It’s not a new term, but it’s become a definite aspect of the HR zeitgeist in the past few years: Emotional Intelligence (EI).
As hiring managers strive to streamline hiring practices and improve employee retention in an ever-more-competitive business environment, they are looking beyond resumes, past experience and academic records to try to achieve an optimal formula for employee success.
Many HR professionals and hiring consultants are relying increasingly on EI, or a potential hire’s Emotional Quotient (EQ), to assess a candidate’s potential for success. Like other metrics, EI has its proponents and detractors. Increasingly, even its biggest fans are suggesting it’s not a substitute for more traditional measures of success, but at best an additional factor to consider in attaining a well-rounded, educated opinion of what an employee’s boss may expect him or her to achieve over time.
The publication Psychology Todaydefines EI as “…the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others,” along with three typically accompanying characteristics. A recent post from SHRM narrows the definition a bit: “…the ability to understand your own feelings and to empathize with other people” – which seems to be the thumbnail description used by many hiring managers.
Nature or Nurture?
The author of the SHRM blog, Thomas Arnold, while acknowledging that contemporary hiring managers are wise to look beyond a job candidate’s technical or practical skills, cites differences of opinion among consultants and HR professionals over whether EI can be learned or honed; or whether it’s merely part of an individual’s innate emotional make-up.
While there can be little doubt that people who possess greater self-knowledge and compassion for others may lead more contented lives than those who don’t, does that make them more successful at their jobs? Arnold argues that such individuals function better in every aspect of their lives, citing a study of doctorate-degree holders at the University of California, Berkeley that was conducted over some four decades, which “…found that a person’s EI was four times more likely than their Intelligent Quotient (IQ) to predict who would achieve success in their field of work.”
Other experts quoted in the piece hold that EI can be a useful tool in evaluating a candidate for hire or promotion, but only after intelligence and technical skills are evaluated. Further, pinpointing a person’s EI may be more art than science, and not easy for a hiring manager or HR representative to discern during an interview. There are established tests for objectively evaluating EI capabilities, including one developed by psychologist John Mayer, Yale University researcher David Caruso and Yale president Peter Salovey, known as the Mayer, Salovey, Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test, or MSCEIT.
Mayer, who was one of the researchers credited with coining the term “emotional intelligence” back in 1990, feels that, because EI is expressed differently by different personalities, “…only ability-based tests are reliable [for determining it]…” but that such tests are only useful when there’s evidence that EI is important for job performance in specific instances.
Not a Predictor of Leadership Performance or Business Success
The author of an article in Entrepreneur from 2014 takes a somewhat more cynical and opposing point of view. Steve Tobak, the author, is a management consultant and frequent commentator on HR- and business-related topics.
In the piece, he argues that EI is more hype and a fad than substance. He says it can be used to manipulate the behavior of others: “What if I said that emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize, understand and control emotions – not just our own but the emotions of others, as well?”
As evidence, he quotes a University of Pennsylvania/Wharton School professor who holds that individuals who are good at controlling their emotions are adept at disguising their true feelings; and that “…leaders with selfish motives can use their mastery of emotion as weapons for manipulating others.”
Tobak goes on to relate how he once took a professional EQ test designed to prevent test-takers from manipulating the outcome, but that he was able to do just that and “game” the results. He feels that such exercises are really “self-tests based on self-perception,” and hence indicate nothing useful to hiring managers or HR personnel.
Tobak also attempts to debunk the myth that CEOs and business leaders with high EQs tend to be more successful than ordinary professionals. He argues, perhaps with some merit, that attributing high levels of EQ to people like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg would be a stretch. And executives who do exhibit higher-than-normal levels of EQ (e.g., Tony Hsieh or Richard Branson) may also possess other qualities that distinguish them as entrepreneurs and successful business people.