When psychologists first proposed the concept of emotional intelligence and its related measure, EQ, they claimed that this is the type of intelligence that really matters in order to succeed in life. Also referred to by some as “street smarts,” or practical intelligence, EQ was conceived of as an alternative to “book smarts," as assessed by standard intelligence tests (IQ). There was some evidence in support of these claims, which in turn became the basis for what amounted to an EQ revolution. IQ was out, and EQ was in. The jury was still out, however, on just how much of a benefit EQ could provide in helping people become materially, if not psychologically, in their life accomplishments.
As Miami University of Ohio’s Joseph Rode and colleagues note (2017), “there are few systematic studies of the relationship between emotional intelligence and career success, despite strong interest in the popular press." The studies that do exist focus on short-term outcomes and didn’t produce very promising results to bolster claims of EQ’s career-boosting potential. Recognizing the need to address more systematically and, over the long haul, the possible benefits of EQ, Rode et al. developed a theoretical model that would account over time for a role of EQ in workplace success. In their model, EQ should be related to the ability to build “social capital” in the form of social support networks. Specifically, people high in EQ should be able to find mentors who would, in turn, train them in relevant job skills. Possessing these skills, the high-EQ workers should be able, then, to achieve the higher job levels that produce higher salaries.
The authors used a “mental abilities” framework in which they defined EQ as representing a cross between traditionally-defined intelligence and emotions. People high in EQ can identify, understand, and regulate their emotions in ways that allow them to communicate well with others, think about the problems they face, form relationships, and maintain those relationships over time. Being able to manage your emotions, as you might expect, is a valuable tool in a variety of contexts, but particularly in the workplace. Regardless of where you work or spend time outside the home, you have to deal with “politics.” In the words of the authors, in any organization, workers must “compete for scarce resources by proactively balancing power relationships and navigating the organization’s social and political environment." You might notice this particularly when you join an existing group of people who work in the same office, shop, or department. From figuring out who will give you keys to telephone and IT support, you need to navigate this new environment and learn how to adapt. The more emotionally sensitive and aware you are of the complex relationships in your new site, you’ll fit in better, quicker, and more effectively.
People who are low in EQ, by contrast, make constant pains out of themselves and you’ll do all you can to avoid them. The overbearing boss, the nosy food service worker, or the intrusive receptionist are no fun to be with, and can even make your life extremely unpleasant if they so choose. The people who talk too long, who are rude in meetings, and who seem to enjoy throwing roadblocks in your way, similarly, will hardly make it to the top of your popularity list.
With a person high in EQ, furthermore, you’ll go out of your way to be helpful and supportive. Whether it’s taking the time to show where to grab a snack, make a cup of tea, or find the closest restroom, you won’t mind stopping what you’re doing to show someone new the ropes. Thankful, appreciative, and appropriately friendly, this tutee of yours will make you feel good about yourself and what you’re doing. It was this logic that led Rode and his collaborators to propose that EQ has its beneficial effect on salary via the route of mentoring. Because people high in EQ are so aware of their own needs, you'll enjoy helping them, but they will also reach out for help from those who stand to offer them useful advice and support. They’ll know enough of what they don’t know, in other words, to seek out a senior person to give them guidance. Being good at relationships, furthermore, will make them better able to form strong bonds with their mentors.
Impressively, Rode et al. were able to test their model using a follow-up, or lagged, design in which participants first provided data while they were still in college. They completed the EQ measure in their junior or senior years. The resulting sample consisted of 126 individuals with data spanning the 11 to 13 years between the two testings.
As the authors predicted, EQ in college predicted whether participants had obtained a work mentor. Those who had mentors also earned more. Going beyond salary, because EQ should be associated with the ability to handle complex relationships, manage stress, and make better decisions, the authors tested a model in which the EQ effect was combined with job level (low or high). As it turned out, for people in low job levels, EQ had no impact on salary, but those in higher job levels earned more the higher their EQ scores. As the authors observed, EQ is particularly important for individuals as they ascend the managerial ranks when these more advanced skills are required. You may not think that all bosses are that emotionally savvy, but all other things being equal, it does help to have good leadership skills, ability to influence others, and the capacity to tolerate ambiguity.
Being high in EQ may not make you rich, of course, but the findings of the Miami University et al. team suggest that it will position you better for a path to advancement. Once on that path, fulfillment may mean having more than a large paycheck, but it is also likely that you’ll derive more emotional pleasure from your relationships and ability to thrive.
Rode, J. C., Arthaud-Day, M., Ramaswami, A., & Howes, S. (2017). A time-lagged study of emotional intelligence and salary. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 10177-89. doi:10.1016/j.jvb.2017.05.001