Thursday, December 22, 2016

Emotional Intelligence - don't waste your time - it's not a 'thing'

The L&D search for fads is always in search of bendwagons to jump on - long after they have left town. So imagine their joy, in 1995, when ‘Emotional Intelligence’ hit HR with Daniel Goleman’s book ‘Emotional Intelligence’. (The term actual goes back to a 1964 paper by Michael Beldoch and has more than a passing reference to Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences.) Suddenly, a new set of skills could be used to deliver another batch of ill-conceived courses, built on the back of no research whatsoever. But who needs research when you have a snappy course title?
EI and performance 
At last we have some good research on the subject which shows that the basic concept is flawed, that having EI is less of an advantage than you think. Joseph et al. (2015) published a meta-analysis of 15 carefully selected studies, easily the best summary of the evidence so far. What they found was a weak correlation (0.29) with job performance. Note that 0.4 is often taken as a reasonable benchmark for evidence of a strong correlation. To put this into plain English, it means that EI has a predictive power on performance of only 8.4%. Put another way, if you’re spending a lot of training effort and dollars on this, it is largely wasted. The clever thing about the Joseph paper was their careful focus on actual job performance, as opposed to academic tests and assessments. They cut out the crap, giving it evidential punch.
EI is a bait and switch
What became obvious as they looked at the training and tools, was that there was a bait and switch going on. EI was not a thing-in-itself but an amalgam of other things, especially good-old personality measures. When they unpacked six EI tests, they found that many of the measures were actually personality measures, such as conscientiousness, industriousness and self-control. These had been stolen from other personality tests. So, they did a clever thing and ran the analysis again, this time with controls for established personality measures. This is where things got really interesting. The correlation between EI and job performance dropped to a shocking -0.2.
Weasel word ‘emotional’
Like many fads in HR, an intuitive error lies at the heart of the fad. It just seems intuitively true that people with emotional sensibility should be better performers but a moments thought will make you realize that many forms of performance may rely on many other cognitive traits and competences. In our therapeutic age, it is all too easy to attribute positive qualities to the word ‘emotional’ without really examining what that means in practice. HR is a people profession, people who genuinely care, but when they bring their biases to bear on performance, as with many other fads, such as learning styles, Maslow, Myers-Briggs, NLP and mindfulness, emotion tends to trump reason. When it is examined in detail EI, like these other fads, falls apart.
Weasel word ‘intelligence’
I have written extensively about the danger in using the word ‘intelligence’, for example, in artificial intelligence. The danger with ‘emotional intelligence’ is that a dodgy adjective pushes forward an even dodgier noun. Give emotion the status of ‘intelligence’ and you give it a false sense of its own importance. Is it a fixed trait, stable over time, that can be taught and learned? Eysenck, the doyen of intelligence theorists, dismissed Goleman’s definition of ‘intelligence’ and thought his claims were unsubstantiated. In truth the use of the word is misleading.
Bogus tests
Worse still, EI has some tests that are shockingly awful. Tests often lie at the heart of these fads, as they can be sold, practitioners trained and the whole thing turned into pyramid selling - a Ponzi scheme. Practitioners, in this case are sometimes called ‘emotional experts’ (I kid ye not), who administer and assess EI tests. However, the main test, the MSCEIT, is problematic. First, the company administering the tests (Multi-Health systems) was found by Føllesdal to be peddling a pig with lipstick. To be precise, 19 of the 141 questions were actually being scored wrongly. They quietly dropped the scoring on these questions, while keeping them in the test. Reputations had to be maintained. More fundamentally, the test is weak, as there are no correct answers, so it is not anchored in any objective standard. As a consensus scored test, it has all the haziness of a drifting, shape-shifting cloud.
EI and leadership
Goleman’s outrageous claims, that general EI was twice as useful as either technical knowledge, or general personality traits, has been dismissed as nonsense, as is his claim that it accounts for 67% of superior, leadership performance. This undermines lots of Leadership training, as EI is often used as a major plank in its theoretical framework and courses. Føllesdal (2013) looked at test results (MSCEIT) of 111 business leaders and compared these with the views of those same leaders by their employees. Guess what – there was no correlation.
The whole sorry affair has all the hallmarks of other HR fads – the inevitable popular book, paucity of research, exaggerated claims, misleading language, the test, ignoring research that shows it is largely a waste of training time. Don’t waste your time and money on this. There are far better ways to assess and train employees if performance is your goal.
For other Ponzi scheme fads see here.


Ian G said...

Excellent piece and would agree that HR has a serious problem with wanting to test and label people.

However, I would say that EI components are a useful way to have people consider their behaviors and values ("the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one's emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically").

I would never advocate that EI is a measure, but EI as a way to make people think about themselves and their approach to team working, line management, etc can be useful.

Fred Nickols said...

Who is Daniel Goldman? Did you mean Daniel Goleman? Typos like that don't help the credibility of your critique.

Donald Clark said...

Hi Fred Your comment showa a stunning need for some emotional intelligence! I'd buy the book if I were you. ;)

Charlotte said...

A refreshing perspective - thanks for the read :)