Emotional intelligence can predict performance – but not as well as you might think

Key points:

  1. Emotional intelligence correlates moderately with people’s performance, but far less than you may have been told.
  2. Emotional intelligence isn’t a unique concept, but a mix of seven well-known factors with a brand new name.
  3. These seven factors are better predictors of performance than emotional intelligence itself.


Have you heard recent claims about the power of emotional intelligence? Are you considering using an emotional intelligence assessment tool? Some say that emotional intelligence (EI) 1 is a good predictor of people’s job performance. The idea is that if you are more emotionally intelligent — which means that you can understand and regulate your emotions, and empathize with others — you will perform better. Many have been skeptical about this statement, which is why independent scientists tried to verify this relationship with a rigorous study.

Turns out it is true – emotional intelligence can predict performance. However, we will tell you how much and why, and EI-lovers might not like it.


Emotional intelligence can predict job performance, but far less than often claimed

Dana Joseph along with Jing Jin, Daniel Newman and Hernest O’Boyle (2015) looked at the correlation between emotional intelligence and job performance, among other variables, through a meta-analysis of the data from 15 meticulously selected studies. Their study can be considered the most up-to-date and trustworthy source of information on the subject at the moment.

They found that emotional intelligence correlates moderately (0.29) with job performance as evaluated by supervisors. This means that emotional intelligence can predict only 8.4% of your people’s performance. This moderate degree of correlation between EI and job performance is not as strong, or practically useful, as most EI advocates usually claim. As a comparison, General Mental Ability — which correlates strongly with job performance (0.51) — can predict 26% of one’s performance at work.

Emotional Intelligence - Performance - Cognitive Abilities

Why were the results of this meta-analysis so different than popular claims? It’s likely because Joseph and colleagues used rigorous criteria for what counts as performance. They only analyzed studies that measured job performance of employed individuals as evaluated by themselves and their supervisors. They excluded academic performance or performance in lab tests, which have been included in other studies. This screening process helped cut out the noise of irrelevant information and focused on the most relevant ones.


Seems like emotional intelligence is not much of an unique concept after all

Now let’s get to the heart of the issue. These scientists also wanted to answer the question “WHY does emotional intelligence predict performance?

Many EI-supporters claim that emotional intelligence is an unique idea, but behavioral scientists argue that the questionnaires used to assess emotional intelligence resemble well-established measures of other psychological factors.

For example, in a review of six different emotional intelligence tests, content experts found that 42% of questions were direct measures of emotional stability , which is a different, well-known personality trait (De Raad, 2005). Emotional intelligence scales also strongly overlap with “self-control” and “industriousness”, which are parts of another personality trait, conscientiousness. Along with emotional stability and conscientiousness , five other factors are often indicated as constructs that emotional intelligence has “borrowed” (see image below)

Seems like somebody put a mix of seven old wines in a new, fancy bottle.

So, scientists went to work to test if this was true or not. They ran their analysis again, this time controlling for these seven factors.

The results were staggering!

When these seven factors were taken into consideration, the correlation between emotional intelligence and job performance dropped to -.02!

picture1


Takeaways for your practice

In the future, you will probably hear more claims about the power of emotional intelligence in the workplace. Next time you hear one, remember to critically evaluate the claim that somebody is making. If they say EI is the most important factor for one’s performance, you already know what to answer: It’s not true!

“What about assessment?” you ask. “Should I use emotional intelligence tools or not?”

Let’s review the trade-off:

-If you use an emotional intelligence assessment tool, you can expect to predict 8.4% of an employee’s performance with just one questionnaire. You won’t be able, however, to understand more specifically what this person’s traits and abilities are. This assessment will only indicate whether he or she is “emotionally intelligent”.

A single assessment can be time saver, however it will give you just a vague profile of the person. Plus,commercial EI assessment tools can get quite expensive.

-If you test for each of the seven different factors that compose emotional intelligence, the whole will be more than the sum of its parts. You will be able to predict 15.2% of the candidate/employee’s performance and, even better, get a clearer profile of the person. You will be able to tell how intelligent, conscientious, and effective this person is likely to be, among other things. Depending on the job you are assessing the person for, some of these factors might be more important for their performance than others. Being able to differentiate and weigh the differences will help you in this case.
You are probably thinking: “Seven tests will cost me an arm and a leg!” Well, maybe not. First of all, conscientiousness, emotional stability and extraversion can be measured by one single test — the Five Factor Personality Test. The other four factors can be assessed with other tests that most of the time are free to use for research purposes. Naturally, five tests are more than one, and they might require more time to be completed and interpreted.


So, what will you choose?

A more time-consuming, predictive and informing battery of tests, or a quicker, less predictive and less informing questionnaire?



Trustworthiness score 

We critically evaluated the trustworthiness of the study we used to inform this Evidence Summary. We found that it has a moderately high (80%) trustworthiness level. This means that there is a 20% chance that alternative explanations for these results are possible, including random effects.

Learn how we critically appraise studies to assign them a Trustworthiness Score.

We aim to provide you only the best available scientific evidence to inform your decisions.


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References:

De Raad, B. (2005). The trait-coverage of emotional intelligence. Personality and Individual Differences, 38, 673–687.

You can find the original article here!

Joseph, D. L., Jin, J., Newman, D. A., & O’Boyle, E. H. (2015). Why does self-reported emotional intelligence predict job performance? A meta-analytic investigation of mixed EI. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(2), 298.

You can find the original article here!

Notes:

  1. There are different conceptualizations of emotional intelligence. In this article we look at Mixed-EI, the construct introduced by Daniel Goleman, which is also the definition most used by practitioners and the one about which the biggest claims are made. Ability EI, the other conceptualization of emotional intelligence, seems to be a more solid construct, and correlates less strongly with performance.

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6 comments

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  2. “General Mental Ability — which correlates strongly with job performance (0.51) — can predict 26% of one’s performance at work.”

    Terribly sorry, I was trying to find this in the original article and wasn’t able to do so. Could you please point me to the exact location?

      • Thank you! In the Dana Joseph’s article Table 3 states that they found a .44 correlation between Job Performance and Cognitive Ability. I wonder if their Cognitive Ability is the same thing as GMA.

        • Yes, it is the same thing. Indeed correlations can vary between meta-analyses. General Mental Ability (or g or cognitive abilities) has always been found to be a great predictor of performance, as its correlations usually goes from .40 up to .65 (for complex jobs). Thanks for your questions!

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