Emotional Intelligence: Breakthrough or Been Through?

Emotional Intelligence.

Unless you’ve been ‘hiding under a rock’ for the last 30 years, you’ve heard of this term. And, unless you’ve been in grad school for the same amount of time, you’ve probably used it. (Just kidding — sort of)

EI, as it’s commonly abbreviated, charged into mainstream popularity following Daniel Goleman’s, 1995 NY Times bestseller, “Emotional Intelligence.”

Generally referring to behaviors reflecting the awareness and management of one’s own and others’ emotions, EI was picked up by consulting firms faster than a lonely $100 bill on a casino floor. Today, EI is a multi-million dollar industry served by hundreds of consulting firms and assessed by nearly as many different psychological tools.

How did EI get so popular?

The explosive popularity of EI is fueled by three primary factors:

  • It’s easy to explain (but not really)
  • It’s easy to measure (if you don’t care about validity)
  • It predicts job performance (if you know what you’re doing)


Practitioners of I/O psychology had a practical, useful concept AND measurement tool that they could explain to others.

But is EI really a breakthrough? Does it differ or add value beyond other well known, properly researched psychological concepts?

Apparently not.

Even as a fledgling concept, many critics claimed EI was nothing more than reconstituted material from prior theory and measurement. For the most part, it is now widely believed that EI is useful, and developing, but not necessarily new.

Hundreds of research studies, yet few including proprietary measures, have put EI to the test. Most have shown that EI does predict job performance. The challenge with EI research is that the most popular measures are proprietary. Therefore, they are not subjected to the same scientific scrutiny as open-source measures. Few who have designed measures of EI have been willing to “throw open the kimono” to explain WHY or HOW EI, or their preferred assessment of it, really work.

And that’s not good for science.

“Meta-analysis” is a term largely limited to researchers (aka, “geeks” in pop lingo). In simple terms, it’s a study of studies, in fact, it could be claimed as an early instance of “Big Data.” The meta-analytic researcher gathers data from as many prior researchers studying the focal concept as possible. With the cumulative data from hundreds of studies, meta-analysis is considered by many to be the heavyweight champion of analytic psychological research.

Back to Emotional Intelligence.

A recent meta-analysis in the Journal of Applied Psychology (Joseph, D.L., Jin, J, Newman, D.A., & O’Boyle, 2015) threw a “stake in the ground” regarding the nature and application of emotional intelligence.

Their conclusions:

  1. EI is not new. It’s the combined, recycled product of prior psychological concepts.
  2. EI is better assessed using multiple alternative measures than it is by one EI instrument.

This is not good news for many practitioners staking their business and reputation on a single measure of EI.

To be fair, as mentioned above, single measures of EI do reveal significant, meaningful predictions of job performance – some of which have been published. Moreover, some are better than others.

But, as I understand the referenced research, …

By using the right assessments, a scientist-practitioner can improve the prediction of job performance by over 75% vs. others using single measures of EI. (R. Chris Steilberg)

Emotional intelligence — more specifically, it’s assessment — does work, but not without objective reason.

Psychways is owned and produced by Talentlift, LLC.

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