Emotional intelligence and ‘soft’ skills are musts for today’s CIOs and other IT workers. From entry-level coders to those in the C-suite, few people have the luxury of a lone-wolf mentality.

Research show it’s really your emotional intelligence that is the determining factor in whether you get promoted to how happy you are at work.

Luckily, with knowledge, awareness and a bit of practice, you can boost your emotional intelligence levels.

What is emotional intelligence?

Like Web 2.0 or SOA, soft skills and emotional intelligence may be defined differently depending on who you talk to.

The term soft skills tend to be the more inclusive and casual of the two. Soft skills are one’s interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, whereas emotional intelligence is essentially soft skills’ more scientific and researched counterpart.

Both emotional and intellectual aspects of the brain matter, but scientists are finding that emotion influences everything from intelligence to life experience much more than previously thought.

Emotions at work

Although we may think we don’t or shouldn’t bring our emotional selves to work, the truth is a bit different. For one thing, people want to hire, promote and simply be around people they like, those who are confident, well-balanced, optimistic, committed and trustworthy.

Think of a boss you loved and one you hated and think why. Chances are technical ability was not the determining factor of how you felt in either case, says Daniel Goleman, co-chairman of The Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations.

“One had EI and the other didn’t.” Scientists continue looking into the nuances of emotional intelligence in the workplace, but by the late 1990s research had established its baseline importance.

For example, one-third of the difference between average and top performers was due to technical skill and cognitive talent while two-thirds was due to emotional competence, according to a worldwide study by Goleman of 200 companies. In top leadership positions, that difference was four-f if this.

Apart from the rest

In another study of a global food and drink company, departments led by emotionally intelligent senior managers (as measured by Goleman’s research tools) outperformed yearly earnings goals by 20 per cent. “If you look at specific abilities, competencies that set star performers apart from average ones, technical skill is not even in the top three,” says Goleman.

“A lot of people write code,” says Richard Boyatzis, chairman of the organisational behaviour department at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. “But who gets listened to? Who is asked to work on the product development team? It’s not the brainiest, but the person who works well with others.” Start talking C-suite and the soft side matters even more.

“A lot of promotion is based on technical capability,” says Jim Clemmer, leadership consultant and speaker, but “the higher on the ladder you go, the more important soft skills and emotional intelligence becomes.” “At its most basic, EI is the intelligent use of emotions,” says Boyatzis.

That may sound easy, but when harried by deadlines and traffic or faced with your own or someone else’s difficult outbursts, being emotionally intelligent can be easier said than done.

Structured programmes exist to boost emotional intelligence. They typically include a special 360-degree review or observations of you by specialists, as well as targeted workshops. The Emotional Intelligence Consortium is a good resource for more information about EI, including programmes that focus on boosting an organisation’s emotional intelligence. But other endeavours can help you in the quest to use your emotions intelligently and strengthen your soft skills. Here are four to start with.

Learn to take responsibility

The cornerstone of emotional intelligence and soft skills is responsibility. Everybody has met the manager who is always looking for someone to blame, who micro-manages or who condescends. These people lack the most foundational tool at your disposal – taking responsibility, says Christopher Avery, Cutter Consortium senior consultant and author of Teamwork Is an Individual Skill. Responsibility is not simply paying your bills on time or managing a staff of ten. It is, in Avery’s terms, the internal process of taking ownership to the extent you can for the situations in your life and creating the best from that.

Why, you may ask, when redundancies and mergers are so common, would you want to ‘own’ situations you probably had no hand in? In a word, power. In the 1959 classic Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but the last of human freedoms – the ability to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.” The act of becoming responsible capitalises largely on that mindset.

Blaming, being in denial, justifying, giving up and feeling shame or obligation are all ways of abdicating responsibility, but humans are hardwired to act this way when something goes wrong, says Avery .

Recognising this gives power, because it means that although those reactions might be natural, you have the choice to move away from them and on to ownership. So when your brain flashes, “It’s all her fault,” “This place isn’t fair so I give up trying,” or, “I’ll do it because I have to,” you simply recognise these thoughts for what they are and move on to a more powerful position.

Hone your public speaking

Learning the nuances of public speaking is one of the best ways to improve your emotional intelligence and soft skills, says Jim Clemmer, leadership consultant and author. “The ability to verbalise, persuade and influence are tightly interwoven in what is at the heart of EI and the work of influencing or relating to others,” he says.

There’s the self-management aspect, of course, in that you must manage your own feelings, such as nervousness. Public speaking can also be an exploration into your personal style and what works best for you, including what audiences you are most comfortable with. For example, someone who is analytical and serious is likely to have more comfort and influence using his own personality style as a base, rather than suddenly attempting to be Mr Funnyman.

Picture a lake during a storm. When it is sunny and clear, you can probably see right through the water to the bottom of the lake. But on a stormy day, the water is choppy and the view to the bottom will be obscured by waves. Simply put, “When you are stressed, you don’t have access to most of your brain,” says Boyatzis.

When you are calm and happy, he says, you can function at a much higher level, you can process difficult concepts, you can sense things at a wider distance, you are more open to experiences and you can multitask better. “Just the opposite is true when you are stressed.” When you are stressed or negatively emotional, you tend to be reactive – that is, more likely to act on a negative impulse.

Meditation and yoga trains you to notice a thought or feeling without becoming attached to acting on it. Say you begin to move into a difficult yoga pose and all you can think about is how difficult it is and your whole focus starts to concentrate on how your muscles are resisting (which just makes them resist more). The yoga teacher might direct you at that point to remember how your muscles felt loose and relaxed in the previous easier pose and ask you to try and feel similarly in this more difficult pose. Simply thinking of it in this way can profoundly change your experience. And becoming adept at short-circuiting your automatic responses can have benefits at both work and home.

Perhaps surprisingly, public speaking can also help you become more attuned to others. “Advanced presentation skills will teach people how to tune into audiences better, it forces you to empathise, to ask questions,” says Clemmer. You’ll learn how to make it more about them and less about you. A good presenter is tuned in to the audience, so you will learn how to meet listeners where they are and how to guide them where you actually want them to go.

Yoga and meditation

At the heart of emotional intelligence is mindfulness, and mindfulness is at the heart of yoga and meditation. At their most basic, both of these disciplines focus attention on the breath as a tool to enable relaxed awareness, focus and objectivity.

Stress, fear, anxiety and other negative feelings impair focus and decision-making capabilities. The brain literally does work differently under stress.

Taking responsibility – a three-step guide

Becoming responsible is quite simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Christopher Avery has a three-step model: commitment, awareness and situation examination.

1. Commit to operating from an outlook of responsibility. Each morning determine that you will take responsibility throughout that day and remind yourself at scheduled times, especially before entering what you suspect may be a difficult situation.

Creating a new habit must be constantly encouraged and reinforced to become second nature.

2. Practice noticing when you are blaming, feeling shame or in other ways acting, thinking or feeling irresponsible. This can be difficult, says Avery: “The ego doesn’t want us to see all the parts of our character.” 3. Examine each situation objectively – what is happening and what your role is in it, and determine how you can act more responsibly.

Just committing to these practices will change your relationships and promote respect from others.

Take a drama course

Comedic improvisation relies on listening and building off others. These skills are under-represented in the workplace, says Chet Harding, co-founder of the Improv Asylum in Boston. “Corporations are built on ‘yes, but… I’m listening but I’ll use my idea anyway.’ Or, ‘I’ll look like I’m listening but I’m really waiting for you to finish so I can talk.’” To show the power of emotional intelligence and to develop it in corporate employees, the Improv Asylum offers unique training.

From the outside, the exercises can seem a bit silly. But repeat customers such as Raytheon attest to their power. One of the first exercises is about the power of yes. Participants form a circle and switch places by allowing, or not, another to take their spot. The caveat is that if one person says “yes,” he must quickly find another spot before the person he said yes to gets to his spot. Harding says that people very quickly form strategies, and one emerges particularly fast: “If you say yes to me, I tend to come back to you. I won’t go back to you if you say no, because I’m wasting my time.” Beyond that, lessons surrounding the way someone says no (if it’s necessary) emerge as well. “Especially with customer service, you may have to say no, but how you say it is crucial.” He points to Red Bull, a long time client of the Improv Asylum.

Instead of saying, “No, there’s not,” when potential customers say, “There’s too much caffeine in that,” the answer can be, “I hear that a lot, but it turns out there’s about the same amount of caffeine in Red Bull as a cup of coffee.” The Improv exercises illustrate what may not always be immediately obvious and what is so important about emotional intelligence – people need people. Says Boyatzis, “Fundamentally you can’t do much in life alone.”

The components of emotional intelligence

See yourself as others see you by understanding how EI works.

Self-awareness: Being mindful of one’s moods, emotions and drives.

Self-regulation: The ability to think before acting and control negative impulses and moods.

Empathy: Being able to put oneself in another’s shoes.

Social skill: The ability to build and manage relationships and influence others.

Motivation: Drive that is internally generated rather than resting on external rewards or financial compensation.