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Emotional Intelligence (EI) in the Workplace


The term Emotional Intelligence first appeared in a series of academic articles authored by John D. Mayer and Peter Salovey (1990, 1993). These publications generated little attention. Two years later, the term emotional intelligence entered the mainstream with Daniel Goleman’s 1995 best-seller Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ and subsequent articles in USA Weekend and Time Magazine (October 2, 1995). More recently, Goleman’s latest book, working with Emotional Intelligence (1998), has caught the attention of human resource practitioners. 

What is Emotional Intelligence? 

The concept of emotional intelligence is an umbrella term that captures a broad collection of individual skills and dispositions, usually referred to as soft skills or inter and intra-personal skills, that are outside the traditional areas of specific knowledge, general intelligence, and technical or professional skills. Most of the authors on the topic note that in order to be a well adjusted, fully functioning member of society (or family member, spouse, employee, etc.), and one must possess both traditional intelligence (IQ) and emotional intelligence (dubbed EQ). Emotional intelligence involves being aware of emotions and how they can affect and interact with traditional intelligence (e.g., impair or enhance judgment, etc.). This view fits well with the commonly held notion that it takes more than just brains to succeed in life – one must also be able to develop and maintain healthy interpersonal relationships. Taken from this perspective, emotional intelligence is nothing new. 

Emotional Intelligence at Work 

In Working with Emotional Intelligence, Goleman applies the emotional intelligence concept to the workplace setting. In this analysis, he argues that the emotionally intelligent worker is skilled in two key areas he presents in his emotional competence framework. These are “personal competence” – how we manage ourselves, and “social competence” – how we manage relationships. Each broad area consists of number specific competencies, as outlined in the table below. Examples and the complete model (including sub-competencies) are available in Goleman’s book or at the web-site for the Emotional Intelligence Research Consortium, founded by Goleman. 

Personal Competence

Social Competence

Self Awareness: (of internal states, preferences, resources, and intuitions)

Self Regulation: (of internal states, impulses, and resources)

Motivation: (tendencies that facilitate reaching goals)

Empathy: (awareness of others feelings, needs, and concerns)

Social Skills: (adept at inducing desirable responses in others)


Analysis of the Situation 

Is emotional intelligence as important as claimed? Can the concept be successfully applied to human resource management issues? Many popular press articles juxtapose emotional intelligence with traditional intelligence by making claims — usually attributed to Goleman or others — such as the following:

“…success at work is 80% dependent on emotional intelligence and only 20% dependent on IQ,” HR magazine, November 1997.  

According to Goleman:

“At best IQ contributes about 20% to the factors that determine life success, which leaves 80% to other forces…No one can yet say exactly how much of the variability from person to person in life’s course it accounts for. But what data exist suggest it can be as powerful, and at times more powerful, than IQ.” 

In the promotional materials for their own emotional intelligence test, the originators of the concept, Mayer and Salovey, provide the following clarification regarding the role of emotional intelligence: 

“In some ways, interest in Emotional Intelligence has been due in part to a backlash against claims that general intelligence – IQ – is the key to success. We know that IQ does predict academic achievement and occupational status, but it still only predicts about 20% of personal variation in these areas. Psychologists have yet to understand what predicts the other 80% of success in these areas of life. We believe that Emotional Intelligence is one of the abilities which are related to life success, but we are as yet unable to determine just how important Emotional Intelligence is. 

So, where does Emotional Intelligence fit in? Despite popular reports to the contrary, there are few relevant studies on the matter to date. Our best guess is that Emotional Intelligence will make a unique contribution in the 5% to 10% range. It makes sense that Emotional Intelligence plays a role in our friendships, parenting, and intimate relationships. Our research, to date, is just beginning to examine these issues in depth.”  

Measuring Emotional Intelligence

In his 1995 book Goleman states that there may never be a valid or reliable measure of EI. To validate such an instrument would be a very difficult task given that emotional intelligence is more or less an umbrella concept. However, Goleman, in partnership with the Hay Group consultancy, is in the process of developing a 360 feedback tool to assess the components of EI that apply to the workplace, based on the emotional competencies outlined above.  This tool is intended primarily for use in career and personal development, rather than in employee selection. Several other instruments have appeared claiming to provide a measure of EI (the Bar-On EQ-i, Mayer and Salovey’s Emotional IQ test, Essi Systems EQ-Map), and claiming to be appropriate for employee selection. 

The jury is still out on these tools and others. It is important to note that, there is little validation research available for these instruments. Therefore, claims of utility in the organizational context (from staffing to counseling to downsizing applications) should be viewed with some caution. There is, however, an opportunity and need for research evaluating these instruments with respect to their applicability to the public sector context. It is encouraging that the Emotional Intelligence Consortium, lead by Goleman, is taking steps to address some of the more fundamental research questions surrounding emotional intelligence. The concept may well prove useful in helping to further understand and identify the personal, non-cognitive qualities that will be required of public sector leaders in the future. Additionally, it is also possible that Emotional Intelligence, once better understood, will show a relationship to more generally accepted measures of personality. Indeed, EI may turn out to be a subset of personality that can be assessed by instruments that have already been well validated. 

Overall Evaluation

At present, there is little in the way of published, fundamental research that examines either emotional intelligence or its measurement. However, this is a very interesting and potentially powerful area that bears watching. The emotional intelligence movement has some of the earmarks of a fad and is not without controversy. The popular press, if it is any indicator of professional sentiment, suggests that the HR community is generally supportive of the EI concept while the training community is quite skeptical. Personnel psychologists seem mildly curious in EI, noting that the idea is not particularly new. The following quotes from recent articles demonstrate the views of those on both sides of the interest in this topic.

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