Is Emotional Intelligence Over Rated?

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 1: recognize the emotion. Is it disgust? Probably not—that’s usually reserved for gross foods, sights, and smells. Is it hostility? More likely: hostility is anger directed toward other people.

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.

Interesting, please let me know your thoughts & feelings on Emotional Intelligence in comments below.


Content sourced from Adam Grant:

Adam is the Wharton Class of 1965 Professor of Management and Psychology, and theNew York Times bestselling author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. Sign up for his free newsletter on work and psychology