Emotional Intelligence Is Overrated
The evidence shows cognitive ability matters more for job performance.
Posted Oct 01, 2014
Not long ago, the CEO of a sales company mentioned that he was spending millions of dollars to train his employees in emotional intelligence. He asked if it was possible to assess emotional intelligence during the interview process, which would allow him to hire salespeople who already excelled in this area.
I said yes, it can be done—but I wouldn’t recommend doing it.
Warning: if you’re a devoted member of an emotional intelligence cult, you may have a strong negative reaction to the data in this post. In case that happens, I’ve offered some guidance at the bottom on how to respond.
To make sure we’re on the same page, let’s be clear about what emotional intelligence is. Experts agree that it has three major elements: perceiving, understanding, and regulating emotions. Perceiving emotions is your ability to recognize different feelings. When looking at someone’s face, do you know the difference between joy and contentment, anxiety and sadness, or surprise and contempt? Understanding emotions is how well you identify the causes and consequences of different feelings. For example, can you figure out what will make your colleagues frustrated versus angry? Frustration occurs when people are blocked from achieving a goal; anger is a response to being mistreated or wronged. Regulating emotions is your effectiveness in managing what you and others feel. If you have a bad day but need to give an inspiring speech, can you psych yourself up and motivate your audience anyway?
I told the CEO that although these skills could be useful in sales, he’d be better off assessing cognitive ability. That’s traditional intelligence: the capability to reason and solve verbal, logical, and mathematical problems. Salespeople with high cognitive ability would be able to analyze information about customer needs and think on their feet to keep customers coming back. The CEO was convinced that emotional intelligence would matter more.
To see who was right, we designed a study. Working with Dane Barnes of Optimize Hire, we gave hundreds of salespeople two validated tests of emotional intelligence that measured their abilities to perceive, understand, and regulate emotions. We also gave them a five-minute test of their cognitive ability, where they had to solve a few logic problems. Then, we tracked their sales revenue over several months.
Cognitive ability was more than five times more powerful than emotional intelligence. The average employee with high cognitive ability generated annual revenue of over $195,000, compared with $159,000 for those with moderate cognitive ability and $109,000 for those with low cognitive ability. Emotional intelligence added nothing after measuring cognitive ability.
The CEO wasn’t convinced: maybe they didn’t take the emotional intelligence test seriously enough. We ran the study again—this time with hundreds of job applicants, who knew that their results could affect whether they were hired. Once again, cognitive ability dramatically outperformed emotional intelligence.
I happen to find emotional intelligence fascinating; I teach the topic in the classroom and have published my own research on it. As much as I like it, though, I believe it’s a mistake to base hiring or promotion decisions on it.
A few years ago, researchers Dana Joseph and Dan Newman wanted to find out how much emotional intelligence really influenced job performance. They compiled every systematic study that has ever tested emotional intelligence and cognitive ability in the workplace—dozens of studies with thousands of employees in 191 different jobs.
When Daniel Goleman popularized emotional intelligence in 1995, he argued provocatively that “it can matter more than IQ.” But just as I found with salespeople, every study comparing the two has shown the opposite. In Joseph and Newman’s comprehensive analysis, cognitive ability accounted for more than 14% of job performance. Emotional intelligence accounted for less than 1%.
This isn’t to say that emotional intelligence is useless. It’s relevant to performance in jobs where you have to deal with emotions every day, like sales, real estate, and counseling. If you’re selling a house or helping people cope with tragedies, it’s very useful to know what they’re feeling and respond appropriately. But in jobs that lack these emotional demands—like engineering, accounting, or science—emotional intelligence predicted lower performance. If your work is primarily about dealing with data, things, and ideas rather than people and feelings, it’s not necessarily advantageous to be skilled in reading and regulating emotions. If your job is to fix a car or balance numbers in a spreadsheet, paying attention to emotions might distract you from working efficiently and effectively.
Even in emotionally demanding work, when it comes to job performance, cognitive ability still proves more consequential than emotional intelligence. Cognitive ability is the capacity to learn. The higher your cognitive ability, the easier it is for you to develop emotional intelligence when you need it. (This is one of the reasons that emotional intelligence and cognitive ability turn out to correlate positively, not negatively.)
As better tests of emotional intelligence are designed, our knowledge may change. But for now, the best available evidence suggests that emotional intelligence is not a panacea. Let’s recognize it for what it is: a set of skills that can be beneficial in situations where emotional information is rich or vital.
If you felt intense negative emotions while reading this post, it’s an excellent opportunity to put emotional intelligence into action.
Step 2: analyze the causes of the emotion. Why are you feeling hostile? Years ago, the psychologist George Kelly argued that hostility occurs when we are attempting to “extort confirmation of personal hypotheses that have already proved themselves to be invalid.” In other words, you might be feeling hostile because the data are clear that emotional intelligence has been overrated, but you don’t want to admit it.
Step 3: regulate the emotion. Maybe this isn’t as terrible as it seems. You’ve been able to update invalidated beliefs before. Napoleon wasn’t short. Pluto isn’t technically a planet. Swimming after eating isn’t dangerous. Miley Cyrus isn’t actually a great role model. The LOST writers didn’t really have a master plan.
Adam is the Wharton Class of 1965 Professor of Management and Psychology, and the New York Times bestselling author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. Sign up for his free newsletter on work and psychology at www.giveandtake.com/Home/Newsletter
This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.