This article was first published in the February/March 2019 International edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

There is a lot of talk and many words written on the  topic of emotional intelligence (EQ). But is its supposed importance actually supported by real evidence?

Consider for a moment the skills that lead to success for partners in large professional services and management consulting firms such as PwC, KPMG or the Boston Consulting Group. (Full disclosure: I worked as a consultant for two years at BCG). In a major study, researcher Richard Boyatzis worked with the human resources department of one such firm to identify the skills and behaviours that led to exceptional performance in the firm’s senior partners. At the time, the firm had around 3,000 partners worldwide. For the sub-sample of senior partners under study, average annualised revenue per senior partner was US$2,438,000, with an average gross margin of 57%.

Each senior partner was scored by peers, subordinates and the office of chairman – effectively their boss – on cognitive intelligence skills such as their knowledge, pattern recognition and systems thinking. They were also scored on emotional intelligence skills such as their empathy, coaching and leadership.

After tracking the financial performance of the senior partners for seven successive quarters, the researchers found that several cognitive skills, such as knowledge and pattern recognition, were not meaningful predictors of high performance. Of the 14 skills that predicted senior partners’ financial performance, 13 (93%) were to do with emotional intelligence and only one to do with cognitive, traditional intelligence.

The study suggests that traditional intelligence measures are necessary but insufficient for truly high performance. So yes, you need to pass exams, gain qualifications and continue to gather knowledge about your discipline, the competitive landscape and the world; however, all of that only gets you in through the door. To truly elevate yourself above those around you, you must hone your emotional skills.

Defining EQ

The identification of the skills that comprise EQ is often credited to Yale University’s Peter Salovey and the University of New Hampshire’s John Mayer in the early 1990s. Since then, most organisational and performance psychologists, including me, continue to define emotional intelligence as the ability to recognise, understand and use information about emotions in oneself and others. In terms of developing these skills – whether in salespeople or accountants, hotel managers or teachers – I break them down into the following four components:

  • Being able to recognise emotions in yourself – for instance, being aware when you are fearful, sad, irritable, embarrassed, aggressive and so on.
  • Being able to manage your own emotions. Sometimes people allow their emotions to drive their behaviour – eg when they feel angry and lash out at others, or when they feel sad and withdraw from others. However, people who are better able to manage their own emotions are more quickly able to calm anger or turn their own fear into hope, for example.
  • An awareness of emotions in others. How is each individual around you feeling at any particular moment in time? Is your client feeling enthusiastic or proud, anxious or frustrated? Are your colleagues bored or tired, interested or inspired? Emotionally intelligent people understand that emotions fluctuate frequently. For instance, your client or customer may experience many different emotions during the course of a single meeting.
  • The ability to manage emotions in other people – for example, by guiding, calming, and inspiring or using other methods such as compassion, assertiveness and humour. This fourth component comprises the high-level skills of being able to negotiate with opponents, coach individuals, influence customers and ultimately lead entire teams.

Predicting success

Some consultants and advisers claim that emotional intelligence is more important than traditional intelligence in predicting success. However, that is probably not true.

In a wide-ranging review of the published scientific evidence on emotional intelligence, researchers led by Ernest O’Boyle at Longwood University in Virginia concluded that components of emotional intelligence ‘increment cognitive ability and personality measures in the prediction of job performance’. In other words, cognitive ability (ie IQ and other measures of what we typically think of as intelligence) predicts job performance to a certain degree. Personality measures (eg the extent to which a person is extraverted, conscientious, and agreeable) are also separately able to predict job performance. However, adding emotional intelligence skills into the mix allows us the very best prediction of who might succeed and who might stagnate in their careers.

The implication: it helps to be smart; it helps to have a winning personality; but emotional intelligence really does make a meaningful difference, too.

Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace.