I've been riding the emotional intelligence (EQ) bandwagon for a few years now. I love learning about it and stretching myself to regulate my emotions, and I especially love applying these skills to the way I work and live.
According to Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry, "EQ is so critical to success that it accounts for 58 percent of performance in all types of jobs."
But ask any researcher or EQ expert, and they'll tell you the study of EQ has not had a smooth history. It has been debated since the mid-1990s over its effectiveness as an evidence-based leadership model, or as a predictor of job success.
Wharton professor Adam Grant, author of Give and Take, Originals, and Option B, threw a monkey wrench in our collective EQ belief system back in 2014, when, in a bold article called "Emotional Intelligence Is Overrated," he declared, "I believe it's a mistake to base hiring or promotion decisions on it."
What beats emotional intelligence?
Grant decided to put EQ to the test and match it against a formidable heavyweight contender. What did EQ go up against? Cognitive ability. This has more to do with the mental process and experience of knowing -- how we learn, perceive, reason, remember, and problem-solve.
Here's Grant describing his study:
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.
Emotional intellgence "added nothing"--that's rather painful to read as a practitioner of EQ. To be sure this was no fluke, Grant ran the study again--this time with hundreds of job applicants, who knew that their results could make or break their chances of getting hired. Once again, cognitive ability KO'd emotional intelligence in performance.
Whether Grant has an ax to grind against emotional intelligence is unknown, but the convincing meta-analysis he points to in addition to his own study may have caused the darling poster boy of EQ, Daniel Goleman, to do a double take (more on that below).
Grant cites research by Dana Joseph and Dan Newman, who set out to discover how much emotional intelligence really influenced job performance. Naturally, the two heavyweights -- emotional intelligence and cognitive ability -- faced off again. The researchers, according to Grant, "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."
And once again, there was a clear-cut winner. It wasn't even close. "Cognitive ability accounted for more than 14 percent of job performance. Emotional intelligence accounted for less than 1 percent," says Grant.
Adding insult to injury, Grant appears to hammer the nail on the Goleman EQ coffin, who argued over 20 years ago for the premise that "EQ can matter more than IQ." But, as Grant points out rather victoriously in his piece, "every study comparing the two has shown the opposite."
Grant acknowledges EQ continues to perform well in jobs with emotional demands that involve a high degree of people interaction (think sales, real estate, and counseling for example). However, when it comes to job performance, cognitive ability proves to be king.
"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," states Grant.
Daniel Goleman's reaction.
Grant's public crucifixion of emotional intelligence did not go unchallenged. In his own rebuttal, Goleman called Grant's article "an acerbic take-down of emotional intelligence," and says, "I don't take Grant's arguments very seriously."
If you're new to the emotional intelligence conversation, Daniel Goleman authored the internationally bestselling book Emotional Intelligence (1995), which spent more than 18 months on The New York Times bestseller list. He followed up with Working with Emotional Intelligence (1998), arguing that non-cognitive skills can matter as much as IQ for workplace success and leadership effectiveness, the direct opposite of Grant's view.
Goleman believes there are two schools of thought at play, and says Grant's academia critique misses the mark. Here's Goleman on LinkedIn, responding two weeks after Grant's article:
Academia plays by a different set of rules of proof than do folks in the business world: what gets published in peer-reviewed journals, versus what actually works.
And therein lies the significant difference in these contrasting views of emotional intelligence. Academics are fastidious about their research methods, and analyze their data to see, for example, which variables correlate at what strength.
The emotional intelligence assessment Grant chose to report on in his blog is based on the model most preferred in academia. It comes from the world of intelligence testing, and was designed to show that there are human abilities in the emotional realm that differ from IQ. (Though this might seem just like common sense, it has important theoretical meaning in the realm of psychological testing.)
Someone in business has a more urgent question: What should I do Monday morning? How can I spot the top performers? What skills and competencies should we help people improve?
In Goleman's EQ framework, which I wholeheartedly subscribe to, once you land a job in your field of expertise and start considering things like increasing your role, getting promoted, leading others, and navigating political landscapes, IQ will be begging for EQ to show up and take over.
Since everyone you are competing with in your field of expertise probably is about as smart as you, Goleman is saying that emotional intelligence does its best work to get you promoted to the next level. That's a question of job performance--right, Adam Grant?
In Goleman's own words, "Even if you are a solo bench engineer coming up with a better widget, no one will pay attention to you unless you can communicate, persuade, and excite people about that widget -- and that takes emotional intelligence."
In a gesture fitting to nailing Grant's own IQ coffin, Goleman quotes one astute commentator on Grant's LinkedIn piece: "People who do not have the right emotional skill set do not make it in the very professions you indicated that emotional intelligence is not required" -- that is, engineering, accounting, and science. The commentator adds, "I would highly recommend speaking to professionals in the fields you mention before you write an article about what is important to them."