Essential and Effective

How emotional intelligence feeds into innovation and collaboration

by Peter Merrill

Last year, I wrote in some detail about what we have learned about leading teams, including why teams can be so valuable. 1 Over the years, we have certainly learned the benefits of synergy, and I quoted Ray Kroc of McDonalds who said, “No one of us is as good as all of us.”2

In the world of innovation, we have learned the benefits of collaboration. In fact, less than 5% of innovators work alone.3 Innovators often work in groups to gain the benefit of collective knowledge, which is a powerful asset in the creation of new ideas. We also recognize the benefits of team diversity in creating larger bodies of knowledge.4

Diversity can create tension, however, because it can be uncomfortable working with people who are different from ourselves. The “mirror effect” draws us to people who are similar and with whom we are more comfortable, but we lose the tension that can spark the ingenuous new idea.

So how do we live in this world of diversity? Over the past five years, there has been renewed interest in emotional intelligence (EI), even though it’s nothing new:

  • John D. Mayer and Peter Salovey produced their seminal paper “Emotional Intelligence” at Yale University in 1990.5
  • Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ was published in 1995.6 The book contains a legendary quote: “CEOs are hired for their intellect and business expertise—and fired for a lack of emotional intelligence.”
  • In its 2015 “The Future of Jobs” report, the World Economic Forum showed EI as rapidly increasing in importance and becoming twice as important as science, technology, engineering and math.7

Speaking about “‘People and Process Skills for Industry 4.0” at both ASQ’s World Conference on Quality and Improvement and the Quality 4.0 Summit last year, it became very clear that EI was generating a lot of interest and gaining much momentum. Now may be the time to dig deeper on the subject.

Five attributes of EI

There are many definitions of EI. According to Mayer and Salovey, EI is “the ability to regulate our feelings and use them to guide our actions.”8 Daniel Goleman offers a list of the abilities of a well-balanced and friendly person:

  • To recognize one’s own emotions.
  • To relate to others’ emotions.
  • To actively listen to others.
  • To communicate and understand nonverbal cues.
  • To control one’s thoughts and feelings.
  • To manage emotions and express them acceptably.
  • To receive criticisms positively and benefit from them.
  • To forgive, forget and move on rationally.9

What’s interesting is that unlike IQ, which doesn’t change much through life, your emotional quotient can be developed if you’re motivated to learn and apply that learning.

Goleman continued to break down EI into five attributes:10

  1. Self-awareness—The knowledge of what you feel and why you feel it. This means being aware of your moods as you have them. This is not as easy as it sounds. You know when you get mad and get sad, but what about all the other moods? An activity getting much attention in leadership training to help understand emotions is mindfulness. It’s somewhat like meditation. More on that later.
  2. Self-regulation—The ability to express your feelings in the right way. Self-regulation or self-management means staying in control. We’ve all learned to pause or count to 10 when something makes us mad. That is often easier said than done. The rapid return email, for example, is not always a good idea. For me, I try to leave critical emails unsent until the next day. When I “sleep on it,” I go back to the critical email, and my words and tone often will change. Words matter so much. We know stress makes us less able to manage our emotions and we know a bad night’s sleep doesn’t help. My daughter wrote her thesis on sleep and from that, I learned a lot about sleep and respecting its power. We’ve learned that it’s not until the last hour of the eight hours that the brain finally clears itself of the previous day’s toxins.
  3. Motivation—The internal drive to change the way you feel and express. Motivation and the self-discipline needed to see things through are affected by your emotions. The main takeaway I had from learning time management was to make today’s to-do list the night before. More recently, I’ve learned the importance of getting three early wins on that list the following morning. I don’t start with a big task. I like to feel that I’m on my way with a sense of achievement at the start of the day. Motivation also becomes important in developing your EI.
  4. Empathy—The ability to relate to others’ emotions and see the world from their perspective. Empathy is perhaps the most fundamental people skill. A key component is good listening or, as Stephen Covey said, “Seek to understand before you seek to be understood.”11 In other words: Walk in the other person’s shoes. You now may start to see how these EI attributes cross and link. If you get mad, you won’t be empathetic. Many years ago, neuro-linguistic programming got a lot of attention for learning how to read body language and hence develop empathy.
  5. Social skills—The power to communicate effectively and build strong connections. Social skills flow out of empathy. This also comes from self-confidence, which builds from all the previous attributes. In the long term, trust is a vital element in social skills, and this comes through keeping our promises and being reliable. Different opinions can lead to social disagreement and even conflict. We must be able to find common ground through consensus. This is critical for collaboration.

As you might expect, you can start by understanding your own strengths and weaknesses, which can be done through an EI assessment. There are many assessments available, and you probably should take two or three to establish a pattern of what you need to work on. Remember, some of these assessments cost money for you to access the results, so choose carefully.

As a starter, there’s a simple assessment called MindTools.12 Created in 2015, much of the material is quite basic. The assessment asks you to evaluate 15 statements about yourself, including:

  1. I can recognize my emotions as I experience them.
  2. I lose my temper when I feel frustrated.
  3. People have told me that I’m a good listener.
  4. I know how to calm myself down when I feel anxious or upset.

After rating yourself on each statement, you’ll get a score out of 15 points for each of the five attributes. If your total points are less than 10 for a given attribute, you probably have work to do.

Dig deeper

I’ve only scratched the surface of a very complex and engaging subject. I encourage you to dig deeper. However, here are some personal observations on how our modern lifestyles can sometimes lead us astray from the tenets of EI:

  • Nature: For many, city living keeps us away from trees, fields, birds and animals. Nature holds enormous healing power.
  • Journaling: What some see today as a dated practice, keeping a diary does more than preserve history. It’s a chance to capture your feelings from the day. I can certainly relate: If something or someone bothers me, writing a note or a letter stops the issue from circulating in my brain.
  • Reflection: I often travel to the Middle East for business, and I’ve made many friends there. Sometimes, our talks involve comparing Islam with my own faith, Christianity, and we always remark on the strong similarities. One of the major differences that I note and admire, however, is my friends’ commitment to pray five times a day. In the speed of modern life and the world of cellphones, we have lost the ability to stop and reflect.

This brings me back to something noted earlier: the growing practice of mindfulness, which is like meditation. It is an elusive idea. One definition from John Kabatt-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living is “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.”13

By terminologists’ standards, it may be a poor definition. Mindfulness is about paying attention to your thoughts, feelings, behaviors and the effect you have on the people around you. The practice is not easy, and research shows our minds wander greatly. Half of our waking time is spent thinking about something other than what we are doing.14

If this sounds a bit flaky, see Scott Barry Kaufman’s article “One Skeptical Scientist’s Mindfulness Journey,” in which he describes his experiences at Penn State’s mindfulness program.15 In particular, he addresses the mindfulness-creativity paradox and Kalina Christoff’s work on sleep, idea generation and the workings of the brain. It’s a heavy-duty article, he warns, and it may take a few reads to get through. More on this another time.

Hopefully, your interest in EI has been piqued. Admittedly, not all questions have been answered. But remember one key takeaway: Innovators must work with others, and often the best collaborative work occurs when we work with others who are different from ourselves.

To get past storming and norming—and to get to performing—EI can be a great asset. Don’t expect to become a cool, calm person in a few weeks. Pick one area from your score and work on it. Drill deeper and find the aspects of that area you must focus on.


  1. Peter Merrill, “Huddle Up,” Quality Progress, June 2019, pp. 20-25.
  2. Peter Merrill, Do It Right the Second Time, second edition, ASQ Quality Press, 2009, p. 209.
  3. IBM Institute of Business Value, “Reinventing the Rules of Engagement: CEO Insights From the Global C-Suite Study,” 2013.
  4. Scott E. Page, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies, Princeton University Press, 2007.
  5. Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer, “Emotional Intelligence,” Baywood Publishing Co. Inc., 1990.
  6. Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, Bantam, 1995.
  7. World Economic Forum (WEF), “The Future of Jobs: Employment, Skills and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” WEF report, January 2016, https://tinyurl.com/wef-workforce-report.
  8. Salovey and Mayer, “Emotional Intelligence,” see reference 5.
  9. Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, see reference 6.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon & Schuster, 1989.
  12. MindTools content team, “How Emotionally Intelligent Are You?” www.mindtools.com/pages/article/ei-quiz.htm.
  13. John Kabatt-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living, Bantam, 1990.
  14. Steve Bradt, “Wandering Mind Not a Happy Mind,” Harvard Gazette, Nov. 11, 2010.
  15. Scott Barry Kaufman, “One Skeptical Scientist’s Mindfulness Journey,” Scientific American, Dec. 19, 2016.

Peter Merrill is president of Quest Management Inc., an innovation consultancy based in Burlington, Ontario. Merrill is the author of several ASQ Quality Press books, including Innovation Never Stops (2015), Do It Right the Second Time, second edition (2009), and Innovation Generation (2008). He is a member of ASQ and founding chair of the ASQ Innovation Division. Merrill also is head of delegation for his country to ISO Technical Committee 279 on innovation management.

--Vivien, 05-02-2020

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