directly and openly express your emotions. To paraphrase Aristotle, getting angry is easy. Getting angry with the right person, at the right time and to the right degree requires EQ. Emotional intelligence doesn’t allow lashing out or making yourself into someone else’s doormat. To be assertive, you have to know what you’re feeling (self-awareness), read the other party accurately (social awareness), and express yourself in a way that garners the best result (self-management and relationship management). People with high emotional intelligence do this naturally, which is why it’s so important to success.

This article was originally published January 2016 and was updated in September 2023. Part of this article was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse. Photo by GaudiLab/ShutterStock.

Dr. Travis Bradberry is the award-winning co-author of the #1 best-selling book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, and the co-founder of TalentSmart, the world’s leading provider of emotional intelligence tests and training, serving more than 75% of Fortune 500 companies. His best-selling books have been translated into 25 languages and are available in more than 150 countries. Dr. Bradberry is a top LinkedIn Influencer and he has written for, or been covered by, Newsweek, BusinessWeek, Fortune, Forbes, Fast Company, Inc., USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Harvard Business Review.