What's the evidence for... emotional intelligence?


Hi Rob, I found your evidence-based work very refreshing (especially regarding NLP). With regards to EI, I think your article needs more differentiation. Whilst you are right when it comes to the ...

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Evidence-based HR isn't about stealing anyone's thunder, it's about making the profession more effective

It’s horrible when your parade gets rained on. There you are – head held high and dressed to impress. Proudly marching. And suddenly you’re soaking wet. Your head drops and you trudge along with heavy heart and even heavier legs. Depressing. Irritating. Demotivating.

The purpose of evidence-based HR is not to rain on anybody’s parade (though I know that’s what some think). The challenge we face is that the evidence for professional practices – not just those found in HR – is often underwhelming. If we discover this also applies to a practice we have been keenly championing we’re probably not going to like it. But why?

Sometimes it’s because it does feel exactly like somebody has spoiled things. It all seems to be going so well, but then we read an article that suggests that what we thought were best practices are actually little better than worst practices. Assessment centres are not all they’re cracked up to be? Oh dear. High-potential programmes may do more harm than good? Thanks for nothing.

We also get upset for another reason: there are ideas we love so much that we don’t want to hear they are anything but completely fab. Evidence can be an emotional business, which brings us to emotional intelligence (EI).

Many just love the idea that EI is key to success and happiness. Presenting evidence that suggests otherwise is more than someone raining on our parade – it’s challenging strongly held and deeply cherished beliefs.

What’s the problem it aims to fix?

EI is not a solution to any particular problem as such. Rather it is an individual characteristic you might want to measure or enhance to increase work performance through, for example, selecting those who have higher EI scores for certain roles or providing EI training.

What is it?

The term was first coined more than 25 years ago and, as the name suggests, it refers to a form of intelligence that is not about how we process information or think, but how well we deal with our emotions.

There are numerous definitions but generally EI consists of three types of skill: the identification of specific emotions in oneself and others, using emotion to guide thought, and regulating emotion.

The EI world consists of two camps. In one are the EI entrepreneurs who have turned it into a lucrative commodity to be packaged and sold to businesses in the form of pop psychology books. These mostly contain astoundingly impressive hyperclaims about the power of emotional intelligence, EI measures and tools, and EI training courses. The founding father of this camp is Daniel Goleman.

In the other camp are the research psychologists, who over many decades have been examining the validity of emotional intelligence, developing measures, and trying to understand how people identify, use and regulate their emotion as well as how it might affect wellbeing, personal growth and performance. Not surprisingly the EI researchers’ claims are much more modest and nuanced than those of the EI entrepreneurs.

Does it work?

The good news in this case is there is actually quite a lot of evidence about EI and work performance. The bad news is that, if you love EI, you might not like it. There is so much research on the practice that it’s possible to conduct meta-analyses that pull together all the data from many separate studies. So what do they show?

First, there is a small correlation between emotional intelligence and some aspects of performance – though most research cannot demonstrate cause and effect. So if you want to increase performance, EI is not a sensible place to start.

Second, research shows that EI measures only correlate with performance, because they also measure other constructs, such as personality, which are already known to predict performance. In other words: although EI measures do correlate with performance they only do so because they are measuring other things too. If you control for the effects of these, the correlation between EI and work performance disappears.

If you’re upset by these findings I’m sure you’ll feel better soon. And just how fast this happens may well depend on your level of emotional intelligence.

Rob Briner is professor of organisational psychology at the University of Bath's School of Management. He was ranked second Most Influential Thinker in the 2015 HR Most Influential list

Further reading

What's the evidence for... evidence-based HR?

What's the evidence for... talent management?

What's the evidence for... performance management?

What's the evidence for... neuro-linguistic programming?


HR Mag comment Love to hear from people who use EI in their practice. If you want to follow up on this, the full text of the meta-analysis on which I based one of my final comments can be found here https://t.co/MRdxkqXOdA Joseph, D. L., Jin, J., Newman, D. A., & O’Boyle, E. H. (2014). Why does self-reported emotional intelligence predict job performance? A meta-analytic investigation of mixed EI. Journal of Applied Psychology.


Hi Rob, I found your evidence-based work very refreshing (especially regarding NLP). With regards to EI, I think your article needs more differentiation. Whilst you are right when it comes to the trait-conceptualisation of EI, EI can also be conceptualised as a kind of emotional self-efficacy (see http://emotionresearcher.com/reintroducing-emotional-intelligence-what-it-is-and-where-we-stand-now/) and I think the meta-analysis you mention excluded many high-quality research articles e.g. using the Wong & Law, 2002 scale. Apart from this, high(est) quality research evidence starts to increase that shows specific emotionally intelligent leader behaviours (e.g. emotional expressions) to be very potent in increasing follower work performance and creativity (van Kleef et al., 2009, Visser et al, 2013, van Kleef et al., 2010). Whatever the trait-basis for this is (be it trait EI or personality) these "emotionally intelligent" behaviours apparently do make a difference when it comes to good leadership. Therefore, if your article would have included these bits and pieces of information I would have liked it even better. I think otherwise people may easily be mislead that everything to do with EI is pointless / redundant.


Of course I agree there are *some* studies that show *some* effects of EI on *some* aspects of performance and you have listed a few but in the bigger scheme of things they don't really matter. The point of the piece is to alert HR people to the fact that the evidence just doesn't support the hyper-claims about EI and performance they are constantly hearing. We should always look at the body of evidence or all the evidence (in this case meta-analyses) and not cherry pick. The body of evidence about EI and performance suggests there isn't that much going on relative to the strong claims typically made. Also true for abilty EI: "Meta-analytic evidence indicates there is little-to-no incremental validity of ability EI in predicting job performance, above and beyond Big Five personality and general mental ability/intelligence. In other words, ability EI does almost nothing to predict overall job performance, after one has accounted for personality and general intelligence." http://emotionresearcher.com/emotional-intelligence-some-research-findings-and-remaining-questions/


Great article Rob. I have tons of empirical evidence that EI matters just from seeing how well some people get on with life who "have it" and how it disables others who "don't". Somewhat controversially some people who classically don't seem to demonstrate it are also successful e.g. Steve Jobs That said, the claims and hullabaloo are often overblown. The assumption the EI is learnable is an important question.


I read some of the original academic research and papers from about 1990. I was clear that some people are better at EI and suggested that all teams should have some people who are very good with EI. They are the glue that holds a team together. I saw nothing in the original work about all people needing 'more'. Good article. I have also noticed that people who love EI as a concept and as a body of work are also the first to say that all people need to learn more.

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