Emotional Intelligence: a bright idea or bogus fad?

by 19 Aug 2009

Emotional Intelligence (EI) is hotly debated in academic literature. It has won some great fans in the corporate world, as well as attracting its fair share of sceptics. Teresa Russell looks at the practical application of EI and exposes some of the common pitfalls

Emotional intelligence (EI) can be simply described as the capacity to understand and recognise one’s own emotions and feelings, as well as those of others, then managing both effectively. Intelligence Quotient (IQ) measures how smart someone is and was long believed to be unable to be improved. EI, also known as Emotional Quotient (EQ) measures how emotionally mature someone is and is allegedly something that can be taught.

EI is a concept that has been around for decades, but was first rigorously defined as a concept by Mayr and Salovey, who created a tool to measure EI ability. Daniel Goleman popularised it in 1998 in his book Working with Emotional Intelligence,in which he created a tool to measure EI behaviour. According to Goleman (who used data from The Hay Group) workplace competencies based on EI are more critical to high performance than intellect or skill. Goleman describes four areas of EI development, each of them interlinked. They are self awareness, self management, social awareness and relationship management. He introduced the concept of using other people’s perceptions of someone’s behaviour, rather than how an individual self-assesses, or is measured against any standard testing.

Why is EI controversial?

Anne Lytle is a senior lecturer at the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM). She teaches a course in emotional intelligence and leadership and gives another perspective on Goleman’s popular work. “His book was exciting to the public because of the writing style and its timing, but it was not well conceptualised and was never accepted by academics. He argued there was a critical period when people develop emotional intelligence, but his conclusions were not supportable,” Lytle asserts. The timing she refers to relates to its publication the year after another book, in which it was argued by its two Jewish authors that IQ (which everyone knew could not change) was linked to race. Then Goleman wrote his book arguing that business success had little to do with IQ, but a lot to do with EI, which could be taught.

Lytle believes that EI is quite an elusive topic because nobody really knows what it is. Another contentious issue is whether someone who is very emotionally immature can actually be taught to become emotionally mature. She cites a case where a whole EI program was designed for an organisation because one person who reported to a CEO was technically brilliant, but a horrible people manager who the CEO thought was too valuable to let go. Lytle believes that a self-aware person can make incremental changes to their behaviour, but those who really need to, won’t.

Just a new name?

All major aspects of emotional intelligence can be profiled in personality testing.

An emotionally intelligent individual has a diffuse set of skills which include, but are not limited to negotiation, conflict resolution, influencing, networking, calming irate people etc. Lytle believes the most useful quadrant in the model is self awareness. “EI is a great frame – a good teaching tool to explain behaviour,” she explains. “You can’t teach EI cognitively. You have to experience emotions.” Lytle and the AGSM employ an actor and use ‘clowning’ to demonstrate behaviour, then reverses roles to show an individual how their behaviour impacts others.

Dangerous applications of EI

Although some providers offer EI products for both selection and development applications, caution should be exercised in both cases. 360 degree feedback is used to determine what an individual’s managers, peers and subordinates feel about their performance. According to Lytle, you always have to understand there may be some things that may make that feedback invalid. A peer may have a political agenda to advance and give a poor (albeit anonymous) report. Or several subordinates may believe that their dreadful manager will find out who gave them bad feedback, so they’d sweeten the report to protect themselves. Additionally, it would be nigh impossible to find 6 to 20 people to contribute to 360 degree feedback for recruitment purposes.

For these reasons, Lytle stresses EI should never be used in recruitment and should only be used in a highly targeted manner for performance management. “You can identify the social skills that need development, agree goals on this competency and determine a review date and improvement expected. EI should also be used with great care in assessing potential future leaders, as well.”

Workplace application: Merrill Lynch

James Collins, head of business management at Merrill Lynch attended an EI seminar with his MD about five years ago. They were attracted to the concept of EI, because they felt they needed to take care of some of the softer skills in their company, in order to get the best out of senior managers. “The main outcome of our EI workshops is that they lower our defence mechanisms, making us more open to feedback. Sixty to seventy per cent of the work we do is on self-awareness,” says Collins, fresh from a two-day EI course.

Merrill Lynch employs 150 people in Australia and has been teaching EI to the 16 people in its leadership team for the past four years. The company considered three outside providers before making a choice. “We ended up going with the Hay Group because we felt it had the most practical approach to implementation and worked with the experts,” says Collins. It too employs actors to show the EI competencies and workshop role plays with the group.

Although the whole team is not equally enthusiastic about the twice-yearly EI workshops, Collins says the managers always feel they get a lot more out of it than they expect to. “Our business does not need to quantify the outcome in terms of dollars, but we believe the EI work we have done has made our people better managers,” he states. Merrill Lynch’s staff turnover of 5 per cent is about half the industry standard and its staff surveys reveal its employees like the culture, which they describe as informal and open – especially for such a large organisation in the industry. “We have more honest and frank discussions about hard questions among our management team (than other companies do),” says Collins.

When asked what advice he would give to companies rolling out an EI program, Collins offers three suggestions. “Start small and implement it in a digestible fashion, starting with one day every six months. Then, make sure it stays alive back in the office,” he says. Merrill Lynch managers create self-selected syndicate groups, which are overseen by HR. EI competencies are mixed within each group. “Thirdly, keep pushing ahead with the implementation, letting people settle into the process and air their concerns,” he says.

So, what has Collins learnt from his recent EI workshop? “I always learn something about myself and feel I can be a better manager and participant in the organisation as a result.”

Experimenting with EI: UQ

Denis Feeney, director of personnel services at University of Queensland (UQ) read Daniel Goleman’s book about EI when it was released and thought Goleman’s claims were overstated, so he never pursued it at the time. However, as departments and schools within UQ have merged as a result of government funding cutbacks over the past six or seven years, administration of these large, new areas is far more complex than it ever was before. Feeney wanted to give his administrators some skills that would make them more flexible and effective interpersonal managers, so he has embarked on a two month EI experiment.

“We have identified 80 people within the organisation who should get extra training to assist with their career development and asked for 25 volunteers to participate in an EI experimental program,” Feeney says. They each undertook a PC-based MSCEIT test, receiving a printout of their own results, then received one-on-one feedback from a psychologist who interpreted their results.

The group undertook EI experiential learning through a tailored training program and are currently receiving formal feedback through written evaluations. Feeney sais participants were also asked about the usefulness of the training and if they would recommend it to colleagues. If the results on both questions are positive throughout the group, the rest of the 80 will participate in the same EI program. Feeney says they will track the performance of those who have had this training through UQ’s existing 360 degree feedback and annual performance appraisal systems.

He does not intend to do any mathematical ROI calculations, although he knows the exact costs of the program. “We will have achieved a positive ROI if staff and supervisors feel the training has been worthwhile,” he says.