Is Emotional Intelligence (EQ) Real?

There’s no doubt that executives are talking about emotional intelligence (EQ). A quick Google search will turn up hundreds of articles and posts about the subject. Some tout that emotional intelligence will be the factor to look for in employees and leaders for the foreseeable future. And some have us asking: “What's all the hype about?”

Which leads us to the real question: Is it an actual psychological capacity, or is it just one more gimmick someone dreamed up and pushed out onto the business world with some good marketing? Is EQ real?

The answer: Yes and no. Emotional intelligence is real, but it's often confused with other issues.

The term had been circulating around in academic papers since the 60s, but the full EQ was only truly developed in a pair of articles written by Stanley Greenspan and Peter Salovey in 1990. Even then, the idea of EQ only gained prominence with Daniel Goleman’s 1995 best selling book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.

Since then, EQ has been credited with making the world a better place. The idea has been proposed that, if we could just teach people to be emotionally intelligent, there would be less bullying in school, more compassionate healthcare workers, and more supportive work environments.

However, as Greenspan and Salovey have discussed in many publications written after the book’s release, most people have emotional intelligence all wrong.

EQ Is Not a Trait, but a Set of Skills

Emotional intelligence is about influencing emotions -- your own and those of others. But many who try to apply EQ to the business world are more concerned with how we can measure it. And, most likely, how we can use those measurements to screen employees and promote potential leaders.

This makes emotional intelligence seem like a trait: Either you have it or you don’t. On the contrary, EQ is more a set of skills one can learn, practice, and improve upon. It includes things like awareness of your moods and the moods of others, an understanding of people’s goals and purposes, and the ability to decipher other’s psychological needs.

EQ Is Not Just Awareness, but Changing Behavior

Researchers widely recognize that raw knowledge, by itself, does not change behavior. Knowing something is not enough. You also have to be motivated to change your behavior and have the right kind of environment.

This means simply knowing another person's emotional states is not EQ. You need to have the capacity to use that knowledge, as well as the motivation to do so and the environment to do it in.

Merely screening for emotional intelligence is not sufficient. Sure, it helps to find people with the capacity for it. But you would be better off training people in the skills that make up EQ and then building a culture and an atmosphere where those skills could be put to good use.

EQ Does Not Make You a Better Person

There is research showing emotional intelligence is the strongest predictor of workplace performance, explaining a full 58% of success in all types of jobs. Unfortunately, people have assumed EQ must make you a better person across the board.

Not so. An emotionally intelligent person can recognize how a person feels and use those emotions to steer that person toward a particular direction...whether it’s a good one or a bad one. In other words, EQ provides the capacity for changing how people feel about their situation, but it may also be used for manipulation.

For example, you probably wouldn’t be surprised that Martin Luther King, Jr. was very emotionally intelligent. He was able to express his frustration and righteous indignation in a very controlled and strategic way.

But, you might be surprised to know Adolf Hitler is another example of a person with very high EQ. He knew exactly what impact his every gesture and word had on an audience, and he used that to his advantage. Unfortunately, his end game was not as pure as MLK’s.

This means things like purpose, compassion, work ethic, and morality count just as much as EQ. Finding someone with emotional intelligence does not guarantee these things. Teaching them does.

The takeaway here is this: EQ does exist -- not as a personality trait or a bit of knowledge or awareness, but as a skill set that can be learned. And it needs to be learned alongside a healthy dose of other things. This requires more than a few blog posts or a single training course. It will require the right kind of training program and learning culture.

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