Emotional Intelligence at Work: Choose and Apply Your Measure Carefully

There are two popular models of emotional intelligence (EI): the ability model and the mixed model. The ability model involves emotion perception, emotion understanding, emotion facilitation, and emotion regulation for the purpose of affecting desired behaviors (e.g. job performance, goal attainment). A common ability measure of emotional intelligence is the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT). The mixed model treats emotional intelligence as an umbrella term for a broad array of traits and abilities (e.g. assertiveness, empathy, impulse control, optimism) that do not overlap with cognitive intelligence. An example of a mixed measure of EI is EI-Q: Emotional Quotient Inventory.

A very well done meta-analytic study recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology demonstrated that job performance was significantly affected by emotion regulation, the process of creating and maintaining positive affective states. Emotion regulation was in turn affected by the ability to perceive and then understand emotion.

The research also looked at how common Big Five personality traits emotional stability and conscientiousness, as well as cognitive ability affected the links between emotion perception, understanding, regulation, and ultimately job performance. They found that cognitive ability had direct affects on both emotional understanding and job performance. The personality trait emotional stability affected emotional regulation, and conscientiousness affected both emotion perception and job performance.

Let me make sure you catch that – beyond measures of emotion process, measure of both cognitive ability and conscientiousness had direct effects on job performance in this meta-analysis. If you are not hiring, supporting, and promoting bright, conscientious people in your organization, you are missing the boat.

Yet many organizations are lead to believe that measures of emotional intelligence are effective selection tools. The authors of the study went on to offer five practical suggestions for using emotional intelligence measures in personnel selection (p. 72):

1. Chose your EI measure carefully. Ability measures and mixed measures of EI do not measure the same thing; therefore, they predict different things.

2. Exercise extreme caution when using mixed measures of EI. Measures of cognitive ability and Big Five personality are better.

3. Know that ability EI measures may add little to the selection system. Again, ability based measures contribute little incremental validity over cognitive ability and personality.

4. Base the decision to use an EI measure on the job type. EI measures are most useful and effective when selecting for emotional labor jobs that require significant positive display of emotions.

5. Be aware of subgroup differences on EI. Performance-based EI measures appear to favor women and Whites, which may produce adverse impact against men and African Americans.

There is a lot of hype around emotional intelligence, with consultants selling EI like hotcakes. Don’t let your emotions get the best of you when deciding when and how to use measure of emotional intelligence in your organization.

Bret L. Simmons, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Management at The University of Nevada, Reno. He earned his doctorate in Business Administration at Oklahoma State University. Bret blogs about leadership and social business at his website Positive Organizational Behavior. You can also find him on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.


About the author

David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.

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