Steve Tobak /

MoneyWatch/ February 13, 2012, 6:17 AM

Why emotional intelligence is just a fad

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence / Image courtesy of Flickr user royblumenthal

COMMENTARY Who wouldn't want to work for a boss who's empathetic, self-aware, socially adept and highly motivated for all the right reasons? And what board of directors wouldn't want their CEO -- better yet, the entire management team -- to have all those emotional intelligence traits? It's a no-brainer, right? Not exactly.

I've seen loads of management concepts over the decades. Some were research-based while others came from popular books. Some were fads that more or less came and went and others stuck around for a while. But nearly all ended up being far more limited and far less useful than originally advertised.

I don't think anyone would question that the management fad du jour is emotional intelligence. It's showing up in all the search criteria and job reqs for senior executive positions, and executive search firms are scrambling to determine exactly how to measure those somewhat intangible skills. And why not?

9 notable management fads (or trends)
How well do you know yourself?
Where does leadership come from?

Just look at what a spectacular flop Leo Apotheker was at HP (HPQ). A bull in a china shop if there ever was one. Apotheker lasted just 11 months before being replaced by former eBay (EBAY) CEO Meg Whitman -- definitely more of a nuanced influencer type. And the raucous and raunchy Carol Bartz was unceremoniously dumped over the phone in favor of "nice guy" Scott Thompson at Yahoo (YHOO).

Yes, traditional command-and-control style leadership is out; soft skills are in. While many applaud this transition as long overdue, I don't agree. Here are four big reasons why I don't think emotional intelligence is an effective leadership criterion or predictor of business success.

One size leader does not fit all organizations

Companies aren't run by one person; they're run by dynamic executive management teams where one executive's weaknesses are complemented by others' strengths. And there are levels of managers below them, as well. It's still a relatively closed system, but it's not as closed as a single search for a single individual.

Moreover, different companies have different goals and leadership needs. As Steve Winings, a partner at Korn/Ferry (KFY), said in The Wall Street Journal: "I ask clients whether they are planning an evolution or a revolution. You need a strong leader to pull off a revolution." That said, "You can't have an entire company of revolutionaries."

It's relatively easy to game the system

Any decent shrink will tell you that sociopaths and narcissists are extraordinary at manipulation and appearing to be whatever they feel they need to be to get what they want. Of course their true colors may come out eventually, but that could be years down the road and certainly not evident during a search process.

And I can tell you with great certainty from personal experience that, quantitatively and qualitatively, it's relatively easy to game the system. I don't care if it's a test, a lengthy interview process, a reference check, or any combination thereof. Not that I'm a sociopath or anything. I'm just saying, it's a well known problem with EI.

Management style is but one facet of building a competitive company

Today more than ever, companies compete in a complex global marketplace. Hands down, the most important role for executives is to come up with the right direction, strategy and value proposition so customers will buy their products and services over competitors' offerings.

Sure, executives need to be able to sell their ideas to stakeholders and execute, but there's certainly more than one management style that'll accomplish that. There's actually a vast, complex and dynamic array of factors that influence operating results for any management team running any company in a specific market.

Just take our earlier examples. Whitman may be much further along than Apotheker in terms of emotional intelligence, but she has absolutely no enterprise, IT, hardware, software, complex supply chain, or turnaround experience. And Bartz didn't fail because she was a jerk; she failed because she didn't have the chops for the brave new world of social media and mobile computing. Meanwhile, Thompson may be a nice guy, but few think he's the game changer that Yahoo needs to turn itself around.

EI is not predictive of business success

Finally, and perhaps as a result of the other three factors, there is no evidence that demonstrates that emotional intelligence is a predictor of leadership success in business.

Anecdotally, if you look at great CEOs like Andy Grove, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, you won't find much in the way of soft skills. The same is true of Google's (GOOG) Larry Page and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg. Of course there are plenty of counterexamples, but that's really the point. It's not at all clear that any particular management or leadership type, skill-set, or intelligence -- emotional or otherwise -- makes sense across the board.

When it comes down to hiring or promoting executives, there are loads of factors to take into account, not least of which include experience, product expertise, market knowledge, company culture or DNA, the company's goals, and of course, the composition of the board and the rest of the management team.

All things being equal, of course you'd want an executive to be emotionally connected and all that. Unfortunately, the real world is never that simple. No two executives are identical or even similar. There are tradeoffs. Of course, If you ever do find two executives who are otherwise equal, by all means, go with the one with superior EI. Just keep in mind, he might be manipulating you. No, you really can't win.

© 2012 CBS Interactive Inc.. All Rights Reserved.
7 Comments Add a Comment
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PhilGee23 says:
Hi all - Goodness.
I've just happened upon this interesting thread. Please excuse in advance the comments of an interloper...I am both English and bring EI into organisations and people's lives :-)

The reason I went into EQ work? I used to project manage multi million $ projects. Their success almost always related strongly to the EQ of the senior team leading them ( stakeholder buy-in, communication, engagement etc).

Let's throw some specifics in - I'm more fond of numbers, stats.
No-one likes unsupported wishy washy hyperbole.

Let's take the latter first and Steve's point about using EI in recruitment being a waste of time.

One example:
The US Air Force saved $19Million on recruitment costs in one programme in one year alone for the US Para-rescue Jumper program. So successful was the EQ program it was recommended through congress to use in other areas.

Second example:
I coach people using EQ Profiling. We can and do test emotional intelligence very accurately. The model I use has been tested on hundreds of thousands of people around the globe and is a trusted psychometric tool(BarON EQ-i). It's proven itself many many times to deliver value.

EI of no value? If it improves self-awareness alone which EQ does then simply this one(?)thing alone would be a huge advantage to every one /organisation. How can anyone say this is of no value? The EQ model I use has 15 components of which Empathy and Emotional Self Awareness are but two.

Still not even slightly moved?
Last week the Washington Post published exit poll survey data from the presidential election.

Just one statistic: 1 in 5 people said 'caring about people like me' was THE key factor in their choice of President. And Obama scored 82% to Romney's 18% in who they believe was more 'empathetic'.
This means empathy was a significant and possibly deciding factor in peoples choice of a leader.

What is EQ used for
It is absolutely the opposite of a one-size fits-all solution. It's really important to realise that it is not simply a case of building all EQ competencies for the sake of them. An individual's strengths and 'development' needs as well as the competencies they need for their life and roles are the prime drivers for building skills that work for them.
It's driven by what has most value to them. Everyone is different and different roles require different competencies.

I hope this helps,

Philip Gimmack
Director EQworks
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jhmarshgg says:
It's fair enough to argue that EI isn't everything--sure, it doesn't guarantee success at the individual or organizational level. And you do acknowledge that all other things being equal, it's probably better to choose someone high in EI over a less emotionally intelligent counterpart.

But you give short shrift to research suggesting that managers high in EI bring real and measurable benefits to their employees and their company as a whole. A <a href="">study</a> last year, for instance, found that managers who are more empathic have employees who feel sick less often and report higher job satisfaction. Other <a href="">research</a> suggests that bosses low in EI undermine camaraderie at work and cause more turnover.

Research like this doesn't necessarily negate some of the basic points you're making, but it does alter the calculus a bit when companies are weighing the costs and benefits of hiring someone high (or low) in EI.
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Lucy Montrose says:
My concern with the emotional intelligence movement has always been, "how do you measure it". Confidence in our own abilities goes completely out the window if it's outweighed by an arbitrary measurement of EI-- or even our boss' subjective opinion of good EI.

Will we be judged socially lacking for, say, not having dated or played team sports in high school? Are married people going to be preferred job candidates over single people-- based on just enough scientific fact establishing that we are social creatures who are our best in relationships, that we feel like we have no effective rebuttals? (because how can you argue against neuroscience?)
Same for religious and spiritual people over nonbelievers; because of the wealth of studies vouching for the happiness boost belief in a higher power brings us?
Men with children outearn men without children by about 2%-- is this due to their employers' unconscious belief that fatherhood brings sociability, likeability, and other intangibles?

There is already too much digging into our personal lives to judge our "fit" with company culture-- and I blame the EI movement for this. Hiring us for EI could potentially mean that *every* personal choice we make, every pastime, is submitted for judgment by prospective employers.
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jp3smiles says:
Steve - Thanks for pointing out hyperlink. My read of your rebuttal is that it concentrates on some of the characteristics/indicia noted by Goleman and spends less time on others.

For the sake of clarification, please note that the HBR article lists self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill as key emotional intelligence indicia related to successful leadership.

My read of your rebuttal is that it primarily objects to the lack of value of the empathy and social skill indicia, while properly ignoring the motiviation indicia because one has traditionally placed motivation skills near the top of the selection criteria when one chooses a leader.

The self-awareness and self-regulation indicia appear to be the most useful in my view and I am not particularly clear on where your brief rebuttal addresses these indicia. The self-regulation indicia appears to correspond to Sarah's comment's example regarding delayed gratification.

Furthermore, I do not view these two indicia as "soft." Instead, my view is that they enable leaders to appropriately use their many-faceted personalities in optimal fashion for the context of their interactions with investors, customers, suppliers, employees, and any others that can influence the direction of the company.
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jp3smiles says:
Sarah - Thanks for bringing the discussion back to Goleman's book.

I would guess that some of the most successful CEO's have high EI even if they act a bit tyrannically at times.

Steve's point about the limited value of EI in making a hiring decision because candidates will frequently be able to present themselves as having high EI, even if the they don't - is spot on; but perhaps not dispositive.
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sarahclac says:
It's funny how the term emotional intelligence has gotten so skewed. It's initial definition was the ability - in essence - to deal with your emotions intelligently. The classic research on this was presenting a group of kids with the choice: You can have one piece of candy now or 5 later if you don't touch the piece in front of you now. Author Daniel Goleman explained that the children who were able to not impulsively grab the candy, but wait, were exercising emotional intelligence.

And so much of the work looking at emotional intelligence and success has looked at it from the same perspective - looking at emotions as information but not the driver of your actions. Having the emotional intelligence to navigate without emotions taking over the wheel. The corollary to this is also being able to read other people's emotions and not get sucked into them but deal with them intelligently.

However, just to be clear, it also doesn't mean that you storm ahead without heeding your emotions at all. The final piece of emotional intelligence is using your emotions to inform your decisions and being able to bring to them to bear strategically in how you manage things.

Obviously you can't substitute EI for other major criteria that may be specific to the business as you noted in your examples. However, someone well-equipped when it comes to the specific requirements of a business will be better equipped to work with people, focus on goals and adjust as needed with some emotional intelligence.

On a whole different scale, I just wrote an article for home business owners on how to navigate emotions and running your home business:
stobak2 replies:
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Actually, the criteria listed in the first paragraph that I based the entire post on are straight from Goleman's 1998 HBR article What Makes a Leader -- there's a hyperlink to it embedded in the text. This post is more or less a brief rebuttal of Goleman's premise.

So who's skewing who, huh? ;-)