Emotional Dimwits Need Not Apply

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By Mark Vickers

You know the type: brilliant spreadsheet jockeys who crave leadership positions but who are so arrogant or even petulant that they constantly offend others. In the past, these bellicose bullies in Armani have sometimes found their way into top executive levels. In the future, they're going to have a tougher time of it.

At least that's one conclusion that can be reached from a leadership competencies survey that i4cp conducted in partnership with American Management Association. We asked participants to write in responses to the following question, “What two competencies should a leader have in the coming decade that were not as important in the preceding decade?”

We predicted, based on prior research, that the top answer would be change management (as it was), and we suspected that innovation and communication would be in top five; but we didn't expect the term “emotional intelligence” to make that top-five cut.

After all, emotional intelligence, or EI, seems like such a 1990s term, harkening back to Daniel Goleman's influential book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. But there it is, sending a signal that tomorrow's leaders had better have some solid “soft skills” if they want to be leaders circa 2020.

Leadership Competencies of Increasing Importance:
1. Change Management/Agility/Flexibility
2. Innovation/Creativity
3. Communication
4. Team Building/Collaboration
5. Emotional Intelligence/Empathy

So, when an i4cp member company later suggested we conduct more detailed research into emotional intelligence, we jumped at the opportunity and, once again, found connections between emotional intelligence and leadership competency.

In our study, we defined emotional intelligence as the degree to which a person has the ability to recognize and understand emotions and the skills to manage personal, individual and team performance using such awareness. We found that emotional intelligence initiatives remain the exception rather than the rule. Only 6% of 453 respondents said their organization has an emotional intelligence initiative that encompasses their whole organization, and only 17% said they have an initiative in parts of the organization (not counting pilot programs).

Respondents from larger companies (1,000 or more employees) that are higher market performers were more likely to say they have such initiatives than those from lower-performing organizations (32% v. 19%), but it was the details of the EI programs that are most intriguing.

We found, for example, that higher performing, larger organizations are more likely than other companies to focus EI initiatives on leadership and high-potential development than on areas such as communication.  In a similar vein, about two thirds of high-performing organizations apply the EI concept to their executive-level leaders, yet fewer than half of low-performing organizations do so.

So, EI is all about improving leadership, right?

Well, it's not that simple. The study also asked about the top outcomes expected of EI initiatives. It turns out that organizations are using EI to improve their leadership ranks, but the more common goal is improve team performance. So, the goal is not just to have more emotionally intelligent leaders, but to leverage that intelligence to improve other areas of organizational performance, especially teamwork.

When Dr. Susan Langlitz, Senior Advisor at CNA, another i4cp member company, conducted a recent Webinar called “Measuring Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace,” she noted that one of the key ways in which executives can derail their careers is by “not being able to work in teams.” For example, a leader may have some essential technical expertise, which fosters the expectation that others will cater to them. This arrogant assumption limits their development of the kind of emotional intelligence they need to manage teams and interpersonal relationships well.

However, we should not see EI as exclusively a leadership development or team issue. Among larger organizations, high performers are considerably more likely to say they retain and hire—to a high or very high extent—employees with high levels of emotional intelligence. In short, in certain companies the larger talent management system plays a critical role in recruiting, developing, and retaining emotionally intelligent employees.

i4cp's 4-Part Recommendation:

1. Investigate.
Today, only a minority of organizations use EI initiatives. Despite some compelling research in this area, it's too soon to claim that such initiatives necessarily result in higher organization performance. However, it's not too soon for development experts to investigate the current literature more fully and to inquire whether internal assessment data indicates that there is an emotional intelligence deficit in current managerial ranks. Development experts can also reach out to other companies with EI initiatives to determine how such practices are being implemented and how effective they have been.

2. Prepare. If an organization decides to pursue an EI initiative, even if it's only in the form of a pilot program, there are various preparatory steps it should take. In her presentation, Dr. Langlitz recommends steps such as assessing organizational needs, adjusting expectations and gauging overall readiness. Gaining leadership support is essential at this stage. No company should jump in to an EI initiative without carefully laying both the cultural and logistical groundwork for making it successful.

3. Train. Langlitz also notes that there are assessment tools—such as the Bar-On Emotional Quotient Inventory or Emotional Intelligence Appraisal—that can serve as a “barometer of where people are in emotional intelligence and then where they need to go.” These assessments help determine the areas in which training and development should be focused. In some cases, online assessments and learning can be a good way of familiarizing people with concepts associated with emotional intelligence. However, particularly at the leadership level, a more hands-on coaching approach will likely be necessary to provide in-depth insights. Learners should be given opportunities to practice EI skills and to receive feedback on such practice.

4. Evaluate. The i4cp study indicates that—among larger and high-performing organizations—the top five ways of gauging the impact of EI are through manager evaluations/appraisals, changes in behavior, 360-degree appraisals, employee surveys and individual scores on EI assessments. Managers may also want to correlate this data with measures such as turnover and retention rates or, even, for programs targeted at specific functions, improved sales or customer satisfaction. It may be difficult to establish straightforward return-on-investment numbers, but gauging evaluation methods in advance of program implementation will likely pay off in more effective EI initiatives.

For more information, visit www.i4cp.com

About the Author(s)

Mark Vickers, Institute for Corporate Productivity Mark Vickers is vice president of research at the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp).