E.I. E.I. Oh! – Unpacking the Barnyard of Emotional Intelligence

emotional intelligence

Old MacDonald had a farm…

In terms of corporate HR buzzwords, there’s one that really gets the hair on the back of my neck to stand up, every single time it’s mentioned. No, it’s not ‘engagement‘. It’s not ‘empathy‘. It’s not ‘resilience‘.

It’s ‘E.I.‘, aka ‘Emotional Intelligence‘.

But why do I have such a strong reaction to any utterance of this concept? I don’t know. I mean, I agree with its principles. I really do!

But it still feels to me that emotional intelligence is just old grapes, made into wine, poured into a relatively new bottle, and then, because of popular demand, poured into another, more sparkly bottle for mass appeal. With lots of awards on the front label. And a nice little story on the back of how the grapes travelled from the vineyard to the bottle; including a personal story of Mr. and Mrs. Smith who are just so passionate about the wine they make.

emotional intelligence

I am all for E.I.

I am not against E.I. It’s a great concept, and there’s much great literature written about it. I am not denying this. I am all for it.

And for a concept that started in the ‘90’s and promised that it was the road to professional success, it did great for itself. But weren’t self-awareness, good communication skills, and empathy always part of the successful professional’s toolkit? Maybe that’s why it feels to me like old wine in a new bottle.

But let’s put this sentiment aside, and focus on the hype of E.I. in today’s corporate world.

You see, my biggest issue is with how E.I. is used: (1) by training providers who claim to offer E.I. training to business professionals (as if it’s a standalone concept/skill to be taught), and (2) how it’s used by corporates to control professionals and make them conform to a ‘clone’ approach of behaving, without giving them anything in return (maybe it’s used a ‘guilt trip’ or as an easy, hazy, and non-debatable justification as to why someone won’t get a promotion?)

What is emotional intelligence?

In this moment of writing, I’m having a hard time coming up with a definition, but I would say the gist of it is that someone who is emotionally intelligent is “in tune with their emotions and those of others”. That’s as basic as I can get it.

And to be emotionally intelligent you have to develop yourself on a large collection of soft skills, and in some cases, develop yourself on pure adjectives and nouns alone.

Emotional intelligence ingredients

So, let’s break it down. And, if I’m wrong, please correct me; it’s been a while since I’ve gone through any EI literature.


In order to be in tune with your own emotions and those of others, you need to be self-aware. Know thyself. That’s the big one, right? Self-awareness is key. And from this one, follow most of the rest.

Manage emotions

You need to know how to manage your emotions (you know, learn to recognize triggers and learn how to respond, develop coping strategies for tough days and tough situations, and learn to set clear boundaries, lest you overload yourself with emotions). Makes sense. Oh, and stress. Learn how stress influences you and what you can do to combat stress in your daily life. No quibbles so far.


And you also need to know how to motivate yourself and learn to reframe illogical beliefs into positive, self-affirming statements, in order to be able to pick yourself up when you fall down. So, yes, you need to boost your self-confidence and become resilient, and maybe some would also throw in the concept of ‘growth mindset’ into the mix, because why not (it sounds cool)?


It goes without saying that you also need to be able to set good goals for yourself (challenging but attainable, measurable but not too specific, and so on). Sure, if you’re trying to motivate yourself, as per the previous point above, then you need to have a rough plan and a clear milestones to reach.


OK, yes, you also need to develop empathy (now we’re heading into ‘tuning into others’ territory). But empathy’s another big one, I’d say. Unpacking empathy, we can see there’s lots of listening actively, being patient, some talk about swapping shoes with people, and appreciating human diversity. All great stuff, for sure. Some related adjectives are consideration, understanding, compassion,…I’d also venture ‘assertiveness’ at this point, since purely being empathetic doesn’t mean people won’t walk all over you. So, you need to learn to stand your ground in a positive and constructive way.

Social skills

And, on top of all this, you also need to work on your social skills. You know, to be able to deliver some of the empathy you’ve cultivated to people. Communicate effectively, deal with conflict constructively, build strong relationships, and just be a good team member overall.

Simple. Do all the above and you’re emotionally intelligent.

No, no, no. That’s too simplistic, right? Although by pure logic, if you do tick all the above boxes, then, by definition, you are emotionally intelligent.

OK, let’s try breaking all this down into specific soft skills that are supposedly teachable and trainable, according to what’s currently on offer by many training providers out there.

Emotional intelligence ingredients’ ingredients

To be emotionally intelligent, you need to:
1. Raise your self-awareness
2. Manage your emotions
3. Learn to deal with stress
4. Learn to motivate yourself
5. Reframe your illogical, self-defeating beliefs
6. Boost your self-confidence
7. Become more resilient (maybe even more hardy?)
8. Develop a growth mindset (part and parcel of some of the above, but still mentioned as a standalone point, since some providers seem to offer this as a trainable moment)
9. Learn to set good goals (SMART, SCHMART, OKR’s, whatever)
10. Develop empathy
11. Appreciate human diversity
12. Be assertive
13. Be a good communicator
14. Be an active listener (isn’t this part of skill #10: empathy somehow?)
15. Develop your interpersonal skills

This is a BIG list of training topics, right? And each topic on this list is BIG.

So, my question to you is this: How are people meant to become more emotionally intelligent by taking a 2-day course or seminar? What can you possibly teach people, besides what I just covered and some more generalisations of tools to use for developing yourself on each of these topics?

“To become an active listener (as per skill #14), you need to practice active listening to people when they speak”. Well, that’s amazing. Incredible advice!

E.I. is a huge topic, with tons of ingredients in its makeup.

THIS is my gripe with E.I.

Training, the way it’s done today, doesn’t cut it. Sorry to disappoint, dear HR person.

Training on ‘Emotional Intelligence’ can ignite a fire for some people to want to learn more, sure. But conducting training that merely presents people with this overwhelming list of these ingredients during a seminar, workshop, or online course, won’t do s**t for them.

So, dear corporates…If you’re serious about exploring E.I., then you’re either going to have to do training on all the above topics to get your people there, or you’ll need to find a serious Coach who will help your professionals with the journey.

Because, becoming more emotionally intelligent is a journey.

So, what am I saying?

If you, dear corporates, really want your people to become more emotionally intelligent, with EQ points overspilling from their pockets when they take a seat at the next team meeting, then you’re going to have to invest in them. Quite a lot. Eh, the whole list of topics above need to be covered separately, don’t they? That’s a lot of training, just saying.

Now, that’s a realization that probably has a lot of corporates thinking “Well, maybe the emotional intelligence buzzword is overrated, let’s just switch to wanting our people to be more resilient and have less conflict between them. That might do the job just as well”.

And, if that’s the realization you’re having, dear reader, maybe you want to jump over to our article “Essential tips on ‘Team Dynamics’: How Constructive Disagreement Drives Success”, or “The Resilience Paradox: Why Building Toughness Might Be Missing the Point” to see what else you need to be wary of when expressing and demanding big expectations of your business professionals, in order to mask your own unwillingness (inability?) to change your company’s problems at the root.

E.I. E.I. Go!

It’s a shame that E.I. has ended up being such a barnyard of beliefs and expectations.

Having said this, I want to re-emphasize that emotional Intelligence isn’t the villain here; it’s the ‘overselling’ of it that gets me frazzled.

There are some excellent Coaches out there who are doing great things to help professionals on their E.I. journey. And this article is dedicated to them. Keep going strong!


Deano Symeonides

I’m CHRO, L&D creator, and Chief Human Whisperer (CHW) at Talent Hacks. I enjoy helping business profesionals find themselves through deep insight and tons of practical hacks. I’m a business psychologist who is passionate about the power of edutainment and I enjoy blending serious content with humour. At least I have a laugh!