Sunday, March 15, 2020

Goleman - Emotional Intelligence – is it even a 'thing'?

The term ‘Emotional Intelligence’ goes back to a 1964 paper by Michael Beldoch and has more than a passing reference toGardner's Multiple Intelligences. But it was Daniel Goleman’s book of that same title that launched a training tsunami. Suddenly, a new set of skills could be used to deliver another batch of courses.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is seen by Goleman as a asset of competences that allow you to identify, assess, and control the emotions which you and others have.
Goleman identified five types of Emotional Intelligence: 
Self-awareness: Know your own emotions and be aware of their impact on others.
Self-regulation: Manage your own negative and disruptive emotions.
Social skill: Manage emotions of other people.
Empathy: Understand and take into account other people’s emotions.
Motivation: Motivate yourself.
For Golman, these emotional competencies can be learned. They are not entirely innate, but learned capabilities that must be worked on and can be developed to achieve outstanding performance. 
Criticism of EI and performance 
We now 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 are 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.
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.
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 moment’s 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. 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.

EI tests

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 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.
Tests often lie at the heart of these fads, as they can be sold, practitioners trained and the whole thing turned into pyramid selling. Practitioners, in this case are sometimes called ‘emotional experts’, 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.


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. This is not to say that ‘emotion’ has no role in competences or learning. Indeed, from Hume To Haidt, we have seen that reason is often the slave of the passions. Gardner’s mistake was to over-rationalise emotion.


Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.
Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.
Howe, M. J. A. (1999). Genius explained. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press.
Johnson, S. (2005). Everything bad is good for you. London: Allen Lane.

McCrae, R. R., & Costa, P. T. (2003). Personality in adulthood: A five-factor theory perspective. New York: Guilford Press.

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