Rethinking Emotional Intelligence: A New Direction for Research and Practice

Recent research has called into question the relevance of emotional intelligence. We attempt to separate fact from fiction and clarify the value of EI moving forward.

Rethinking emotional intellegence

If It Sounds Too Good to Be True…

In the mid ‘90s, emotional intelligence (EI) was originally promoted as the until-then forgotten twin of general intelligence and thought to be similarly potent in its effect on work performance. By the end of the decade, companies were rushing to get a place on the EI bandwagon, after a Harvard Business Review article proclaimed that emotional intelligence could explain nearly 90% of the difference between star performers at work and average ones.

Consequently, there was no shortage of consultants ready to sell not-so-cheap EI trainings that would allegedly solve all of your organisation’s leadership problems overnight. But how much evidence is there to back up such grandiose claims? As it turns out, not much.

In fact, recent research from the University of Central Florida calls those initial claims into question, showing that the effect of EI disappears if one also considers other important factors, such as a person’s personality and general intelligence (Joseph, Jin, Newman, & Boyle, 2015).

This all isn’t to say that decades of EI research is meaningless. However, it’s clear that researchers and practitioners alike may have been overzealous in their attempts to apply EI as an abstract concept to the workplace.

That begs the question: What exactly is the value of EI moving forward?

The Reality – Abstract Theory vs. Concrete Behaviours

The dilemma facing EI research and practice is that too much importance has been ascribed to an abstract theoretical concept, rather than promoting actual (trainable) behaviours. Instead of clearly outlining what constitutes emotionally intelligent behaviour, academics have preoccupied themselves with discussing an abstract theory of EI with little value for practical implementation. 

For instance, whilst we know that emotionally intelligent individuals are adept at influencing others, we do not know how this influence is enacted. What are the concrete behaviours emotionally intelligent people display to reach their goals? The existing research leaves practitioners with little guidance on how to develop targeted EI training interventions that meet their companies’ needs.

Still, all is not lost. Researchers are beginning to look more deeply at the specific behaviours associated with EI, such as facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice. Understanding and learning how to train these types of behaviours can bring EI from abstract and misunderstood to concrete and relevant.

“Saving” EI – Developing a Toolkit for Concrete EI Behaviours

1. Emotional Expressions

Emotional gestures

They say yawns are contagious, but did you know the same can be true of moods? 

If a manager wants to lighten up the mood in the office, displaying positive emotions is a necessary first step. On the other hand, research also shows that if a leader wants his/her employees to put more effort into their work, displaying negative emotions is the way to go. Employees recognize that the work progress so far is inadequate and will immediately increase their effort (Sy, Côté, & Saavedra, 2005).

Further, the effectiveness of emotional expressions may depend on employees’ desires for a harmonious workplace (Van Kleef, Homan, Beersma, & van Knippenberg, 2010). If they prefer cooperation over conflict (i.e. they highly value social harmony), they may consider angry expressions a breach of social conventions, which might hurt performance. If, however, employees prefer competition over cooperation, the expression of anger is not only acceptable, but it may actually lead to better performance!

In a study conducted by myself and my colleagues within Aston Behavioural Insights Group we showed that leader displays of emotional inconsistency between happiness and anger can increase their follower’s creative performance (Stollberger & Guillaume, 2016). Put differently, emotionally intelligent leaders who wanted to spark their follower’s creativity would be well advised to deliberately alternate between happy and angry emotional displays in the office. Call it an emotional good cop / bad cop routine.

2. Behavioural gestures

Examples of behavioural gestures

Think, for a moment, how world leaders like Barack Obama or David Cameron deliver speeches. Sure the words and timing may be eloquent and persuading (at least, that’s what they hope), but it’s often the speakers’ non-verbal communication skills that offer a case study in emotionally intelligent behaviours.

There’s nothing abstract about these gestures. Certain types of gestures are more or less effective when paired with certain emotions, e.g. energetic hand gestures may be more suitable when displaying happiness or anger instead of sadness, but it’s far from rocket science. They’re straightforward, trainable, and can most certainly be used to impact the interactions between managers and their employees.

3. Tone of Voice

Tone of voice

It may not come as a shock that tone of voice is incredibly important for an emotionally intelligent leader. What should be shocking, though, is how little research there is specifically addressing this within organisations.

We’ve seen some basic research that tells us which tones are most effective at conveying specific emotions e.g. raise your voice when conveying happiness but lower it when wanting to come across as calm (Russell, Bachorowski, & Fernandez-Dols, 2003). Rarely, if ever, is this type of emotionally intelligent behaviour trained in organisations. This is another example of the type of concrete, teachable behaviour that would make far more sense to focus on, rather then focussing on grand, abstract concepts of emotional intelligence.

This is not to say that this concludes the debate on the utility of EI. However, recent research has uncovered weaknesses relevant to both research and organisational practice. Organisations planning to invest in the development of their leader’s emotional competencies should therefore prioritise trainings on concrete emotional leadership behaviours, like the one’s described above, rather than the more abstract concept of emotional intelligence.

Jakob Stollberger
Work and organisational psychologist

Jakob is a work and organisational psychologist and doctoral researcher at Aston University working to advance evidence-based practice in the areas of leadership, workplace stress, creativity / innovation at work, and positive psychology. He completed his master’s degree in work psychology at Aston Business School and is currently finalizing his doctoral studies on emotionally intelligent leadership.

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