Why Emotional Intelligence Is Key to Your Success

Engineers need more than technical smarts to get ahead in their careers

3 August 2015

Leadership coach Kenton R. Hill has helped many intelligent people during the past 25 years, including doctors and engineers, and he says many of them were missing a key ingredient for success: emotional intelligence.

Your EI, for short, is your ability to recognize and manage your emotions as well as those of others, and to channel those emotions to problem-solving or decision-making tasks.

Professionals with whom Hill has worked have had trouble conveying their ideas, working in teams, and getting people to trust them, among other problems. Some have found that their anxieties or their inability to understand others’ emotions have jeopardized their careers.

Developing your EI helps you become intuitive. It can turn you into a more effective leader. And it can help you handle stressful situations. For those who work with customers or clients, EI is useful to address their needs.


Many elements of emotional intelligence—a concept popularized by Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book of the same name—might be more familiar to us as “soft skills” and “people skills,” Hill points out. But those terms, he says, minimize EI’s value. “When you talk about it in those terms, it doesn’t sound as important,” he says. “But when you think of it as an intelligence trait, you see it as a set of competencies that you can bring to the job and to your life.” Hill is the author of Smart Isn’t Enough: Lessons From a Work Performance Coach.

The inability to control one’s emotions or to recognize others’ can lead to serious problems in the workplace, he says. “You might get frustrated when you can’t figure something out or when dealing with limited time or resources,” he says, “and you take it out on others.” Group settings can become emotional minefields if each person comes to the table with a different emotional state, point of view, or personal agenda. In the worst cases, Hill says, insufficient EI can leave a person isolated, unable to convince a boss or coworkers about the value of his or her ideas, and with no support when times get tough.

Turning that around is crucial for meeting your goals at work, he says. “Emotional intelligence,” he adds, “provides us with the characteristics we need to be more successful human beings.”

Rich St. Denis, an engineer turned career coach, also values EI. Engineers have a particularly difficult time with the EI concept, he says, adding that they tend not to concern themselves with emotions, being more interested in ideas, problems, and technical solutions. St. Denis, who has developed courses on the subject for the American Management Association and other organizations, says he believes EI can be learned.


“First you should study yourself,” he says. “Understand your emotional triggers, your so-called ‘hot buttons,’ as well as what drives and motivates you.” That, he explains, can help you understand how your emotions and behavior affect other people.

Hill suggests taking a few minutes each day to check yourself, determine what you’re feeling, what your senses are telling you, what judgments or appraisals you’re making, how you’re behaving, and what you want at that moment. He recommends keeping a self-awareness journal for about a month. Then, check back and reread what you’ve noted. For example, are you always upset when a particular person enters a room, or anxious when you have to make presentations? Once you understand yourself better, you can begin to understand others better as well.

“Empathy is a matter of projecting outside of yourself to understand what other people are going through,” St. Denis explains. Sometimes that comes with life experience, he says. But you can develop empathy by asking people what they’re feeling. “Asking questions is the absolute quickest way to understand people,” he says.

Improving one’s EI does not generally come instantly or easily—Hill and St. Denis sometimes coach people for more than six months at a time. “It’s an active sport,” Hill says. “You need to practice, seek feedback from yourself and others, and keep at it. Make a commitment.”

EI’s benefits extend beyond the workplace. “I hear from my clients that this helped them at home, saved their marriage, or gave them the ability to talk to their teenager,” Hill says. “It helps us be successful, well-rounded people in all aspects of our lives.”

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