Is there anything new about emotional intelligence?

In some ways, emotional intelligence really is not new. In fact, it is based on a long history of research and theory in personality and social, as well as I/O, psychology.

Emotional Intelligence: What it is and Why it Matters.


Ever since the publication of Daniel Golemanís first book on the topic in 1995, emotional intelligence has become one of the hottest buzzwords in the corporate world. For instance, when the Harvard Business Review published an article on the topic it attracted a higher percentage of readers than any other article published in that periodical in the last 40 years. When the CEO of Johnson & Johnson read that article, he was so impressed that he had copies sent out to the 400 top executives in the company worldwide.

Given that emotional intelligence is so popular in corporate America, and given that the concept is a psychological one, it is important for I/O psychologists to understand what it really means and to be aware of the research and theory on which it is based. So,to briefly lay out the history of the concept as an area of research and describe how it has come to be defined and measured. I also will refer to some of the research linking emotional intelligence with important work-related outcomes such as individual performance and organisational productivity.

Now it would be absurd to suggest that cognitive ability is irrelevant for success in science. One needs a relatively high level of such ability merely to get admitted to a graduate science program at a school like Berkeley. Once you are admitted, however, what matters in terms of how you do compared to your peers has less to do with IQ differences and more to do with social and emotional factors.

 To put it another way, if you’re a scientist, you probably needed an IQ of 120 or so simply to get a doctorate and a job. But then it is more important to be able to persist in the face of difficulty and to get along well with colleagues and subordinates than it is to have an extra 10 or 15 points of IQ. The same is true in many other occupations.

We also should keep in mind that cognitive and non-cognitive abilities are very much related. In fact, there is research suggesting that emotional and social skills actually help improve cognitive functioning. For instance, in the famous marshmallow studies  at Stanford University, four year olds were asked to stay in a room alone with a marshmallow and wait for a researcher to return. They were told that if they could wait until the researcher came back before eating the marshmallow, they could have two. Ten years later the researchers tracked down the kids who participated in the study. They found that the kids who were able to resist temptation had a total SAT score that was 210 points higher than those kids who were unable to wait (Shoda, Mischel, & Peake, 1990).

Granted that cognitive ability seems to play a rather limited role in accounting for why some people are more successful than others, what is the evidence that emotional and social factors are important? In doing the research for his first book, Goleman (1995) became familiar with a wealth of research pointing to the importance of social and emotional abilities for personal success. 

Some of this research came from personality and social psychology, and some came from the burgeoning field of neuropsychology. 

 Let me, however, give you a few examples that deal specifically with the role that non-cognitive abilities play in success at work.

The Value of Emotional Intelligence at Work

Emotional intelligence has as much to do with knowing when and how to express
emotion as it does with controlling it. For instance, consider an experiment that was done at Yale University by Sigdal Barsade (1998; 1998). He had a group of volunteers play the role of managers who come together in a group to allocate bonuses to their subordinates. A trained actor was planted among them. The actor always spoke first. 

In some groups the actor projected cheerful enthusiasm, in others relaxed warmth, in others depressed sluggishness, and in still others hostile irritability. The results indicated that the actor was able to infect the group with his emotion, and good feelings led to improved cooperation, fairness, and overall group performance. In fact, objective measures indicated that the cheerful groups were better able to distribute the money fairly and in a way that helped the organisation. Similar findings come from the field. Bachman (1988) found that the most effective leaders in the US Navy were warmer, more outgoing, emotionally expressive, dramatic, and sociable.

One more example. Empathy is a particularly important aspect of emotional intelligence, and researchers have known for years that it contributes to occupational success. Rosenthal and his colleagues at Harvard discovered over two decades ago that people who were best at identifying other emotions were more successful in their work as well as in their social lives (Rosenthal, 1977). 

More recently, a survey of retail sales buyers found that apparel sales reps were valued primarily for their empathy. The buyers reported that they wanted reps who could listen well and really understand what they wanted and what their concerns were (Pilling & Eroglu, 1994).

Ethical business and socially responsible leadership are strongly connected to EQ.

So is the concept of love and spirituality in organisations. Compassion and humanity are fundamental life-forces; our Emotional Intelligence enables us to appreciate and develop these vital connections between self, others, purpose, meaning, existence, life and the world as a whole, and to help others do the same.

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