Why Emotional Intelligence Might Help You Do Your Job

If a job involves emotional labor, you may need emotional intelligence to do it.

Posted Jul 01, 2020

The concept of emotional intelligence really shot to fame and prominence in 1995 with the publication of Daniel Goleman's book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ. The subtitle was important. It implied that emotional intelligence could take the place of traditional intelligence tests as a key quality people need to achieve success in life, particularly in the workplace.

Is it really true that 'EQ' can matter more than 'IQ' for job performance?

Researchers have long known that higher general mental ability relates to better job performance. General mental ability is one of the best predictors of how people will perform in their jobs. Evidence clearly shows that job performance relates more strongly to general mental ability than to just about any other quality people bring to the job—it is more important than personality traits, years of job experience, or education qualifications.

In fact, the best estimate is that differences in IQ account for around 25% of the differences between people in job performance. This estimate comes from a meta-analysis (a systematic summary of all known evidence on the topic) by American organizational psychology researchers Frank Schmidt and John Hunter.

So how does emotional intelligence compare?

This is a more complicated question than it looks, because there are three different views on what emotional intelligence is:

  1. Some see emotional intelligence as an ability: the knowledge of how to perceive, understand, and manage emotions (emotional intelligence abilities).

  2. Others see emotional intelligence as the confidence in your emotional knowledge: the self-beliefs that you can perceive, understand, and manage emotions (emotional self-efficacy).

  3. Still others see emotional intelligence as a broad set of personality traits and motivations that lead to emotionally intelligent behavior (trait emotional intelligence).

These three different types of emotional intelligence show different relationships with job performance. Differences in emotional intelligence abilities account for only 3% of the differences in job performance, whereas differences in emotional self-efficacy account for 5% and differences in trait emotional intelligence account for 22%. These estimates are also from a meta-analysis (a summary across all available studies), this time by American organizational psychology researchers Dana Joseph and Daniel Newman.

So maybe the subtitle was wrong. Maybe EQ doesn't matter more than IQ.

But we need to consider what different jobs are like.

Let's consider two different workers in two different jobs: June and Jack.

June writes code for a living. She writes complex algorithms, troubleshoots technical problems, and spends most of her time on a computer. When she interacts with other people, it is often due to a time-critical need to complete a job before the server security is breached. It is a complicated job, and she is blunt and straight to the point in all her conversations. 

Jack works in a call center answering phone calls from people who need referral services after natural disasters. Jack has a list of phone numbers in front of him. While it is fairly simple to find out which services to refer the people to, the people Jack speaks to are often distressed and confused, and sometimes angry about being kept on hold. He needs to stay calm himself and often tries to make the people he speaks to feel better.

 Amitc008/CC BY-SA Creative Commons
Source: Amitc008/CC BY-SA Creative Commons

A day at work for Jack involves a very different set of skills than a day at work for June.

The first difference is that June has a more complex job than Jack. Her job involves a high level of information processing. Jobs that are scientific, highly technical, or professional have high job complexity. The job knowledge June needs to do her job is much greater than the job knowledge Jack needs to do his.

The second difference is that Jack's job requires a lot more emotional labor than June's. When Jack is talking to highly stressed callers, he needs to be careful about the emotions he expresses. Emotional labor at work is when an employee regulates their feelings and expressions as part of their job.

Different jobs require different qualities to succeed.

The link between general mental ability and job performance depends on the complexity of the job. For the highest complexity jobs (like June's), differences in IQ scores can account for 34% of differences in job performance. For the lowest complexity jobs (like Jack's or even simpler), differences in IQ scores can account for only 5% of the differences in job performance.

That is, IQ is much more important for high-complexity jobs.

The same logic applies to emotional intelligence. Being knowledgeable about emotions is only going to help you if your job requires that you labor with emotions. Emotional intelligence is more important for jobs that require emotional labour.

  • Emotional intelligence abilities account for 6% of differences in job performance for high emotional labor jobs but 0% (zero!) in low emotional labor jobs.
  • Emotional self-efficacy accounts for 8% of differences in job performance for high emotional labor jobs, but 4% for low emotional labor jobs.
  • Trait emotional intelligence accounts for 35% of the differences in job performance for high emotional labor jobs, but only 18% for low emotional labor jobs.

That is, emotional intelligence is much more important for high emotional labor jobs.

For people who write code in the back room, maybe emotional intelligence is not so important. But for jobs that focus on the emotions of clients, customers, colleagues, or other workers, emotional intelligence might be pretty important.

References

Joseph, D., & Newman, D. (2010). Emotional Intelligence: An Integrative Meta-Analysis and Cascading Model. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(1), 54-78.

Schmidt, F. L., & Hunter, J. E. (1998). The Validity and Utility of Selection Methods in Personnel Psychology: Practical and Theoretical Implications of 85 Years of Research Findings. Psychological Bulletin, 124(2), 262-274.

Schmidt, F. L., & Hunter, J. (2004). General Mental Ability in the World of Work: Occupational Attainment and Job Performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(1), 162-173.