Article: Old MacHR has a farm(ula), E-I - E-I - O!

Strategic HR

Old MacHR has a farm(ula), E-I - E-I - O!

EI (Emotional Intelligence) has been the rage for well over two decades now. Is it really the cure-all it is made out to be? What cautions should guide its use?
Old MacHR has a farm(ula), E-I - E-I - O!

Dr. MacHR had built up a roaring practice. It had only one problem. Whatever the ailment or injury, he prescribed the same test and cure: EI. The full form of the charm was Elixir Incredibilis, though it was popularly known by its new-fangled name of Emotional Intelligence. Depending on the problem at hand, Dr. MacHR administered it in different forms, of course. So, there were EI filters for pre-employment testing as well as for internal progression, there were orally administered EI doses to large groups of run-of-the-mill, sandpaper-surfaced staff and then there were the individually designed, heavy-duty EI surgical implants, which were experientially or coachingly inserted into those senior executives who had all the ingredients for corporate success except affable smiles and sensitive hearts.

In a delightful paper published almost a century ago, A J Clark explains the very human desire to have a universal cure. After critiquing "Mesmer's tub, Graham's ethereal essences, Perkins's tractors, or Hahnemann's tinctures", he writes: "dozens of similar crazes have arisen in the past and will arise in the future. These universal cures simply represent the old quest for the elixir of life in a new form, and arise to satisfy the fundamental craving of the mass of humanity for a miraculous cure for disease. Science has nothing to do with these cults, and they are scarcely influenced by its progress; and since the type of mind that produces them and accepts them both remain constant, one finds from century to century that remarkable sameness between succeeding crazes..."1 Emotional Intelligence (EI) is certainly not as baseless or devoid of efficacy as the examples provided by Clark. It has a clear role to play in the evaluation and development of managers. Yet, when it is followed panaceatically, to the exclusion of most other criteria and capabilities, it rapidly shows diminishing returns of utility for the time and expense lavished on it. 

For a construct that went on to become the object of so many extravagant (even outlandish) claims, EI’s origins were relatively modest and scientifically grounded. While there were some brief references to the idea much earlier, Emotional Intelligence really took off after Salovey and Mayer’s seminal paper on the subject.2 They and other collaborators continued to develop the framework and their four-branch model has underpinned much of (at least the “ability-based”) research on the subject. More recently, researchers have proposed that the following three sub-dimensions would provide a more parsimonious division for EI3:

  • Emotion perception 
  • Emotion understanding
  • Emotion regulation

Perhaps the concept would have continued ploughing its quiet, scientific furrow but for Goleman’s blockbuster book4 on the subject in 1995. As Salovey, Mayer and Caruso, somewhat wryly, put it: "…we also helped to stimulate the writing of the best-selling book Emotional Intelligence, in which Goleman promised that emotional intelligence rather than analytical intelligence predicts success in school, work, and home. Despite the lack of data to support some of Goleman’s claims, interest in emotional intelligence soared... Very little of this explosion of available resources on emotional intelligence represented empirically oriented scholarship."5

Other criticisms of the theoretical and research base of EI are far more trenchant. Jordan and his co-authors, for instance, conclude their study with: "Extravagant claims have been made in the popular press about the importance and relevance of emotional intelligence. These claims have received considerable attention in organizations, in part because emotional intelligence appears to provide a fresh approach for solving long-standing problems such as how to find and develop the best employees. The most sweeping claims about emotional intelligence have little empirical or theoretical support and are often based on fuzzy, all-encompassing definitions of emotional intelligence. We would argue that these claims have done considerable harm to the field, because they lead many people to regard emotional intelligence as a fad and a confidence game. The evidence reviewed here supports the notion that emotional intelligence, as defined by the Mayer and Salovey model, can be an important construct. Unfortunately, the inflated claims made in some quarters have made the whole field of emotional intelligence suspect in the eyes of many."6 Antonakis puts it even more strongly, writing that "…there is simply not enough evidence to use EI in industrial or education settings. As mentioned by Matthews (and others), 'We see little evidence in [EI] validation studies that would support the current use of existing EI measures for making real-life, high-stakes decisions for individuals'. Using EI tests that do not work is not only uneconomical; it is also unethical…  EI cannot possibly predict leadership relational outcomes or leadership effectiveness if tested using strong controls… EI models are beset with problems regarding their validity..."7 In the face of these critiques, perhaps the most we should venture to claim is that "the practice-driven version of El looks like a fad, whereas the science-driven version seems less fad-like".8

It would appear that EI has sprawled out like a fast-growing city. Some neighborhoods retain their respectability and follow sound principles of behavioral science research. But there are some seamier quarters that peep into adjacent pseudo-science slums. It is important for HR practitioners to be able to distinguish one from the other and to limit just what kind of EI theory they buy into and where they choose to apply it.

Why the popularity

There are many sensible and discerning HR and learning professionals who use EI judiciously and for the appropriate intervention, just as there are several balanced and relevant EI enhancement program providers. They need not read this column further. It is meant for those in our fraternity who use EI to hammer every selection, training and leadership development problem in sight, whether it is nail-like in contour (i.e. susceptible to EI interventions) or not, as well as for those consultants who recommend such unidirectional improvement programs to their clients. Let us understand why such overuse happens before turning to the dangers that can accompany it. There are three reasons why some HR professionals follow the fashionable but theoretically shakiest variants of EI.

To start with, the benefits EI is supposed to deliver are just too tempting to resist. Not only do fast-talking EI purveyors promise you the moon and the sun but are happy to throw in a couple of galaxies (black holes are charged extra) if you sign the atrociously expensive contract. Here is just one example of the type of exaggerated claims made on behalf of EI for which gullible HR practitioners fall. "Goleman and his colleagues have gone on to make some sensational but farandinical [yes, even I had to look up that word: VB] claims about EI; however, none of the claims have been backed up with hard, peer-reviewed data using strong controls. For instance, Goleman, Boyatzis, and McKee recently stated9 among other things that: 'To get an idea of the practical business implications of these [EI] competencies, consider an analysis of the partners’ contributions to the profits of a large accounting firm... Those with strength in the self-regulation competencies added a whopping 390% incremental profit… per year. By contrast, significant strengths in analytic reasoning abilities added just 50% more profit. Thus, purely cognitive abilities help – but the EI competencies help far more' "7 Now, which manically tulip-loving HR buyer could resist such a pitch?

Another reason HR people are delighted to give top intervention honors to EI is that they themselves are genuinely good at it. At a pinch they can even dispense with outside facilitators for cattle-class training and deliver it themselves. Clearly that’s not an advantage they command with more technical cognitive abilities or skills. Gone are the days when the head of an apprentice training school was himself an accomplished craftsman and rare are the instances of internal management development institutes being led by individuals proficient in disciplines other than HR and OD. Should we really grudge to HR people the natural desire to show off something they have in greater measure than others and to make it the frontispiece of leadership development?

Another important reason the theoretically flakier “mixed-base” variants of EI are preferred to their staider “ability-based” cousins3 is that their omnibus character permits them to mop up all kinds of demands on leaders and offer EI as the one-stop-shop solution. Commenting on the long list of Leadership traits and styles “mixed-base” EI is supposed to include9, Edwin Locke poses a sarcastic query: "The question one must ask here is, given that leadership based on EI allegedly encompasses such a long list of characteristics that people have associated with effective leadership, what does EI not include? One thing is missing from the list: actual intelligence!"10

All right. Maybe it is a bit of over-enthusiastic fashion-chasing and showing off by HR of a concept sitting on some wobbly research. Surely it can’t cause any real damage to organizations beyond the cash cost and the opportunity cost?

The Side-effects of EI Overdose

A top flight executive whom I knew well, was gifted with every conceivable attribute that was needed to get ahead. He was an inspiring leader with vision, drive, an A-grade intellect and an inexhaustible fund of EI. He should have been an asset to any organization and, up to a point, he was. He had just one hamartic handicap: he was totally amoral about the uses to which he put his EI. While his EI served the company well in the organization-aligned projects he undertook, it left considerable collateral damage when he used it in his efforts to beat competitors. As a result, while he made significant contributions wherever he worked, he also left a trail of crippled careers and highly politicized relationships in his wake that took years after his departure to mend. Unfortunately, this is not a rare instance. For good and ill, people with high EQ outclass their less EIstute colleagues in the games executives play. "…[E]motion-regulation knowledge is itself neither positive nor negative, but can facilitate the objectives of individuals whose interests are in doing harm as well as those interested in benefiting the greater good."11 Since checking people’s moral compass is extremely difficult during selection, screening primarily for EI in senior-level selections is like letting a hawk in among the pigeons. More seriously, when the proportion of EIstutes reaches a critical level, the entire organization become politically charged and a huge amount of energy is expended 'fixing' others rather than the problems facing the firm. It is a matter for sober reflection "that the strategic disguise of one’s own emotions and the manipulation of others’ emotions for strategic ends are behaviors evident not only on Shakespeare’s stage but also in the offices and corridors where power and influence are traded."12 Dousing the fire when EI is misused by Machiavellian minds is not easy or cost-free. Far safer to prevent the EI tank from being overfilled in the first place.

A few years back a client CEO wanted me to meet a couple of candidates who were being considered for the company’s top research job. The two were curiously opposed in their profiles. Candidate A was laconic, reserved and could even sound abrasive if pushed beyond a point, though she had been there, done that, and knew where she would take the product development agenda of the firm if she were in charge. Candidate E was personable, charming and wonderfully emollient but some of his tallest achievement claims rang hollow and demanded further verification. The CEO thought differently. He did not see himself oiling the troubled waters A’s presence would raise and thought the reference check of E’s background (by the search firm!) was adequate to confirm the candidate’s achievement boasts. A couple of years later, the CEO was generous enough to admit his error. High EI Mr. E had proved less than adequate for providing the engineering brilliance the job demanded and his people-pleasing-power could only provide temporary cover for his technical limitations. Fortunately, he did not misuse his EI to play politics and manipulate others but, at his level, not causing harm cannot be a sufficient qualification for retention. Once again, this is not an exception. Recent research continues to raise "...serious questions regarding the ubiquity of emotional intelligence as a precursor to job performance."13 Specifically, " [t]here is a negative correlation between EQ and many of the traits that predispose individuals toward creativity and innovation."3 It has also been found that in jobs that involve relatively fewer emotional demands, "[t]he more emotionally intelligent employees were, the lower their job performance."14  On a grander scale, we have pathbreakers like Steve Jobs who have charted new paths in product or business model innovation but who were virtual strangers to EI. Practitioners who can find convoluted arguments to prove these leaders had oodles of EI (if only one scratched the surface) would have no difficulty spotting the similarities between 'Uncle Joe' Stalin and Curly Joe from the Three Stooges.

People with high EI have a natural advantage in selection interviews over people who may be able to make more substantial contributions on the job. Instead of guarding against this potential pitfall we deepen the pit when we use EI as our prime filter, hoping more substantive competencies have been evaluated during the preliminary screening. There are, of course, no free lunches and the competency buffet is no exception. By overloading our plates with the EI-heavy competencies, we risk crowding out the truly critical success factors for the role and eliminating rough diamonds of extraordinary value if they have unfinished and scratchy edges. 

It may be useful to think of EI as a lubricating oil: a few drops in the right places can work wonders for the frictionless functioning of the enterprise engine. Pouring it with abandon, however, (and even outside the lubrication points) can be not just wasteful but hugely counterproductive.

Drinking Deep

Despite the fierce critics, who find almost nothing of salvageable value in EI, my personal conviction is that the concept holds much untapped promise, provided it is used judiciously, focusing on the roles where it can deliver the greatest gains and guarding against its dark side. Like antibiotics or steroids, EI can be a wonder cure when used wisely but considerably worse than useless when overdosed or taken for the wrong symptoms. Like those medicines, EI must be taken on the prescription of trained diagnosticians and practitioners who are thoroughly conversant with research that demonstrates both the curative powers as well as the dangers of EI. Many of the leads to such understanding are available in the reference list accompanying this column. Those who find such study tedious could do worse than follow Pope’s admonition:

A little learning is a dang'rous thing;

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:

There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,

And drinking largely sobers us again.15 




  1. A J Clark, Universal Cures, Ancient And Modern, The British Medical Journal, Vol. 2, 18 October 1924.
  2. P Salovey and J D Mayer, Emotional intelligence, Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 9, 185–211, 1990.
  3. D L Joseph and D A Newman, Emotional intelligence: An integrative meta-analysis and cascading model, Journal of Applied Psychology, 95, 54–78, 2010. 
  4. Daniel Goleman, Emotional intelligence, Bantam, 1995.
  5. P Salovey, J D Mayer and D Caruso, The positive psychology of emotional intelligence, In C R Snyder and S J Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 159–171), Oxford University Press, 2002.
  6. P J Jordan, C E Ashton-James, and N M Ashkanasy, Evaluating the Claims: Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace, In K R Murphy (Ed.), A critique of emotional intelligence: What are the problems and how can they be fixed? (pp. 189-210). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, 2006.
  7. John Antonakis, 'Emotional intelligence': What does it measure and does it matter for leadership?, In G. B. Graen (Ed). LMX leadership--Game-Changing Designs: Research-Based Tools (Vol. VII), (pp. 163-192), Information Age Publishing, 2009. 
  8. K R Murphy and L Sideman, The Fadification of Emotional Intelligence, In K R Murphy (Ed.), A critique of emotional intelligence: What are the problems and how can they be fixed? (p. 283–299). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, 2006.
  9. D Goleman, R Boyatzis, and A McKee, Primal leadership, HBS Press, 2002.
  10. Edwin A Locke, Why Emotional Intelligence is an Invalid Concept, Journal of Organizational Behavior 26(4):425 – 431, June 2005.
  11. Stéphane Côté, Katherine A DeCelles, Julie M McCarthy, Gerben A Van Kleef, and Ivona Hideg, The Jekyll and Hyde of Emotional Intelligence: Emotion-Regulation Knowledge Facilitates Both Prosocial and Interpersonally Deviant Behavior, Psychological Science, 22(8) 1073-1080, 2011.
  12. Martin Kilduff, Dan S Chiaburu and Jochen I. Menges, Strategic use of emotional intelligence in organizational settings: Exploring the dark side, Research in Organizational Behavior, Volume 30, Pages 129-152, 2010.
  13. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Adam Yearsley, The Downsides of Being Very Emotionally Intelligent, Harvard Business Review, January 2017.
  14. Adam Grant, The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence, the Atlantic, January 2014.
  15. Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism.


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Topics: Strategic HR

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