Few recent topics have created more interest among leadership practitioners and researchers than emotional intelligence, which is often lauded as a key factor promoting success among leaders and managers. But – what’s behind the buzz? Is emotional intelligence really something HR professionals should consider in their leader selection and development efforts, or is it just another management fad? We have attempted to answer these questions in a recent series of articles (Walter et al., 2011, 2012a). This answer requires addressing several more specific issues.
First, what is emotional intelligence to begin with? Many popular conceptions of emotional intelligence entail a wide variety of personality traits, self-perceptions, and competencies, including factors concerned with a person’s self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. We believe, however, that these “mixed model” definitions are too broad and ambiguous to be of real practical value. Hence, we advocate a clearer, more specific model of emotional intelligence as a set of abilities that help people to deal with their own and others’ emotions. These abilities are (1) to accurately identify own and others’ emotions, (2) to effectively use emotions to facilitate problem solving, (3) to correctly understand the causes and consequences of emotions, and (4) to proficiently manage one’s own and other’s feelings (Mayer et al., 2008).
Second, if emotional intelligence is to play a meaningful role in HR management, it is clear that valid and reliable measures are needed. Oftentimes, self- or other-report surveys (e.g., 360-degree feedback programs) are used to accomplish this. When we view emotional intelligence as a specific set of abilities, however, this approach is problematic. Think about the measurement of other abilities, such as one’s cognitive ability (IQ) or technical skills. Typically, one would not rely on self- or other-ratings to assess these factors but use performance-based test instruments with right and wrong answers (e.g., IQ tests). We see no reason why emotional intelligence should be treated any differently. Luckily, performance-based tests of emotional intelligence exist, such as the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT). We strongly advocate the use of such test instruments for HR purposes, because they provide a more accurate, direct, and objective account of a person’s emotional abilities.
Third, is there evidence that emotional intelligence is associated with increased job performance and better leadership? Clearly, research on this question is in an early stage of development and sometimes suffers from methodological weaknesses that make the results hard to interpret (e.g., use of self-report emotional intelligence measures). Nevertheless, a number of studies have emerged in recent years that paint a promising picture. This research is starting to illustrate that emotional abilities (as measured with performance-based tests) may indeed play an important role for employee’s job performance and contribute to leaders’ effective behaviors – above and beyond other abilities, skills, and personality traits (e.g., O’Boyle et al., 2011; Walter et al., 2012b). We therefore believe that inclusion of emotional intelligence in a company’s HR management is justified – if this is done in a strictly evidence-based manner. This leads to our final set of questions:
What role should emotional intelligence play in leader selection and promotion? We suggest businesses can benefit from integrating emotional intelligence measures in leader selection and promotion decisions. Performance-based tests of emotional intelligence are particularly useful in this regard, because they are less prone to faking and deliver a relatively clear picture of a candidate’s emotional abilities. Moreover, it is important to note that emotional intelligence should not replace other, more traditional selection tools (e.g., personality or IQ tests). By utilizing emotional intelligence tests alongside other instruments, companies can gain a well-rounded and meaningful profile of a candidate’s suitability for a leadership position.
Finally, what role should emotional intelligence play in leadership development? We suggest emotional intelligence training can be a beneficial element of a company’s leadership development efforts. Evidence suggests that it is possible to actively develop the abilities underlying emotional intelligence. For example, people can be trained to better and more accurately recognize emotions in others’ faces (Ekman, 2007). An important caveat is that short, “one-shot” programs are probably not sufficient. Effective emotional intelligence training includes numerous opportunities for practice and offers frequent, meaningful, and constructive feedback on participants’ progress. Eventually, an evidence-based management of leaders’ emotional intelligence can pay off – but it requires serious, long-term commitment not only from individual leaders (e.g., as training participants) but also from the company itself.
Ekman, P. (2007). Emotions revealed. New York: Holt. Mayer, J. D., Roberts, R. D., & Barsade, S. G. (2008).
Emotional intelligence. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 507-536.
O’Boyle, E. H., Humphrey, R. H., Pollak, J. M., Hawver, T. H., & Story, P. A. (2011). The relation between emotional intelligence and job performance: A meta-analysis. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 32, 788-818.
Walter, F., Cole, M. S., & Humphrey, R. H. 2011. Emotional intelligence: Sine qua non of leadership or folderol? Academy of Management Perspectives, 25, 45-59. [click to download]
Walter, F., Cole, M. S., Van der Vegt, G. S., Rubin, R. S., & Bommer, W. H. 2012b. Emotion recognition and emergent leadership: Unraveling mediating mechanisms and boundary conditions. Leadership Quarterly, 23, 977-991. [click to download]
Walter, F., Humphrey, R. H., & Cole, M. S. 2012a. Unleashing leadership potential: Toward an evidence-based management of emotional intelligence. Organizational Dynamics, 41, 212-219. [click to download]