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Ever since the suggestion that 'emotional intelligence' might be playing an important part in working lives, there's been a debate over what really matters most to performance; brains or heart. A rise in the currency of 'EQ' (Emotional Quotient) has led to widespread culture change and an industry of testing, development and consultancy. But what proof is there? Ron Humphrey can point to evidence from the largest analyses ever carried out of workplace experiences and perceptions.

When I first started teaching on MBA programmes, the textbooks only talked about emotions in relation to two contexts, both of them negative. Emotions were something stirred up by conflict that could end up spilling over, making difficult situations and relationships much worse; or, they could turn up in the decision-making process and divert attention from the facts and rational solutions.

The history of business administration, dating back to the work of Max Weber in the late nineteenth century, has been based on the principle that the more organisations are ‘dehumanised’, made less personal, irrational, emotional, the more efficient and effective they will be. This negative view of emotions led to the suppression of emotions in the workplace. Our understanding of emotions took a leap forward in the 1990s with the concept of ‘emotional intelligence’: a set of abilities that allows people to recognise, understand and express emotions in themselves and the people they work with. Now, we know that emotions can have many positive benefits in the workplace, and that the proper management of emotions can improve employee loyalty, job satisfaction, and performance. Moreover, emotional intelligence can help employees control irrational emotional impulses that could interfere with good decision-making and help stimulate the positive emotions that fuel creativity and innovative decision-making. Because of their deep knowledge about people's feelings, motivations, and interpersonal relationships, emotionally intelligent people are especially good about making decisions that involve people.

A series of high-profile management books - including Daniel Goleman's bestselling Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ - and research studies built up the case for emotions and for emotional intelligence (EQ, also known as EI). EQ has become an accepted feature of selection and recruitment processes, and a focus for training and development. But there continue to be differences in opinion when it comes to the critical question of what kinds of people are really most beneficial for organisations. One camp argues that ultimately it’s still a matter of how smart you are, how well you know the job and work as a rational problem-solver; another that it’s not so much a case of EQ in general as more specific personality traits, such as being an extrovert or having a strong work ethic.


Since 2011 we have been carrying out a series of large-scale meta-analyses of the available data on emotional intelligence in the workplace, taking results from studies involving tens of thousands of employees internationally, weighting results on the basis of the scale of the research, and controlling for the impact of cognitive intelligence and other factors.

The headlines are that levels of EQ are the number one best predictor when it comes to the likelihood of job satisfaction, commitment to the employer and intention to stay with an employer. When it comes to the issue of job performance itself, EQ ranks in second place after cognitive intelligence. But our research studies have also shed light on some more specific aspects of EQ and its relationship with some of the most important mechanics of workplace life. For example, we looked at whether emotionally intelligent people make good 'organisational citizens' or this kind of sensitivity to emotions can become counterproductive. Our general conclusion is that emotionally savvy individuals are likely to be good organisational soldiers who are pro­social and helpful, and that they refrain from engaging in 'deviant' activities that can hinder the accomplishment of organisational goals. Our findings support the view that emotionally savvy individuals can recognise and understand others' feelings and perceive others' need for help and have the skills necessary to help. They harness their EQ to maintain positive emotions and to regulate negative emotions, allowing them to experience higher job satisfaction and use these positive feelings to constrain counterproductive urges. In addition, emotionally intelligent employees have better comprehension of organisational norms and rules so that they can exhibit behaviours that show compliance with and support for the organisation. More specifically, the role of EQ is more important in industries which are more demanding in terms of emotional resilience, such as healthcare and services.

Job satisfaction, organisational commitment, and turnover intentions are important attitudes related to many critical workplace outcomes, such as job performance, turnover, profits, and psychological wellbeing. Our investigations provide insights and evidence regarding the importance of employees' El in determining employees' work attitudes. To produce satisfied and productive workers, organisations can incorporate El in employee education, training, and development. Importantly, our research findings suggest a low-cost, yet effective way to staff an organisation with satisfied employees, which is to hire emotionally intelligent people. Incorporating a measure of El during the selection process would help an organisation find emotionally intelligent and, therefore, more satisfied employees. Nonetheless, hiring people high in El does not mean that organisations are free of their obligations to reduce workplace stress and strain and to improve overall working conditions.

The importance of EQ to leaders is another key area. Our results found that the level of a leader's emotional intelligence is nearly as important as that of the employees themselves in predicting subordinates' job satisfaction. This suggests that a leader's EQ plays a significant part in determining job satisfaction of their line reports and subordinates. There is also a relationship between higher leader EQ and better levels of task performance by the employees working for them. Our results reveal that emotionally intelligent leaders will have more emotionally intelligent, and so more satisfied, subordinates because these leaders are likely to foster an emotionally intelligent organisational culture where training and developing emotional intelligence is promoted. The emotionally intelligent culture will result in employees who are better able to deal with negative feelings and who are able to facilitate effective interpersonal interactions. As a result, emotionally intelligent followers are likely to be attracted, recruited, and retained as a result of the attraction-­selection-attrition process.

We're living through an age of increasing automation of job tasks, the rise of the use of Artificial Intelligence; in other words, the increased reliance of ultra-rational approaches to replace and work alongside human employees. It's a clearer separation of work roles that makes human soft skills more important than ever before. The more efficient organisations become in some ways, the greater premium for EQ, and the more focus needed on how these qualities can be better recognised, nurtured and encouraged.

Ronald H. Humphrey, Distinguished Professor of Leadership, Department of Entrepreneurship and Strategy


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