emotional intelligence (EI)

Emotional intelligence (EI) is the area of cognitive ability that facilitates interpersonal behavior. The term emotional intelligence was popularized in 1995 by psychologist and behavioral science journalist Dr. Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence.

Dr. Goleman described emotional intelligence as a person's ability to manage their feelings so that those feelings are expressed appropriately and effectively. According to Goleman, emotional intelligence is the largest single predictor of success in the workplace.

Five components of emotional intelligence

In his book, Goleman presents five categories of emotional intelligence:

  1. Self-awareness. A person has a healthy sense of emotional intelligence self-awareness if they understand their own strengths and weaknesses and how their actions affect others. A person with emotional self-awareness is usually receptive to and able to learn from constructive criticism more than one who doesn't have emotional self-awareness.
  2. Self-regulation. A person with a high emotional intelligence can exercise restraint and control when expressing their emotions.
  3. Motivation. People with high emotional intelligence are self-motivated, resilient and driven by an inner ambition rather than being influenced by outside forces, such as money or prestige.
  4. Empathy. An empathetic person has compassion and can connect with other people on an emotional level, helping them respond genuinely to other people's concerns.
  5. Social skills. People who are emotionally intelligent can build trust with other people and are able to quickly gain respect from the people they meet.

Emotional intelligence in the workplace

Employers consider employees' and job candidates' emotional intelligence when making human resource-related decisions.

For example, human resource staff and hiring managers often ask specific questions to determine emotional intelligence during the hiring process to decide which candidates will best fit in with the company culture.

They also consider emotional intelligence when determining leadership potential and when pay raises are being considered for employees. A person in a leadership position with high emotional intelligence could also be particularly skilled at motivating their teams and maintaining their overall job satisfaction.

Job candidates' listening skills and strong communication abilities have become highly sought after across industries, particularly for those seeking leadership positions. For example, soft skills for potential information technology executives, such as CIOs, have become important assets in recent years. Those in technology-centric leadership positions are asked to present to boards and communicate with other departments, as IT has become inherent to the overall success of modern, digitized companies.

In addition to listening and communicating well, several other traits consistent with high emotional intelligence are sought after by employers in the modern, globalized economy. Being able to adapt to rapidly changing work environments, to work well in teams and to self-manage are characteristics companies are looking for in an emotionally intelligent employee that will thrive in a business environment.

How to measure or test emotional intelligence

Dr. Goleman and other social scientists have promoted the concept of an emotional intelligence quotient (EQ) test to serve as a counterpart to more traditional intelligence quotient (IQ) tests. While a traditional IQ test seeks to evaluate an individual's ability to learn new information, an emotional intelligence test seeks to evaluate an individual's capacity to deal successfully with others. To that end, EQ test questions focus on assessing soft skills, such as self-awareness, social awareness, relationship management and empathy.

Although Goleman's theories have been influential, they have not gone without criticism. Several of his peers have claimed that, among other things, Dr. Goleman's research has not been sufficiently rigorous.

Research has also found that emotionally intelligent people can use their skills for personal gain. A research team led by University College London professor Martin Kilduff, for example, found that emotional intelligence helps people disguise their real emotions to benefit their own agenda. Another study led by the University of Toronto psychologist Stéphane Côté found that people with high emotional intelligence used their skills to manipulate others in the workplace.

Most critics agree, however, that the concept of emotional intelligence is valid because human intellect is complex, and it's simply not possible for one type of emotional intelligence test to accurately assess a person's ability to be successful.

This was last updated in January 2023

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