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Is Emotional Intelligence the Holy Grail?

A recent article in Business Week contends that the emotional intelligence of the workforce is going down and that emotional intelligence is a skill worth learning. Though Daniel Goleman has convinced the pop culture and many business leaders that emotional intelligence is the Holy Grail of success, actual scholarly research on the topic (reviewed in a recent article in American Psychologist) would suggest that emotional intelligence is an ability. This means that people have a certain natural level of emotional intelligence. If they are low in this ability, no amount of training will push them to be high in this ability. It’s a lot like being naturally athletic.

True, we can help people develop what emotional intelligence ability they have. Although the idea that everyone can be trained to be emotionally intelligent sells books and generates consulting contracts, it does not translate into organizational performance. Furthermore, if you follow the work of Daniel Goleman, emotional intelligence is really every positive trait you can think of, like persistence and self-control.

These characteristics are not emotional intelligence! They are nothing but personal self-management. Self-management, not emotional intelligence, dictates our ability to successfully navigate life. It’s not just about our emotions; it’s about being self-aware in all aspects of our lives. Managing emotions is a key part of that, but so is managing impressions, regulating our own personal work behavior, and interacting effectively with others.

I would suggest that people stop throwing away money on books, assessments, and other money-making schemes designed by people who know very little about the actual functionality of emotions. Emotions provide important information about the state of ourselves, the state of the environment, and the state of our transactions with the environment. They provide important data about a particular situation. And how we regulate those emotions indeed has an effect on ourselves and those around us. So, in some respects, I agree that emotional intelligence can be useful in business settings. We need to learn to adaptively manage our emotions. But, that’s where our agreement ends.

Emotions are only one key element that influences our success. You can be a happy person and an enjoyable person to be around while still being a lousy employee. You can also be someone who knows just the right thing to say in a given situation to get people excited, but then have no idea how to channel that excitement into something useful. So, it seems absurd to believe that over 85% of performance at the top of the organization is based on emotional intelligence. I guess knowing the business, having a clear strategy, and being competent only account for 15% of effective business leadership.

You can learn to better manage your own emotions. However, you are likely never going to take someone who lacks empathy for those around him and turn him into Mahatma Gandhi. Your best bet would be to focus on learning what strengths and weaknesses you actually possess in the workplace. These are learned by having difficult conversations with co-workers, supervisors, and subordinates, not by taking some test of emotional intelligence or reading a book on the subject. Then, you identify a strategy for leveraging what you do well and minimizing the negative effects of things you do poorly. In the end, if you want to spend your time trying to become Mr. or Mrs. Emotional Intelligence, go ahead. However, if you don’t already have it, you’ll never excel at it, and all you’ll become is someone whose weakness is NOT emotional intelligence, not someone whose strength IS emotional intelligence.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dr. Matt Grawitch published on April 13, 2009 11:39 AM.

A Tale of Two…Vending Machines? was the previous entry in this blog.

Volunteerism Has Its Perks is the next entry in this blog.

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