About emotional intelligence

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About emotional intelligenceWhen a management approach, a psychological concept or a way of thinking about observable phenomena appears in a journal, academics worldwide undertake projects to try to support or refute the claims made. If theories and ideas can’t be supported they wane, otherwise they persist. There are some famous theories that have long since been discarded (like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) and others that have persisted (like the general factor of intelligence ‘g’).

Some love it

Generally, thinking in academia and in our universities is about 30 years ahead of that espoused by management practitioners. This explains why Maslow is still taught by some as the main way of explaining motivation. From time to time ideas escape from academia and suddenly become fads in management. Emotional intelligence (EI) is one such fad. Some love it because, they claim, it explains much about behaviour. Others deride EI as neo-psycho-babble: something that sounds like it should be real, but in fact is not.

The fad of emotional intelligence has its roots in the late 90s in the work of three academics. Each defines EI differently. Summarising, EI is the ability to recognise and use profitably (in work situations) one’s own emotions and the emotions of others. Emotions here are what everyone commonly refers to: anger, sadness, shame, surprise and the like.

Claimed as a skill

Some people claim EI is a skill, considering it as part of a person’s competency. Conceptually therefore, in this scenario, it should be able to be learned. Others link it to leadership suggesting that those ‘high in EI’ will be better at solving problems, adapting their behaviour and managing chaotic situations.

But the weight of academic opinion is that EI is simply something already summed up in existing ideas of intelligence and personality. It’s considered to be something that comes with a person’s maturity and hence is part of crystallised intelligence. Alternatively, it’s a personality trait stemming from one’s genes and influenced by early upbringing. There’s no suggestion that someone who has ‘high EI’ will perform better than someone without. In any case, one would need to correlate performance, EI and the nature of the work done, since some jobs are high in emotional engagement and others not so.

Nothing unique

The root of the problem is that EI has no common definition, no agreed factors (that make up EI) and no agreed method of measurement. And if it can’t be measured, it’s difficult to support the claim that it exists as something unique. A further difficulty is that, as EI is defined, you have to be emotionally intelligent to be aware of your emotional intelligence. This compounds any measurement.

So what’s the truth?

Like much in organisational psychology and management science, there’s no ‘truth’. There are just studies that fail to support EI as a type of ‘intelligence’. Academics agree that there might be something in it but that a lot more research is needed – the 30 years are not up yet! And there remains a school of lay management practitioners that hail EI as a new, all-encompassing science to help managers manage their people.

Organisational psychology is the science behind the factors said to make up EI. As management consultants qualified in organisational psychology, TimelessTime recommends the following:

  • EI should not be used as a measure in personnel selection. Existing validated measures and tests covering intelligence and personality should be used. TimelessTime provides suitable tests and analysis. These contain empirically supported factors to measure the way in which people will behave in relationships, their empathy and their degree of self-control.
  • EI ‘measures’ should not be used as a predictor of performance in work situations. Studies suggest low predictive validity between those with ‘high EI’ (as defined by the three tools developed by the main workers in EI) and their work performance. There is no evidence that EI predicts performance, its constructs add nothing to existing measures and it’s open to faking.

Just intelligence and personality

Finally, there are many that offer training courses in EI, aiming to make staff more aware of their emotions and those of others. There is of course great value in staff and managers learning people skills, though whether such courses should be heralded under the EI banner is a debate. Training in people skills is long established and part of good management training.

One thing that academics are agreed on is that the application of emotion is better explored in a coaching environment with a trained professional, rather than in a classroom.

And the conclusion? So far there’s nothing to suggest that emotional intelligence is something unique, something that deserves a new name. It’s claimed factors are already part of established thinking and practice about intelligence and personality. Intelligence and personality are part of a family of personal characteristics that, when considered in the context of a job, drive behaviour.

EI is summed up as ‘old wine in new bottles’.

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