Can EQ be Learned?

At the close of my article, "IQ Versus EQ," in the previous issue of Fleet Maintenance, I posed the question: Can EQ be learned? As the article explained, EQ (Emotional Quotient), or more simply, emotional intelligence, is often a stronger predictor of success on the job than IQ (Intelligence Quotient).

Most experts agree that EQ traits - such as empathy, concern, attunement, social cognition and managing frustrations - are innate and/or learned in a person’s formative years. Not surprisingly, much EQ research has focused on K-12 classrooms.

There has, however, been considerable research to suggest that adults can train to improve awareness and skills that strengthen EQ. In fact, says Dr. Dalip Singh in "Emotional Intelligence at Work," age and maturity are positively correlated with the ability to improve EQ.¹

In a 2009 study, Belgian researchers trained 19 students on how to better understand and handle their and others’ emotions. This training involved four weekly sessions lasting two-and-a-half hours each, plus homework.

The researchers also set up a control group of 18 people who were not trained.

The results of the study: "After training and a six-month follow-up, the training students, but not the control students, showed improvements in aspects of ‘trait’ emotional intelligence normally considered immutable, including improvement in emotion identification and emotion management (of self and others’ emotions). Surprisingly perhaps, ‘emotional understanding’ showed no improvement. ²

This would suggest that some, not all, aspects of EQ can be learned. While general "feelings" are often hereditary or developed at an early age, adults can be taught to recognize their own feelings and those of others. Recognition is often the key to heading off the negative and possibly destructive reactions to those feelings.

A simple training course may not be the answer, according to some experts. Organizational psychologist and professor Malcolm J. Higgs suggests that while EQ can be developed, "you can’t put a person through an EQ training course." This, he says, is because so much depends on the learner wanting to change and improve.

General awareness training can be a starting point. For example, EQ often deals with what makes a person angry, and how that person reacts to anger. "If you are angry, you can’t change being angry, but you can understand that you become irrational or deal badly with others when you are angry," says Higgs.

Most of the resulting EQ improvement, therefore, would depend on the individual working with his or her team or leaders and asking for feedback. Much of the "training" is then done on an individual basis, not in the classroom.³

To conclude, it appears that anywhere from a few, to many, of the facets that make up a person’s EQ can be developed through training, even in adulthood. But the development doesn’t end with training. An employee’s will to learn and improve is equally or more important.

¹ Singh, Dr. Dalip. "Emotional Intelligence at Work, Third Edition." © 2006, Response Books.
² Nelis, D., Quoidbach, J., Mikolajczak, M., & Hansenne, M. (2009). Study cited in "Increasing emotional intelligence: (How) is it possible?"
³ Higgs, Malcolm J., cited in "More than a feeling: Can EI be taught?" at

Stephen Howe is employed as a field trainer by United Rentals, the world’s largest equipment rental company, with approximately 600 locations in North America and an a rental fleet worth more than $3.5 billion. He is a past president of the Automotive Training Managers Council - a global non-profit organization dedicated to sharing best practices and recognizing outstanding training in the automotive and heavy vehicle industries.