Why EI just won't die

Can emotional intelligence really predict performance?

3 min read

It’s like a scene from one of the Terminator movies. It gets hit, shot, crushed, burnt, and generally blown to pieces, but it just keeps coming. We’re talking, of course, about Emotional Intelligence.

The idea of Emotional Intelligence (EI) came to the fore in the mid-1990s, when Daniel Goleman wrote his now-famous book on the importance of social emotional skills. Goleman made the claim that not only was EI an essential ability for leadership, but that it accounted for around 80 percent of the factors that determine whether leaders succeed.

Riding the coattails of the book, a number of assessment tools came along claiming to measure Emotional Intelligence and making this same claim—that they could account for 80 percent of the factors that determine success. This was a heck of a claim. To put it in context, prior to this, the best predictor of leadership success was thought to be intelligence, and that was only thought to be able at best to account for up to about 32 percent of the factors that determine success.

The last 20 years have witnessed masses of research into Emotional Intelligence, and several studies have found some strong links between Emotional Intelligence and performance in leadership roles. However, there have been just as many studies finding no such relationship, and when researchers have combined and considered all the evidence, they have found that measures of Emotional Intelligence actually have only a modest overall ability to predict success. Far from being able to account for 80 percent of the factors that determine success, it appears that—statistically, at least—they may well account for only about 2 to 3 percent of success factors, and certainly less than 10 percent.

Three Caveats

These overall findings tend to evoke a considerable amount of heat from supporters of EI, but unlike these supporters, the research statistics are coldly objective. They are what they are, and they show that the current measures of EI just don’t seem to be able to predict leadership success very well. However, there a couple of big caveats to this.

It does not mean that Emotional Intelligence is not important for leadership. It simply means that the current crop of measures is nowhere near as good as initially claimed. The cause of this mostly lies in the lack of understanding and agreement about what the critical aspects of emotional intelligence are—what it involves and includes. If this sounds strange, try this quick thought experiment: Think of an elephant. Easy, isn’t it? We all know what an elephant is. But now try describing an elephant to someone on the phone, in a way that enables them to accurately picture or draw one just by following your instructions. It’s surprisingly hard. And it’s a very similar problem that the developers of EI measures have. We all generally know what it is, but it’s surprisingly difficult to pin down and articulate in a small number of precise statements. New measures are appearing all the time and with them comes new hope that we finally may be able to capture what most people intuitively believe—that social emotional skills are important. Of course, given the lack of success of existing measures, we need to approach any such new measure with great caution. But the point is that just because measures can’t predict success today does not mean they never will.

It is possible we are aiming EI measures at the wrong targets: that they will never be effective predictors of overall performance, but that they may be able to predict more specific aspects of performance. In fact, most assessment measures tend to be able to predict specific aspects of performance better than they can predict overall performance. For example, there is evidence that the personality trait of conscientiousness is a better predictor of corporate citizenship than of overall performance. And this phenomenon seems just as true for EI measures as for any other assessment tool, with a good example being the research recently published showing that some aspects of EI appear to be able to predict success in negotiations.

So, where are we? EI won’t die because intuitively it feels right and reasonable that social emotional skills are important for success. But the actual measurement of EI has floundered, weighed down by both its initial claims and the inability of test developers to agree on what EI consists of and how to measure it. But we can’t write the measurement of EI off, and as studies continue to show, there is hope for it yet, especially in predicting specific elements of performance. So, for all our scepticism about so many of the EI tools currently out there, we can’t help but feel that just like Arnie’s Terminator, sooner or later, EI will be back.

© Nik Kinley, 2024

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