In the latest in my series on workplace myths, I’m turning my attention to emotional intelligence. There are numerous articles out there claiming that, not only is emotional intelligence important, but that, for career success, it’s more important than intelligence. But is it? Let’s go back to basics:
What is emotional intelligence?
Emotional intelligence is the ability to:
a) recognise and appropriately handle your own emotions and
b) tune into others’ emotions and respond with sensitivity.
These are clearly important attributes, but how do they compare with intelligence in predicting career success? To answer that, you’d have to be able to measure all three things and look at the relationship between them. Intelligence – or, more usually in a work setting, reasoning ability – is fairly easily measured. Career success is a bit harder to define but there are some things you could look at – level of seniority attained, financial or other results, 360 degree feedback. But how about emotional intelligence? Well this is where I have my first issue with the whole concept:
The measurement problem
Forgive me while I ride my hobby horse up and down the internet for a moment, but this has bugged me for years. Historically, there have been two types of work-based assessments:
- aptitude tests, where there is a right answer and you can’t fake it
- assessments of personality, motivation, values and so on, where there isn’t a right answer and the assessment relies on your self-reported answers.
You could fake a personality assessment (people do, sometimes there are measures built in to check) but there’s less incentive to do so because there isn’t a ‘right personality’.
EQ measures, which purport to measure emotional intelligence, seem to be trying to combine the two things. There is clearly a right answer – you probably want to present yourself as emotionally intelligent – and yet the answers are self-reported. It’s like trying to decide for yourself how intelligent you are. Even without faking, there is room for error. In my experience, people who are not very self-aware often seem to rate themselves quite highly, while those who are very self-aware can be self-critical and come out as having a lower EQ.
Without an accurate measure of EQ, I’m sceptical of research findings about it. And then there’s what we might call the baseline problem…
How much emotion do you have to deal with?
The extent to which people experience difficult emotions like frustration, anxiety, self-consciousness and hopelessness varies enormously. It’s one of the ‘Big 5’ factors of personality (rather starkly named ‘neuroticism’) and is determined by some combination of genetics, upbringing and life circumstances.
If you’re very lucky and had a secure start in life, you may not experience much emotional turmoil in your day-to-day life. If you’re unlucky and perhaps have a traumatic past, you may be hyper-vigilant, anxious and prone to mood swings a lot of the time. So who is more emotionally intelligent? The person with the sunny disposition who rarely experiences negative emotions or the highly reactive person, who has mostly learnt to cope with an onslaught of difficult feelings but still has the occasional wobble?
While it’s important for all of us to learn to handle our feelings, let’s not pretend that we all start from the same baseline.
What about intelligence?
People who are very attached to the idea that EQ trumps IQ seem to undervalue intelligence. This is a mistake. Intelligence is one of the biggest predictors of career success. One way of defining intelligence is the ability to make sense of increasingly complex information. In a work context, that may be technical complexity or strategic complexity (predicting industry trends, identifying long term threats and opportunities).
If the level of complexity inherent in a role exceeds someone’s ability to make sense of it, they will struggle. They may not recognise that they’re struggling – they might make poor decisions because they make wrong assumptions or over-simplify. On the other hand, they may be acutely aware of how hard they’re finding it and, perhaps, react emotionally.
It’s not either/or
In the EQ/IQ debate, it sometimes seems to be implied that you get one or the other. There’s a caricature of the highly intelligent person (often a man) who dwells resolutely, Spock-like in the land of logic, failing to understand emotion, their own or anyone else’s. Sure those people exist. But so do many, many emotionally sensitive, highly intelligent people. And, of course, there are plenty of people who aren’t very bright, jump to conclusions and react impulsively and inappropriately. If you want to see that in action, just watch people get furious on social media having got the wrong end of the stick about something.
So where does that leave the debate?
I’m not underestimating the importance of emotional intelligence. I think that understanding and regulating your own emotions is one of the most important life skills, for your overall sanity and happiness, not just for career success. Empathy and emotional sensitivity to others makes you easier to live with and work with. You are also likely to be more influential if you understand how to win hearts as well as minds. (Be aware that there is a dark side to this – psychopaths know how to switch on emotional sensitivity when it’s useful to them).
In terms of career success, if you’re in a role where you can handle the level of complexity involved, then emotional intelligence is likely to play a decisive role in how successful you are – along with other non-IQ factors, such as your level of self-discipline. But if you’re totally out of your depth, your intellectual shortcomings are likely to be the thing that determines your success – or lack of it.
So does EQ trump IQ? As with many things in life, it depends. Don’t fall into the trap of over-simplifying it. If you’d to discuss the implications of that in your organisation, I’d be happy to have a chat: firstname.lastname@example.org