Removing the Static Surrounding Emotional Intelligence

Removing the Static Surrounding Emotional Intelligence

Business leaders have debated the merits of hiring based on “emotional intelligence” (EI) since the mid-1990s when psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman first introduced and popularized the concept in a best-selling book. Last month, business professor Adam Grant took very public issue with Goleman’s conclusions in a LinkedIn post provocatively titled, “Emotional Intelligence Is Overrated”. Goleman fired back with a post of his own, “Let’s Not Underrate Emotional Intelligence.” Commentators weighed in with their own experience, barbs and insights and voila – EI emerged as the management controversy of the moment.

Again and again, at Books@Work we hear from employers that EI is important for creating a positive workplace culture and improving companies’ bottom lines. We also hear that Books@Work can be one part of a toolkit to improving EI among employees. Given the current EI debate, we consider the various impacts of EI in the workplace, and the potential for companies to help employees improve EI, not just using it as a differentiating tool in hiring decisions.

What exactly is EI? Taking on the standard IQ test (and cognitive capabilities more generally) as the most important predictor of success on-the-job, Goleman identifies a set of emotional characteristics that also inform workplace performance, among them: self-control, motivation, empathy, interpersonal and social skills. Examining a variety of contexts including home, school and work, Goleman shows the importance of listening, constructive feedback and conflict resolution in producing positive outcomes – a successful marriage, promotion at work and good performance at school, to name a few.

Crucially, he also argues that behaviors associated with higher EI can be taught, and that their impact can be felt in the long-term in myriad ways.

It’s these two points that get lost in Grant’s attack on Goleman’s conclusions. Grant studied a sales company to determine whether a salesperson’s EI (as determined by a five minute test) impacted the revenue s/he generated. His conclusion: IQ tests were a much better predictor of success, by a factor of five – at least in certain professions he identifies as less highly contingent on emotional interaction than others.

EI isn’t static, though, and a one-time test doesn’t measure growth or potential for growth. In addition, by measuring only short term impact according to one particular metric of success (revenue generated), Grant had no way of assessing the long-term benefit of high emotional intelligence, or of capturing change over time.

Most employees need to do multiple things well in order to be successful on-the-job. A salesperson must generate revenue, but he must also be able to work with others to identify and share leads that may pay off next quarter or next year. She must be able to understand the perspective of the potential customer and build long-term relationships. These are the sorts of tasks with which higher EI can assist. Furthermore, when an entire team has such characteristics, team members are more likely to work effectively together, boosting satisfaction and retention – and thereby helping the company’s bottom line.

Books@Work is not a training program to teach the behaviors that contribute to an increase in EI scores. However, it is one of a number of programs that provides colleagues with a space for developing the opportunity to exercise and practice good EI – part of the learning that can create long-term benefit for employers, as well as the employees who participate in the program. As the narratives we read present human conflicts to ponder, they open up the avenues for participants to share emotional responses and to explore connections to relevant issues in the workplace.

Chances are the EI controversy will subside after Grant and Goleman’s exchange gives way to another spirited debate between management experts, but in the meantime, the conversation is an important reminder that we need to look at long-term success across a number of different measures and think about EI training as holistic, if EI is to demonstrate its value.

Image: Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1895, lithography, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Rachel Burstein

Rachel Burstein

Formerly the Academic Director for Books@Work, Rachel Burstein is now a Product Analyst for IXL Learning.