The concept of emotional intelligence (EI) can be summarised as “the capacity to harmonise thought and emotion”, by which we mean an individual’s ability to understand and control their own emotions, as well as recognise and manage those of others. This requires a person to be self-aware, perceptive and able to regulate emotional responses in various social situations
It had been acknowledged by several psychologists since the 1920s that people possess something other than cognitive intelligence, but it wasn’t until 1990 that the concept of “emotional intelligence” as we know it was formalised by Peter Salovey and Jack Mayer, then popularised beyond the academic world by Daniel Goleman in 1995. Since then, numerous theoretical works have analysed the practical implications of emotional intelligence, many have attempted to measure it and countless self-help publications have offered tips on harnessing it. So what is it? Why is it important to understand? Can it be measured and what could such scores tell us?
1. How does EI differ from iQ?
IQ tests measure cognitive abilities, such as your ability to manipulate numerical information, abstract concepts and so on. IQ tends to be relatively static, not changing much throughout one’s lifetime. In contrast, eI is not static; eI tends to stabilise at around 30 years of age, although some areas may change in the face of life-changing events.
A further distinction can be found within eI itself, where some models view eI as similar to a cognitive ability, measured with right/wrong questions (“Ability eI”), while other constructs view eI as related to personality traits, allowing for a continuum of responses that provide deeper insight into a person’s emotional capacities (“Trait eI”).
2. What is Trait Emotional Intelligence?
Salovey & Mayer’s earlier model followed an ability EI construct, defining it as an “ability to perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought”, i.e. the concept that emotions are useful sources of social information and that some people are more skilled at harnessing and processing that information than others.
Trait EI (or “trait emotional self-efficacy”) was later developed by Dr K. V. Petrides and defined as “a constellation of emotional self-perceptions located at the lower levels of personality hierarchies” (2001). In lay terms, this frames EI as a set of personality traits (in the person’s own estimation) stemming from a ‘bottom up’ theory of behaviour. Since personality is subjective and contextual, these traits can only reliably be assessed by self-reporting, rather than black and white ‘performance’ tests.
3. Why is EI important?
We each have a model of the world based upon our own beliefs, values, attitudes, behaviours and experiences. Since no two people can have exactly the same worldview, effective social interaction becomes dependent upon a person’s self-awareness and readiness to acknowledge other people’s perspectives.
Relationships can be very emotionally charged even beyond the realms of friends and family. Taking steps to understand your own emotional competence – and the impact it could have on others – is a powerful way to develop better interpersonal and people management skills.
4. How can EI make a difference in the workplace?
Since EI affects the quality of both naturally occurring and arranged (e.g. colleague) relationships, and the effectiveness of an organisation is hugely dependent upon happy and motivated employees, it follows that EI has a critical role to play in improving morale, productivity, efficiency, communication and so on.
Managers face particular emotional demands when delivering results with and through people. Having higher EI can support a manager towards engaging and leading their people to fulfil their potential and can also protect them from the negative effects of emotionally challenging interactions with others
5. How do trait EI assessments work?
Dr K.V. Petrides developed the Trait Emotional Intelligence Questionnaire (TEIQue) to provide a simple tool for analysing the 15 facets that comprise the current sampling domain of trait EI in adults.
Participants answer a battery of questions on a 7-point Likert scale (strongly agree to strongly disagree). Their responses are then compared with those of the UK workforce norm (1,874 people between the ages of 17 and 77). This comparison allows the assignment of a ‘percentile rank’ to an individual e.g. Did they rate their own optimism as higher than, lower than or the same as the majority of the UK working population?
EI has been shown to be distributed normatively across the population, i.e. most people fall within the middle band of responses, with fewer people indicating very high or very low responses on the scale.
Note: unlike percentages, higher does not necessarily mean better here – it’s all about context!
"Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose and in the right way – that is not easy!"
6. What can assessment results tell you?
The results indicate how well people perceive their capacity to understand and manage their emotions, how well they can interpret and deal with the emotions of others and how they believe they can use this knowledge to manage relationships.
Because questionnaires measuring trait EI don’t have right/wrong answers, they are effectively self-scoring. This means that the final report is best used as an instrument for further discussion to provide insight directly with the participant.
The deeper insights gained from those consultations can help managers to coach employees, troubleshoot conflict, overcome communication barriers and ultimately improve self-awareness and team working.
8. What can assessment results NOT tell you?
The response patterns on a trait EI questionnaire are subjective in nature; EI assessments cannot simply predict a person’s potential for success, any more than they can elucidate a person’s moral character. It is not accurate to suggest that someone with “high EI” will automatically become a great leader or necessarily get ahead in life, but the insights provided can be used to explore a person’s potential in the context of the particular issues they may face and the environment they operate in.
The key to harnessing EI in the workplace lies in working out which aspects of trait EI are relevant for the demands of a particular job, where you might need your people to be especially effective and what impact it might have on your business should someone struggle in a particular area.
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