EI – Peak commodity or valid predictor of performance?

The term emotional intelligence (EI) is no longer the preserve of consultants or leaders. It’s moved into the realm of our everyday language. It’s not uncommon to hear it weaved into TV dramas. In short, its ubiquitous.

The concept has its roots in social intelligence and Multiple Intelligences (Thorndike 1920; Gardner 1983). On face value, it appears an intuitively sensible and inviting concept. The capacity to manage your own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in relationships. What’s not to like about that?

Well, not a lot really. Like I say, lovely concept.

One may imagine that a neat little idea like this would have some acceptable and agreed measures against which we could assess our levels of EI. Well, sadly not. And herein lies one of the flaws in the concept. There are several definitions and measures of EI available in the market, many of which have a significant lack of evidence to confirm they actually measure what their originators claim. It’s very possible for a person to score wildly differently on one scale compared to another.

In addition to the items on each scale being different, there is the inherent issue of the scales being constructed based upon a person’s view of EI, which may not be the same as the next person’s. The items that form Goleman’s scale of EI are his own views of what constitutes EI, they might not be the same as your own. For example, there is an item that describes a scenario where a couple are having a heated discussion, with personal attacks being voiced in the throes of the argument (we’ve all been there). The reader is offered four options as to the best approach to resolve the situation described, each with a suggested EI ‘value’, as yet unknown to the reader. The options are:

A. Take a 20-minute break and then come back to the discussion

B. Stop the argument – go silent, no matter what your partner says

C. Say you are sorry and ask your partner to apologise too

D. Stop for a moment, collect your thoughts, then state your side as precisely as you can

What did you go for?

Goleman suggests that response ‘A’ is the most emotionally intelligent approach, as it allows time for the anger to subside and offers the opportunity for a calm discussion to take place.

How many of you went for that?

What about the option to just apologise and to not seek an apology in return? What about just having a hug and accepting that you are both behaving in a way that isn’t respectful to the other? These, and other questions, are multiplied when you start to overly cultural differences onto the potential responses.

The point is, the four options provided are Goleman’s view of EI and they may not be shared by yourself.

So, why then is there no agreed measure for Emotional Intelligence?

Well, in part, that stems from its rampant commercialisation and commoditisation. Essentially, we have what Landy (2005) refers to as the “commercial wing” and the “academic wing” of EI. Goleman adopted a case study approach and sits firmly in the former. The book is well-written, but overly bombastic in its assertions of the predictive power of EI. But, he’s got to sell books, right? And boy did he do that.

In the academic camp, Bar-on (1997) adopted a more robust, and perhaps more thorough, empirical approach. Whilst Mayer and Salovey (1997) took on a wholly more cautious approach through their research, seeking to make links between EI, early learning experiences and psychological predispositions. There is firmer ground to base and share our understanding of EI, within this latter camp.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some people that will point to the lack of a causal relationship between EI and predictable performance outputs. Harms and Crede (2010) note that proofs of validity appear to come from measuring constructs that have existed for a long time and are simply being relabelled and recategorised (Harms and Crede 2010) – self-control for example, has long been considered a subset of Conscientiousness…one of the Big Five personality traits (John et al. 1991). I don’t really have any issue with this in principle though. At least there is some rigour attached to it. Equally, if the end-user understands the term ‘self-control’ more easily than having to consider multiple subsets of ‘conscientiousness’, then so be it. At least they are thinking about behaviour and the impact it has on others. That to me is the true value of EI. Not, do I have more EI than the next person.

In answer to the question posed in the title. Well, my view is that EI lies somewhere in between. It proves the worth of a well-constructed and accessible book, the power of effective and consistent marketing and the desire/need for suppliers and consumers alike to have a simple academic model that people can grasp and connect to without too much drama. Similarly, and more importantly, when delivered by a facilitator that is well versed in its academic background, it offers people a greater understanding of themselves, of others, of emotions and of intelligence – all points raised by Mayer himself (https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/the-personality-analyst/200909/what-emotional-intelligence-is-and-is-not)

How’s about that for a bit of fence sitting.

One last question…by sitting on the fence, have I shown the self-control of EI, or plain old conscientiousness? Does it even matter?

Bar-On, R. (1997). Emotional Intelligence in Men and Women, Bar-On Emotional Quotient Inventory: Technical Manual. Toronto: Multi-Health Systems.

Crede, M. & Harms, P. (2010). Remaining Issues in Emotional Intelligence Research: Construct Overlap, Method Artefacts, and Lack of Incremental Validity. Industrial and Organizational Psychology 3(2):154-158

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Goleman, D. (1996). Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More Than IQ. London: Bloomsbury.

John, O. P., Donahue, E. M., & Kentle, R. L. (1991). The Big Five Inventory–Versions 4a and 54. Berkeley, CA: University of California, Berkeley, Institute of Personality and Social Research

Landy, F.J. (2005). “Some historical and scientific issues related to research on emotional intelligence”. Journal of Organizational Behavior. 26 (4): 411–424

Mayer, J.D. & Salovey, P. (1997). ‘What is Emotional Intelligence?’ In P. Salovey and D. Sluyter (eds.) Emotional Development and Emotional Intelligence. New York: Basic Books

Thorndike, E. L. (1920). ‘Intelligence and Its Uses’, Harper’s Magazine, January, 227-235.