Is Emotional Intelligence Really Necessary?

emotional intelligence

Imagine you’re on a job interview when the hiring manager looks at his phone to check your emotional intelligence score.

The MEIT (mobile emotional intelligence test) app claims to evaluate how well someone perceives how others are feeling. Essentially, it has you rate and assign emotions including anger, happiness, fear, and disgust to human faces.

Companies have been seeking candidates with a high degree of emotional intelligence—how well we understand ourselves and other people—since psychologist Daniel Goleman’s bestseller popularized the concept almost two decades ago. Building on previous studies, Goleman’s research concluded that the most effective leaders have a high degree of self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill. (I can almost hear Mark Zuckerberg snickering.)

Goleman weighed in on the limitations of the app. Even if it does a good job assessing cognitive empathy–recognizing other people’s feelings–that’s only one of three kinds of empathy that matter to EI. The other two necessary components–described in Goleman’s latest book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellenceare the ability to resonate in the moment with another person’s feelings, and caring about those feelings.

In other words, EI isn’t all that easy to evaluate. But not only is it difficult to assess EI during job interviews, but some jobs simply don’t require high levels. Which brings me back to Zuckerberg. ( I don’t know him personally, so maybe it’s unfair to use him as an example, but I’ll go with his Social Network portrayal.)

Can a High EI Actually Make Me Less Successful?

The link between high EI and job success depends on the job, as psychologist Adam Grant recently wrote in the Atlantic. “Salespeople, real-estate agents, call-center representatives, and counselors all excelled at their jobs when they knew how to read and regulate emotions,” Grant noted, citing a large-scale analysis of EI studies by a team of psychologists.

In jobs that had fewer emotional demands, employees with higher levels of emotional intelligence had lower job performance than their less attuned peers. For mechanics, scientists, and accountants, emotional intelligence was actually a liability.

In our eagerness to reach our goals, or put together the best team, it’s natural to look for formulas and measurements to help. When it comes to emotional intelligence, at least, it’s time for a more nuanced view.

About the Author

Susan Price has been writing about careers, entrepreneurs and personal finance for more than a decade. She’s been an editor at BusinessWeek, Money, and iVillage.com, among others.