Despite its popularity, emotional intelligence has remained controversial, in terms of the validity of the construct itself and the claims made for strong links to effective leadership. Martyn Newman, Managing Director at RocheMartin explores why EI has been the cause of concern.
Interest in emotional intelligence (EI) has continued to grow over the last few years with EI establishing itself as a viable and important idea in psychology and in business. The continued growth of EI in the business context has been driven by claims that EI can predict workplace performance and especially leadership performance. This has stimulated interest among HR professionals who have considered EI as a tool for selection and training, with a number of studies finding a meaningful relationship between EI and job performance and a range of leadership roles. However, despite its popularity, EI has had its controversy in terms of the validity of the construct itself and the claims made for strong links to effective leadership. Three questions have concerned researchers and HR professionals. The first concerns the number of definitions of EI and the sheer variety of models. The second is about how appropriate the current psychometric scales are for measuring EI in the workplace and the third question relates to the strength of research linking EI to leadership performance.
The historical roots of EI can be traced back to the work of Edward Thorndike (1920) on social intelligence, the idea that people with the knack for managing interpersonal relationships achieve more and, more recently, to Harvard professor Howard Gardener (1983) with his theory of ‘multiple intelligences. Gardner challenged the narrow view of intelligence that had come to dominate education and argued that intelligence is multifaceted, rich, complex and highly diverse. Apart from being encouraging for all of us who don’t have a high enough IQ to qualify for membership of Mensa, Gardner opened up an exciting discussion on the range of capabilities that in addition to IQ we use to solve problems and create products. The first specific model of EI to be developed, however, was based on the work of Peter Salovey and John Mayer (1990) who viewed EI as an aspect of social intelligence and put forward a theory framed within a more traditional model of intelligence. In their view, these abilities are best measured through performance tests similar to how we measure IQ. But, of course, it was the publication in 1995 of Daniel Goleman’s book ‘Emotional Intelligence’ that drove widespread popular interest in EI. The subtitle, ‘Why It Can Matter More Than IQ’, contributed to its broad appeal by challenging the prevailing orthodoxy that IQ determined a person’s productive capacity.
Together with his colleague Richard Boyatis, Goleman went on to develop what he described as a ‘mixed model’ of EI designed to encompass the social and emotional competencies linked to workplace performance. Goleman argued in his article What makes a Leader?, first published by the Harvard Business Review – that it was these competencies that separated the most effective leaders from the rest. Following Goleman’s work, Reuven Bar-On placed EI within the context of personality theory as a model of wellbeing comprised of a mixture of both traits and skills. This model emphasised that EI was linked to mental health and therefore a core condition of optimum human performance. Although there have been various additional measures and models developed, these three models have dominated EI research and application over the last decade. Today most serious researchers argue that EI should be distinguished according to two discrete models: (a) an ‘ability-based’ model that proposes that EI is a type of intelligence or inherent aptitude and therefore should overlap with cognitive ability, or (b) a mixed (traits with abilities) model that includes a combination of intellect and various measures of personality and emotional and social competences (ESC) that can be learned. A major advantage of the broader competency based models is that they consolidate many emotional and social abilities that are important for personal and professional success into a single framework. But, the really exciting news is that there is a growing body or research that has linked ESC to success in the workplace.As recently as 2010, prominent researcher, Janaki Gooty, and her colleagues, after reviewing publications on EI and leadership theory, concluded that the psychometric measurement of the emotional competencies related to leadership still needed to be improved and new psychometric scales designed for measuring them needed to be developed. I first raised this challenge in my book Emotional Capitalists The New Leaders.
My colleagues and I faced up to the need to refine a new model of EI appropriate to leadership in the workplace. Following an extensive review of the research on the relationship between several mixed EI models and leadership over a ten year period, we identified ten social and emotional competencies that were linked to effective leadership behaviour. We described this model of EI as ‘emotional capital’ because it focussed sharply on the value that these competencies add to driving success in business. Research in applied business settings using the emotional capital model culminated in the publication in 2008 of a psychometric scale specifically designed to measure EI and leadership, the Emotional Capital Report (ECR).
Initial analysis was based on more than 117 published studies over a decade that, to some degree, had linked EI to leadership performance. Its own data drawn from nearly 4,000 professional people across six global regions provided excellent support for the scientific validity and reliability of the ECR. Equipped with this latest technology, backed by good science, we launched a five-year global investigation into EI and leadership. The study involved 6,874 professional people (4,220 males; 2,654 females) from eleven countries or global regions who used the ECR in various leadership development programmes initiated by their respective organisations. They consisted of business, (6,228 or 90.6 percent), educational (359 or 5.2 percent) and medical professionals. First, the group was separated according to those roles that involved high emotional labour and those that didn’t. High emotional labour jobs are those where the expression of positive emotion is an important part of the job; such as marketing and sales, recruitment, management consulting, human resources and, of course, any role involving leadership. We were particularly interested in this because a good number of researchers have made explicit linkages between the idea of high emotional labour and leadership.
ECR scores of participants with high emotional labour jobs, were consistently higher than those for low emotional labour jobs; and also higher than the normative mean on all ECR scales. This data supports the conclusion that high EI is particularly important for jobs involving high emotional labour to be successful. Secondly, to compare the relative performance of individuals, recognised for their outstanding leadership ability, from those with more general management and leadership abilities, four leadership groups were identified who had completed the ECR. These groups involved individuals from elite business and community groups – such as Leadership Victoria, an Australian body representing a broad range of corporate, government and non-profit organisations and identified as exemplary leaders in their field – including the finance, pharmaceutical and healthcare industries and principals from higher education establishments specifically identified by their peers as high performing leaders in their respective fields.
When we compared the relative performance of leaders on the ECR with the ECR normative group, all four leadership groups scored higher than the normative mean on all ECR scales. In particular, when combined scores from the four groups were averaged, these leaders not only scored higher on all ECR competencies, but scored almost one standard deviation above the mean on total emotional capital and the three competency scales of self-reliance, optimism and adaptability. The conclusion is compelling and supports Goleman’s original claim, that high EI separates high performing leaders from the rest. Firstly, when considering implementing EI in selection and training programmes should understand the distinction between tools that measure EI as inherent abilities and those that measure EI as a set of trainable social and emotional competencies. In RocheMartin’s experience, the latter approach is more useful for developing leaders, as it emphasises development; not just measurement. For example, helping an executive become more adept at relationship skills for managing diverse stakeholders, or developing resilience through understanding the building blocks of self-control and adaptability, is more useful than ability-based tools that measure an individual’s ability to identify the emotional tone in abstract puzzles.
In terms of the psychometric measurement of EI, tools like the ECR have a proven utility as being highly effective at identifying the ten emotional and social skills associated with professional roles involving high emotional labour. Finally, despite some academic scepticism, the data from a five year global study provides compelling evidence that EI remains an important construct in developing leaders and tools like the ECR are likely to be strong predictors of leadership performance. He is the author of the international best selling book, Emotional Capitalists – The New Leaders and co-author of the Emotional Capital Report (ECR).