Can you, should you, use EI as a tool?

To say that there is confusion and controversy about Emotional Intelligence and its uses, is to put it mildly.

On the one hand its supporters claim that it is the greatest and most important breakthrough for HR managers and business in recent memory. On the other hand, psychologists say that while it is intriguing, it is unproven, untested and in danger of becoming a fad. What is the truth? What should HR professionals know and what should they do about it?

What is EI?

First of all, there is really nothing new about EI. It has its roots in the concept of social intelligence — something that E. L. Thorndike studied in the 1920s. He defined social intelligence as the ability to understand and relate to people, the ability to manage people and act wisely in human relations. He felt that it is was simply another aspect of general intelligence.

For years, psychologists have agreed that social intelligence involved the ability to understand other people, what motivates them and how to work co-operatively with them. These kinds of persons were well-balanced, introspective people who were interested in other people and social relationships and were particularly good at forming accurate opinions of themselves. Studies showed that successful salespeople, teachers, religious leaders and good people managers all had high levels of interpersonal social intelligence.

None of this is surprising and if you think that this simply sounds like common sense, you are right. These ideas have been around for a long time. In fact, they formed the basis for one of the first popular approaches to people management, Dale Carneghi’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People.

What is new, is the appearance of EI as something that is not only different, but something that can be used as a tool to accurately identify people who will be successful in a variety of endeavours.

Definitions of EI seem to be somewhat varied but in essence, they say that EI is a type of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor your own and other peoples’ emotions and the ability to use this information to guide your thinking and actions. It is generally agreed that EI involves the capacity to deal with emotion by perceiving it in other people, to understand your and other peoples’ emotions, to manage your emotions and to integrate all of this into your actions and behaviours.

If you are having trouble differentiating EI from social intelligence, you are not alone. The difference lies in the way that EI has been expanded and stretched by popular authors to include a host of personality characteristics such as empathy, motivation, warmth, achievement drive, social skills, influence, leadership, optimism etc. These variables have been around for a long time too, and are clearly valuable traits for anyone, especially a person in a leadership position. But other than muddying the waters, this has little to do with the controversy and confusion about EI.

The roots of the controversy

Much of the difficulty lies in the fact that we have no reliable way to measure EI nor to prove or disprove the claims that are being made about its value and uses. Even Daniel Goleman, who was the first to popularize EI, says that there is not and may never be a valid or reliable way to measure EI. There are a number of instruments available that purport to measure EI, but most of them are fun sites on the Internet or appear in the popular magazines such as Time. A few test developers have created EI tests, but they are cautious about how they can and should be used.

The claims about the value of EI are another matter. Time magazine says that it “may be the best predictor of success in life.” According to Goleman, in his book Emotional Intelligence, EI is “as powerful, and at times more powerful, than IQ.” He goes on to say that it provides an advantage in any domain of life and that people with a high EI excel in life, even more so than people with high IQs. Furthermore, Goleman and others claim that not only do leaders and everyone in people-oriented jobs need high levels of EI, but that unlike IQ, it can be taught and learned. As a result, companies are testing for EI, making selection and promotion decisions based on the results and mounting courses to teach people how to improve their EI scores. This has been fuelled by consultants and organizations that have rushed to create programs to satisfy the demand. One firm offers a course that will certify participants who want to build EI. Another offers a 21-day program to effect EI behaviour change and there is even a curriculum of 54 lessons on EI.

Nevertheless, there is something intuitively attractive about the idea that warm, empathic people finish first and that there is something else other than IQ that contributes to one’s success. What makes it even more attractive is the claim that unlike IQ, you can learn to improve your EI scores. Who knows, they may be right. Studies have long shown that while general intelligence (IQ) does predict academic and occupational success, it only accounts for about 20 per cent of personal variation in these areas. Researchers have yet to completely understand exactly what accounts for the other 80 per cent of success in these areas of life. There is no doubt that understanding your own emotions, other peoples’ emotions and how to handle them is very important, so we must be careful not to dismiss EI completely. But there is reason to be suspicious about the claims that it is the best thing since sliced bread.

Some of the claims are wishful thinking and some are just plain silly. Most problems have to do with what researchers have decided to include as aspects of EI. One study of 300 executives concluded that the star performers had higher EI scores. But when you look at what they included as emotional competencies, you find that it included influence, team leadership, organizational awareness, self-confidence, achievement drive and leadership. These are important factors, but are they aspects of emotional intelligence? Another study reported that the primary cause of poor executive performance involved deficiencies in emotional competence. While this sounds reasonable, they went on to state that the three primary emotional intelligence factors involved were difficulty in handling change, the inability to work in a team and poor interpersonal relations. Just how these things relate to EI is open to question.

What should the HR professional do?

Even though there is some confusion about just what EI is, how to measure it or how to use it, HR professionals are being deluged with instruments, programs and claims about its utility. Goleman himself is partnering with a major consulting firm to develop a 360 degree feedback tool. However it is intended for use as a personal and career development tool, not as a pre-selection instrument.

At the end of the day, HR professionals wanting to screen new hires, measure leadership potential or determine readiness for promotion ought to rely on the proven, reliable and validated assessment instruments that are already available. If you want to measure managerial ability, use an instrument that has been designed to do the job and that has a track record to prove its worth.

Don’t use an EI test and make the mistake of thinking that it will do something it was never designed to do. Given the lack of sound research into EI, it would be dangerous to integrate EI measures into any staffing practices.

John Towler is a professor of psychology with the University of Waterloo in Ontario. He is a senior partner with Waterloo-based management consulting firm Creative Organizational Design. He may be reached at [email protected].

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