Emotional intelligence: Separating the good from the great?

Pays off in workplace, some say, but not easy to measure

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March 28, 2014 | 12:50 pm

What defines the difference between an employee and a valued worker, between a supervisor and a superior leader?

Some hiring executives and social psychologists — while not all in complete agreement — will say it could be emotional intelligence.

The concept of emotional intelligence, a person’s ability to understand and manage his or her own emotions as well as those of others, has been around for more than 20 years. Hundreds of books have been written about it.

While researchers have said there are many overlaps between emotional intelligence and traditional intelligence, some say emotional intelligence is what separates smart people and transformational leaders.

Many studies have found relationships between emotional intelligence and job performance, especially in career fields with a high level of personal interaction, such as sales, customer service and teaching.

Some companies have tried to measure emotional intelligence as part of the hiring process.  At cosmetics giant L’Oreal, sales agents hired based on emotional competencies averaged annual sales of $91,370 more than those selected using traditional practices, according to "Competence at Work: Models for Superior Performance," by Lyle Spencer and Signe Spencer.

Cindy Lyness, managing partner at Management Recruiters of Cedar Rapids, said companies have always looked for the most-talented candidate, but in recent years, more emphasis has been placed on finding people who are a “cultural match” within the organization.

Emotional intelligence, including social awareness and management of relationships, can be a predictor, she said.

“Because of the furious pace of change in business today, difficult-to-manage relationships sabotage more business than anything else,” Lyness said. “It’s not a question of strategy that gets us into trouble, it’s a question of emotions. Before we can manage and lead others, we must manage and lead ourselves.”

Finding candidates with high emotional intelligence has assumed more emphasis since the economic downturn, Lyness said. Employers are now more aware of the consequences of making the wrong hire.

“Managers just don’t have time for a lot of hand-holding right now,” she noted.

Although more organizations appear to be realizing the importance of emotional intelligence, few are testing job candidates for it during the selection process. A variety of reasons exist for this, including some who just don’t buy into the idea.

“I think sometimes it gets pushed aside as ‘just feelings,’” said Michelle Griffin, a research associate at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics who has studied emotional intelligence while obtaining her master’s degree in health administration.

“But you’re always interacting. We’re social creatures.”

Tests that measure emotional intelligence are available. But some have questioned whether they provide true results and if they make it too easy for candidates to offer socially acceptable responses, rather than their true feelings.

Management Recruiters does not use assessments to measure emotional intelligence, but Lyness said there are some interviewing techniques that could provide clues about the kind of cultural match a candidate would be. For example, asking a candidate how he or she handled a team member who wasn’t doing their share may be very telling, she said.

Also, negative responses about former co-workers usually raise red flags, she said.

Ernest O’Boyle, now an assistant professor in the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa, was the lead researcher on a 2010 study that analyzed dozens of other studies about emotional intelligence while he was at Longwood University in Virginia. The study found a positive relationship between emotional intelligence and job performance — but, O’Boyle said, its level of importance varies depending on the occupation.

“Our best predictor of job performance is past performance,” O’Boyle said. “But general mental ability, IQ tests, have consistently been our best individual difference predictor across all jobs, from janitor to CEO.”

In addition to reliable testing, O’Boyle said there are other factors have kept employers from measuring emotional intelligence as they vet job candidates. To create a worthy test, you have to conduct testing to prove that it works and doesn’t interfere with the equal-opportunity employment laws.

“It’s almost a Catch-22,” O’Boyle said. “In order to bring it into a selection context, you need to have already proved that it works.

"In all of the 43 studies we looked at, not a single one was used with applicants that were then measured after they were hired. They were all used with incumbents.”

O’Boyle said more research needs to be done to determine what effects emotional intelligence, and how it can be improved. With the United States continues to grow its service economy, he expects emotional intelligence to play a greater role in the workplace.

“In 10 years, there are definitely going to be organizations that routinely give EI measures to applicants as a selection tool,” O’Boyle said. “But I don’t think it’s ever going to be as widespread as a typing test, for example.”

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What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional Intelligence is generally defined as a person’s ability to recognize and control their own emotions, as well as the ability to recognize and manage the emotions of others. Researchers say there appears to be a correlation between emotional intelligence and successful leadership.

By having awareness of the emotions of others and themselves, people with a high level of emotional intelligence are able to influence and motivate others despite social boundaries.

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