They’ve Taken Emotional Intelligence Too Far

The author of Emotional Intelligence explains how this popular concept has been overused

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Have you heard? They say that your EQ counts more than IQ for success. In fact, they say, EQ accounts for 80% of success. As the person who wrote Emotional Intelligence, the book that put the concept on the map, I can tell you that they are dead wrong.

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This and other myths about emotional intelligence constantly float around the blogosphere and get spouted by management consultants. The misinterpretation started nearly the moment TIME put the question, “What’s Your EQ?” on its cover when my book Emotional Intelligence was published in 1995. And by now we are long past the time when it should be put to rest for good.

Here are the facts. There’s no question IQ is by far the better determinant of career success, in the sense of predicting what kind of job you will be able to hold. It typically takes an IQ about 115 or above to be able to handle the cognitive complexity facing an accountant, a physician or a top executive. But here’s the paradox: once you’re in a high-IQ position, intellect loses its power to determine who will emerge as a productive employee or an effective leader. For that, how you handle yourself and your relationships — in other words, the emotional intelligence skill set — matters more than your IQ. In a high-IQ job pool, soft skills like discipline, drive and empathy mark those who emerge as outstanding.

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Companies know this. Corporate surveys find that more than two-thirds of major businesses apply some aspect of emotional intelligence in their recruiting, in promotions, and particularly in leadership development. But that emphasis has created a mini-boom in emotional intelligence consultants who too often ignore what the data tells us to make unfounded claims that will sell their services.

One of these fanciful claims is the often-repeated mantra that such personal skills “account for 80%” of business success. This particular myth may stem from a misreading of the studies I’ve written about in my books that look at how much of career success is accounted for by a person’s IQ alone. Most researchers conclude that IQ accounts for between 10 to 20 percent. That, as I’ve pointed out, leaves room for a wide range of other factors — everything from the family or social status you’re born into, to luck, to emotional intelligence, to name but a few. But people seem to jump to the conclusion that EQ alone makes up that 80% gap — and it does not.

The wish to believe EQ offers a magical alternative to IQ no doubt has multiple drivers. For some, it may be a consolation for poor school grades; for others a code for humanizing the workplace. Still others see EQ as an argument for more women in leadership. All those reasons may, one day, find hard data to support them — but we are not there yet. To be sure, we are seeing a slow aggregation of data supporting the added value of EQ, particularly for leaders, but these are typically small studies. The slow march of research lags far behind the hype of EQ marketers.