When we think about innovation, we usually picture someone quirky and isolated, like Yoshiro Nakamatsu the inventor of the floppy disc. When Nakamatsu had a specific mental challenge, he would head down to the pool, dive in, and hold his breath until he was completely deprived of oxygen. When he surfaced, gasping for breath, he would madly scribble down whatever thoughts he had on a waterproof notepad. high eq
Stories like this of the “lone wolf” innovator are popular, but they overlook one of the biggest factors when it comes to innovation: people.
“Innovation is all about people. Innovation thrives when the population is diverse, accepting, and willing to cooperate.” ~ Vivek Wadhwa, Tech Entrepreneur
Even the smallest innovations (like a tweak to an existing process) often require a vast range of interpersonal skills. One idea typically entails an interruption of an existing way of doing something, winning people over to your idea through clear and persuasive communication, and a collaborative rollout of additional changes and tweaks as the idea comes into fruition. That’s why people high in emotional intelligence (EQ) are better equipped to innovate. They’ve already developed many of the necessary skills to effectively disrupt the people and systems around them.
High EQ people can clear their minds and get objective. Good mood, or bad mood, when emotions run high, they ultimately get in the way of our most creative and productive self. High EQ people experience emotions just as intensely as anyone else, but they are more effective at understanding and managing their emotions. This means when they’re faced with a critical decision or crippling problem, they can step back from feeling overwhelmed and gain that much-needed big picture perspective. This ability to get the bird’s eye view even when emotions run high opens up space for innovation and problem-solving. After all, it’s often when we are faced with problems that our temporary solution becomes a lasting innovation—like the Post-It Note which originated as a failed glue that 3M researcher Arthur Fry began to use at home as temporary adhesive for his sheet music.
High EQ people lean into their discomfort. It’s hard to imagine how many good ideas have been left percolating in people’s minds because they were afraid to share them in the first place. To innovate you have to disrupt, and to disrupt, you have to get uncomfortable. People push back and even resent you when you change the status quo. Anyone who has heard the phrase, “this is just the way we’ve always done it,” has been on the receiving end of innovation pushback. One of the core tenants of emotional intelligence is to recognize that our habits and comforts can hold us back. On the other hand, when you get in the habit of leaning into your discomfort, a couple things happen: 1) Some discomforts become comfortable 2) You fail, and then you learn and grow. It’s a win-win.
High EQ people craft emotionally-charged pitches. A dramatic example of the power of a good pitch is when Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers) sought to keep his funding in a 1969 senate hearing before John Pastore, a congressman known for attacking television:
Fred Rogers had prepared to read a 10-minute testimony to Pastore, and just before his turn, Congressman Pastore announced he was tired of hearing people read testimonies. There would be no more reading out loud. Mr. Rogers pivoted and spoke directly to Pastore and the listeners. In less than 4 minutes, and with the lyrics of a children’s song, he addressed trust, expressions of care, and the ability to talk about and manage anger. He also landed 20 million dollars in funding. There’s a lesson to be learned when you watch Fred in action. He didn’t speak fast, he didn’t take the offer to read his 10 minute statement, he wasn’t flashy, and he didn’t use pictures. What he did was take us all back to the child within us and made the case for his innovative approach with children developing a world of future adults able to recognize emotions and manage them productively. Before you set out to win people over to your idea, ask yourself “Who will my idea help and how?” Answering these simple questions will make your effort at disruption more exciting, applicable, and real to your audience, whether it’s a board of investors a congressional hearing, or a five-person team.
High EQ people make the most of their feedback. Ideas and innovations, while often arrived at in a split-second, change and evolve greatly with time. As time passes, outside perspectives come in and unforeseen problems arise. People high in EQ don’t get flustered or discouraged by these nagging problems. Instead, they leverage problems and feedback to grow their idea. They don’t take feedback personally. They sift through it, identifying the helpful comments and the not-so-helpful ones. When high EQ people receive confusing feedback, they question and push to understand it more deeply. The result is that their innovations become more finely tuned more quickly, and they win over allies in the process as they involve other people instead of lashing out at them for differing opinions or pulling away.
From Insights to Action. It’s not just individuals who benefit from high EQ when it comes to innovation. On the organizational level, a high EQ workplace means trust, openness, and inclusivity. As a result, ideas, perspectives, and opinions intersect more frequently, and people, regardless of their level or background, feel unafraid to share, receive criticism, or fail. This degree of openness and trust drives innovation across all levels of the organization.
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