Developing Emotional Intelligence

Graduate students in a global business module
Image credit: EY


This blog post is written by a Laura Sleigh, a 2008 graduate from the university. Laura  works as a Student Attraction Advisor for EY, one of the global leaders in assurance, tax, transaction and advisory services, and the University of Edinburgh Business School. Laura outlines for Teaching Matters the importance of developing emotional intelligence for career success…

The World Economic Forum (WEF) recently asked 350 HR leaders from the world’s biggest organisations which skills will be in greatest demand in their business in 2020. Their findings? Although AI and smart machines may claim many jobs, there will be increasing demand for skills where the human touch is still required.

Building on WEF’s research, and developing it using our own experts, EY identified 5 key future skills to develop at University before setting out your path to career success:

  • Emotional intelligence
  • Complex problem solving
  • Creativity
  • Cognitive flexibility
  • Collaboration

What is Emotional Intelligence?

Having emotional intelligence means being self-aware, able to show empathy and see things from others’ points of view. It means you can adapt and flex your style and approach, whilst remaining resilient and calm in the face of pressure and change.

Psychologist Daniel Goleman characterised emotional intelligence (often called EQ, in contrast to IQ) through five pillars: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and people skills.

Self-awareness: How well do you really know yourself? How do you come across to other people? Knowing your characteristics – and what you’re good at – will provide a strong foundation to build on for the future. Identify your strengths and weaknesses – if you’re not sure, ask a friend or family member to help!

“On an individual basis, I started to develop self-awareness at the University of Edinburgh and this transferable skill was vital when deciding what career path to take and transitioning from University into the business world. It’s enabled me to adapt my style to work effectively with others, regardless of culture or background. It would be highly beneficial to have this skill more integrated into every student’s learning journeys as personally, realising my skills, interests, values and motivations was a very an important first step in my career.“

At EY, self-reflection plays a large part in our global appraisal system. The system follows a 90-day cycle, emphasising the importance of on-going and regular focus on personal and career development, and performance throughout the year so you can maximize your impact and potential. It’s an important habit for students to develop.

Self-regulation: Can you think of a time where you said something in the heat of the moment, only to regret it afterwards? Or struggled to contain your excitement (or disappointment) at something that’s happened? Self-regulation means being able to control how you react and express yourself.

One way to do this is to use ‘the pause’, to stop and think before acting or responding. By doing this you’re less likely to react on instinct or strong feelings, such as anger or fear, and instead respond mindfully and with reason.

EY graduate students
Image credit: EY

Motivation:  What drives you to get out of bed in the morning? Are you driven by deadlines, motivated by financial incentives or do you prefer to do things for recognition from others?

Not everyone is motivated in the same way. Self-motivation is a valuable tool – and it’s important to be aware that how motivated you appear might impact the people around you, especially if you aren’t in the same location.

Empathy:  Being empathetic involves connecting with people on an emotional level and trying to see situations from their viewpoint. Developing your empathy skills will help you understand and interact with those you work with. When was the last time you read a different source of news? Breaking out of our bubble to hear other perspectives should be a central part of your learning.

People skills: Building a rapport with colleagues, even those you find difficult, will help you get further in university projects and the workplace. Try to find common ground – it might be sports, fandom or another interest.  Making an effort to understand how other people prefer to learn, work and communicate, and modifying your behaviour accordingly, will help develop better working relationships.

Improving emotional intelligence for now and the workplace of the future

Being self-aware means being able to adapt your style to work effectively with others, regardless of culture or background. It also means understanding the perspectives of your classmates, clients or colleagues and treating everyone with respect. Understanding how we interact, with other people face-to-face, online, and even with artificial intelligence, is a key skill to develop. Your emotional intelligence will help develop your connections, networks and relationships, and make a meaningful impact throughout your career.

Laura Sleigh

Laura Sleigh is a Student Attraction Advisor for EY and the University of Edinburgh Business School. Laura is a former student and graduated with an MA (hons) in Geography in 2008.

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