Is Emotional Intelligence Overrated? Here’s What Psychologists Are Saying

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May 30, 2024 at 1:54PM UTC

The buzz around emotional intelligence is inescapable these days. From emotional intelligence’s impact on leadership to the hacks that emotionally intelligent parents use, a high EQ has, in many ways, ousted IQ in the lexicon of desirable qualities. 

This is perhaps particularly true in the case of employers. One recent report from ManpowerGroup showed that, in a survey of 2,000 U.S. employers, 61% rate qualities associated with emotional intelligence — from evolved communication skills to an affinity for collaborating — as their most coveted skills in a new hire. But at least one expert is determined to debunk the thought process behind that. 

Adam Grant, an American psychologist, author, and Wharton professor, decided to put EQ’s impact to the test, which he famously wrote about in a LinkedIn post calling emotional intelligence “overrated.” In the post, he says that “it’s a mistake to base hiring or promotion decisions on (EQ),” arguing that an employee’s cognitive ability is a much better predictor of their success in a role. 

To prove this point, he conducted a study of hundreds of salespeople. The salespeople were given two emotional intelligence tests, which measured their ability to perceive, understand, and regulate emotions, as well as a five-minute cognitive ability test. The respondents’ sales revenue was then tracked for several months — and the end results didn’t rule in EQ’s favor, Grant said. 

“Cognitive ability was more than five times more powerful than emotional intelligence,” Grant wrote. “The average employee with high cognitive ability generated annual revenue of over $195,000, compared with $159,000 for those with moderate cognitive ability and $109,000 for those with low cognitive ability. Emotional intelligence added nothing after measuring cognitive ability.”

He did allow that there are a few career circumstances in which one’s EQ could be of more importance, qualifying that “if your work is primarily about dealing with data, things, and ideas rather than people and feelings, it's not necessarily advantageous to be skilled in reading and regulating emotions.” But, for the most part, his report pretty much pans the usefulness of emotional intelligence. 

What Grant’s EQ study misses, however, is the importance of emotional intelligence in career advancement beyond the scope of completing your daily, perfunctory duties (i.e. making a sale). As psychologist Daniel Goleman rebutted, and as Marcel Schwantes summed up for Inc., emotional intelligence inarguably plays an important role in your likelihood of getting promoted. 
Whereas cognitive ability may play more of a role in the technical elements of job performance and productivity, plenty of research has shown that productivity alone doesn’t mean an employee will make a good boss. And one’s ability to manage people well, spot top performers, and navigate team dynamics does largely rest on emotional intelligence.  Meaning that for those of us interested in continuing to progress in our careers, we'll kindly agree to disagree with Grant's theory.

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