It was once widely believed that a person's intelligence quotient, or IQ, would correlate strongly with their future success, so researchers were surprised to learn that people with average IQs outperform those with the highest IQs 70 percent of the time.

What was behind this unexpected finding? Emotional intelligence (EQ).

Emotional intelligence refers to a person's ability to perceive, understand, evaluate and manage their emotions and the emotions of others in positive ways. It affects how we behave, how we make decisions and how we navigate social situations.

EQ can be difficult to wrap your head around, but people with high levels are often described as being self-aware, persistent and motivated, as well as having self-restraint.

"EI is not soft, fluffy or about wanting to be liked," writes Travis Bradberry, author of the bestselling book "Emotional Intelligence 2.0." "Individuals who have high EI want to succeed, can control their emotions, are gregarious and have positive self-appraisals. Nothing fluffy there."

Research shows that people with high EQs are often the top performers in their fields, and a 2011 study of 17,000 infants followed over 50 years reveals that high EQ was a better predictor of success than academic performance.

Similar studies have found that people who develop emotional skills at a young age are not only able to perform well in their careers, but they also have longer marriages and lower levels of depression and anxiety. There's even evidence that such people are physically healthier.

How's your EQ?

Emotional intelligence isn't something you either have or don't have — it’s a combination of several traits that everyone possesses, but you may be strong in some and deficient in others.

According to psychologist Daniel Goleman there are five components of EQ: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, social skills and empathy.

"What having emotional intelligence looks like is that you're confident, good at working towards your goals, adaptable and flexible. You recover quickly from stress and you're resilient," Goleman told The Huffington Post. "Life goes much more smoothly if you have good emotional intelligence."

Measuring an individual's emotional skills can be difficult though. Often, tests designed to assess EQ are self-reports on how well you think you manage your emotions, which is akin to taking an IQ test that asks how smart you think you are.

And while there are plenty of tests that measure certain components of EQ, the most accurate tests of overall emotional intelligence are typically administered by professionals.

One popular method of measuring emotional intelligence is testing a person's ability to read facial expressions and body language. This quiz by the University of California's Greater Good Science Center looks at how well you read people and identifies the facial muscles involved in expressing certain emotions.

company meeting

Emotional intelligence in the workplace

In TV and movies, the higher-ups at a company are often portrayed as cold and emotionally distant, and there may be a bit of truth to that, according to Bradberry, who co-founded TalentSmart, an emotional intelligence test and training company.

Bradberry and his colleagues analyzed the EQ profiles of more than a million people in the TalentSmart database and discovered that "organizations do promote the emotionally inept...except when they don't."

Their analysis revealed that middle managers have the highest EQ scores, which makes sense because companies tend to promote people who are even-tempered and get along well with others.

However, things changed as they looked at EQ scores higher up the corporate ladder.

"For the titles of director and above, scores descend faster than a snowboarder on a black diamond. CEOs, on average, have the lowest EQ scores in the workplace."

Bradberry points out this could be because working in the highest levels of management often means fewer interactions with lower-level employees and little understanding of how decisions impact others.

But that doesn't mean that all CEOs are emotionally inept. While they had the lowest scores in the analysis, the best-performing CEOs were still those with the highest emotional intelligence.

Improved performance — and a better bottom line — explains why many companies are investing time and money into hiring employees with high EQs.

Even the U.S. Air Force has seen the benefits of employing such people. The organization used a test called the Emotional Quotient Inventory to select recruiters and found that its top performers were those who scored highest in empathy, assertiveness, happiness and self-awareness.

By using the test in hiring, the Air Force learned it could predict successful recruiters by nearly three-fold, saving $3 million annually.

Unsure about your EQ?

Unlike your IQ, which won't change significantly over your lifetime, your EQ can evolve if you're committed to improving your skills.

According to Harvard Business Review, these are some signs that you may need to work on your emotional intelligence:

  • You often feel like others don’t get the point and it frustrates you.
  • You’re surprised when others are sensitive to your comments and you think they’re overreacting.
  • You think being liked at work is overrated.
  • You hold others to the same expectations you hold for yourself.
  • You find others are to blame for most of the issues on your team.
  • You find it annoying when others expect you to know how they feel.
If you think your EQ could use some work, here are some tips to help you improve your emotional skills.

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