Why AQ Matters as Much as EQ and IQ

Many years ago, I worked with a woman who was very proud of her membership in Mensa, the exclusive society for people with high IQs. Although she had a reasonable level of EQ, the work environment had changed significantly since she had advanced in her career.

Her career stalled, and after several organisational restructures, she was considered a square peg in a round hole. We ended up working on the same team in an industrial relations unit in one of the largest organisations in the State. She was confident in her abilities and resisted the call of retirement because she enjoyed working over what she described as the emptiness of her life outside work.

However, the moment a workplace dispute or an emergent industry change disrupted her routine, her high IQ seemed to falter. She was unable to cope with the need for rapid response, challenging her assumptions, and navigating the constant stream of changes. Her successes were firmly in the past, and her struggle became a stark reminder of the importance of adaptability in the workplace.

She wanted to consistently apply what she already knew and avoided trying new things. She was so tied to her high IQ status that she couldn’t see that she had become incompetent and resistant to change.

After successive stumbles, our manager relegated her to performing basic support roles well below her remuneration level because they didn’t trust her to respond quickly or appropriately.

At this point, many organisations were beginning to understand the importance of emotional intelligence (EQ) and were investing heavily in training and assessment tools to enhance it. However, what my colleagues needed was not just higher EQ; they needed to cultivate their adaptability intelligence (AQ) urgently.

AQ is the ability to adjust to change, learn from experience, and overcome adversity. It measures how well you cope with uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. It is a crucial skill for anyone who wants to thrive where change is the only constant.

AQ is a very different beast from EQ, which is the ability to use your emotions as a source of information and motivation rather than a barrier or a distraction. EQ helps you empathise, collaborate, and communicate with others, but AQ takes it a step further. It helps you innovate, experiment, and create with others. EQ helps you fit in, but AQ helps you stand out. It’s of critical value in today’s workplace.

One of the benefits of AQ is that it allows you to see intelligence not as a static quality that you possess or lack but as a dynamic process that depends on the interaction between you, the task, and the situation. This means that you can enhance your adaptive intelligence by selecting tasks and situations that build on your strengths and adapting your approach to tasks and situations that challenge you. Doing so, means you avoid the pitfalls of what Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset and limiting your potential.

According to a Harvard Business Review article by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Adam Yearsley, being very emotionally intelligent also has its downsides. They argue that while people with high EQ can be creative, they are more commonly great at collaboration and conformity rather than challenging the status quo and introducing new ideas which may ruffle feathers.

As a leader and coach, I’ve noticed it is possible to balance out the potential pitfalls of high EQ by creating environments that foster people’s curiosity, resilience, and agility.

My former colleague could have used metaphors and analogies to reframe her perspective and explore new ways of responding to increase her AQ. For example, she could have thought of herself as a jazz musician rather than a Mensa member—a jazz musician who does not rely on a fixed score but rather improvises with skill and flair, does not play alone but rather collaborates with other musicians, does not repeat the same tunes but rather creates new variations and combinations.

By using this metaphor, she could have shifted to a more flexible and fluid mindset and someone who saw change as an opportunity rather than a threat, She could have shifted to someone who embraced uncertainty rather than avoided it.

As Reid Hoffman the founder of LinkedIn said, “The world is changing faster than ever, and the only way to keep up is to be adaptable. The most successful people are not the ones who have all the answers, but the ones who have the courage to ask the right questions and to try new things.”

You can keep building your AQ by:

  1. Challenging yourself to do something new or different. It can be as simple as listening to a different genre of music, watching a TED talk on a topic you know nothing about, or learning a new skill. The point is to expose yourself to new stimuli and experiences that can broaden your horizons and spark your creativity.
  2. Ask for feedback from someone you trust and respect. This can be a colleague, a friend, a mentor, or a coach. The point is to get an honest and constructive assessment of your strengths and weaknesses and to identify areas where you can improve and grow.
  3. Reflect on your failures and successes. This can be a journal, a blog, a podcast, or a conversation. The point is to capture your learnings and insights and apply them to your future actions and decisions.

By doing these three simple things, you can continue to develop your AQ and become more adaptable and successful in a complex world.

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