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Point/Counterpoint Is Emotional Intelligence a Good Measure of Leadership Ability?

Two experts debate the issue.

HR Magazine November 2015Emotions are the primary driver of our behavior.

When emotional intelligence first gained attention in the 1990s, it helped explain a curious finding: People with average IQs outperform those with the highest IQs 70 percent of the time.

This ran counter to what many people always assumed was the sole source of success—IQ.

Research now points to emotional intelligence—the ability to identify and manage your emotions—as the critical factor that sets star performers apart from the rest of the pack.

It’s a powerful measure of leadership performance because emotions are the primary driver of our behavior.

The average person has more than 400 emotional experiences every day. The problem is that our brains are hard-wired to give emotions the upper hand over logic and rational thought. Our instinctual emotional reactivity can serve us well in extreme or dangerous situations—such as when a tiger jumps out from behind the bushes—but not so much when someone blurts out something we don’t like during an important meeting.

Leaders who master their emotions get the best results. Why?

Because they can channel their emotional energy into producing the behavior they want and because they set a positive tone that trickles down through the organization.

It’s no wonder that research we’ve conducted with more than a million people shows that 90 percent of top-performing leaders have high emotional intelligence.

Moreover, skills related to emotional intelligence account for a full 58 percent of a leader’s job performance.

But what about those who weren’t blessed with high emotional intelligence? The good news is that anyone can improve with effort and a little insight.

As leaders practice managing their feelings, billions of microscopic neurons lining the pathways between the rational and emotional centers of their brains grow small “arms” to connect and communicate with each other. (A single cell can grow 15,000 new connections!)

This chain reaction improves communication between the sources of your feelings and reason, which in turn produces new behavior.

Before long, leaders begin responding with emotional intelligence without even thinking about it.

After leaders at a large U.S. nonprofit health system went through emotional intelligence training, they were 93 percent more capable of handling conflict successfully, 57 percent more able to navigate change, and 54 percent more likely to be able to communicate clearly and effectively.

What’s interesting about these statistics is that none of the leaders were trained to perform any new on-the-job behaviors.

The simple process of learning how to better understand and respond to emotions (in yourself and others) is all it takes for leaders to improve a host of behaviors that are critical to their performance.

Travis Bradberry is president of TalentSmart, which provides emotional intelligence tests and training, and author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0 (TalentSmart, 2009).

The scientific evidence isn’t there.

How could I defend this position in the face of conventional wisdom that emotional intelligence is a key to personal and professional success? All too often we have heard a story that goes like this:

“Having a high IQ—the academic sort—may land you the position, but it’s not enough to ensure success. Research shows that what differentiates the best from the mediocre is emotional intelligence. Fortunately, we can reliably measure emotional intelligence and help you develop it.”

This sales pitch is usually given by vendors looking to sell their unique test for measuring emotional intelligence and is supplemented with client testimonials about how selecting leaders based on emotional intelligence—or training them to cultivate it—has made a difference for them.

The question is: Does the evidence stack up?

Actually, the science is not clear about what emotional intelligence actually means and whether it is a valid concept. Is it an ability, akin to IQ, but focused on emotions? Is it a personality trait, capturing stable patterns of attitudes and behavior? Or is it best seen as a “mixed” approach—a hodgepodge of abilities, skills, traits, attitudes, self-motivation and so forth?

There is some agreement in the academic literature that emotional intelligence should be measured as an ability, using “objective” tests such as those used to measure IQ as opposed to using self-reporting evaluations that can be easily manipulated. Self-reporting evaluations of traits overlap with standard personality inventories.

The mixed approach, which is what consultants selling proprietary measures typically embrace, measures everything and, in the end, nothing at all. The specifics are known only by the companies trying to sell them.

One large-scale statistical analysis of numerous other studies, called a meta-analysis, found no relation between emotional intelligence and job performance after controlling for IQ, personality and self-efficacy. That analysis by Dana Joseph, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Central Florida, and colleagues was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in March 2015. Another meta-analysis found that emotional intelligence doesn’t predict leadership ability. That was the conclusion reached by Peter D. Harms, an assistant professor of management at the University of Alabama, and Marcus Credé, an assistant professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Albany.

HR practitioners should choose sound measures for selecting their leaders. That is the economical and ethical thing to do. But they cannot rely on those who sell products—and who have clear conflicts of interest—to also report on the apparent validity of their exclusive data. Such claims are credible only if the academic community has scrutinized them. At this time, and after lots of robust research, the best predictors of leadership and performance are still good old IQ and personality.

John Antonakis is professor of organizational behavior at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, and associate editor of The Leadership Quarterly.


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