Daniel Goleman’s 1995 bestseller, ‘Emotional Intelligence’, attributes a range of exceptionally positive qualities to people with high EI. These include better social skills, leadership qualities and negotiating abilities, among other things.

Having high EI is also found to predict better job performance and greater career success.

Not surprisingly, Goleman’s research had a huge impact within management circles. In the decades since, considerable resources have been invested trying to understand exactly what EI is and how it can be developed.

So what exactly is EI and why is it important when it comes to job performance?

Emotional intelligence refers to how well a person understands their own emotions and the emotions of others, and how effectively they use this information to improve their relationships.

In part, this involves an ability to discern between different emotions and label them appropriately. It also involves applying emotional information to guide thinking and behaviour, along with regulating emotions to better adapt to different situations.

Margaret Andrews, a former executive director of MIT Sloan School of Management, who now runs a course on Emotional Intelligence in Leadership, identifies four main components to EI. These are self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness and social skills.

Of the four components, the first, self-awareness, is the most critical, laying the foundations needed for the development of EI. As Andrews puts it: ‘It all starts with self-awareness, which is the foundation of EI, and it builds from there. If you’re aware of your own emotions and the behaviours they trigger, you can begin to manage these emotions and behaviours’.

Having high emotional intelligence helps foster good relationships in all areas of one’s life. It helps us avoid emotional outbursts that can send social interactions into a tail-spin, while enabling us to deal with difficult people empathetically and diplomatically.

The potential benefits of these skills in the workplace are obvious, particularly when it comes to management. Andrews puts it like this: ‘Emotional intelligence is critical in building and maintaining relationships and influencing others – key skills that help people throughout their career and wherever they sit in an organizational structure’

So what can I do to improve my EI?

Various studies support the idea that people can develop their emotional intelligence. In this way, its possible to improve your social skills and leadership qualities.

The key here is first developing self-awareness. It’s only once you truly understand your emotions and how they influence your behaviour that you can begin to regulate them better.

As well as being the key to improving EI, developing self-awareness is also the greatest challenge. One obstacle is the fact that people have a tendency to overestimate how self-aware they are. A study by organisational psychologist, Tasha Eurich, found that while 95% of participants rated themselves highly for self-awareness, only 10-15% scored highly according to a more objective measure.

One way of getting around this is to ask others for feedback. You should approach people who are in a position to observe your behaviour across a range of situations, such as managers, colleagues, friends or family. Ask them to tell you honestly how well you react to difficult situations, how well you cope under pressure, how empathetic and adaptable you are and how you handle conflict. You should be able to asses from their responses how accurate your own perceptions of yourself are.

In terms of improving self-awareness, experts recommend actively analysing your emotional responses to different situations. This involves identifying the emotions you feel, naming each of them, and assessing how they affect your behaviour. As you do this more often, you will come to better understand the kinds of emotions different situations bring out. This will help you anticipate these emotions before they emerge, enabling you to pause and reconsider how to behave in response. In short, you will become less reactive and your behaviour more considered.

Another approach to improving EI is to focus on being more empathetic. Researchers have identified a strong association between EI and empathy, so this stands to reason. Forbes recommend focussing on people’s verbal and non-verbal cues during social interactions as a means of consciously trying to understand how they are feeling.

It’s important to remember that empathy goes beyond imagining how you would feel if you were in someone else’s shoes. You need to try to understand how others are actually feeling at any given moment and then adjust your own behaviour accordingly.