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When Hiring, How Important is Emotional Intelligence?

Written by Michelle Silverstein

Emotional intelligence is a hot topic in HR lately and, at face value, it seems like an attribute that every great employee should have. But how do you define and measure emotional intelligence well enough to seek it out in your job candidates?

The answer is not so simple. Much of the ambiguity stems from competing definitions of what emotional intelligence is in the first place. There are two main models of emotional intelligence (EI), one based on abilities and another based on traits.

The ability model posits that people vary in their ability to process and think about emotions, and that this ability can be measured through adaptive behaviors. These behaviors include perceiving, using, understanding, and managing emotions, which this model measures through emotion-based problem solving tasks.

In contrast, the trait-based model measures EI through people’s self-perceived emotional abilities. EI tests that use this model require individuals to self-report their personality/behaviors based on prompts, similar to the way that many established personality tests assess individuals. There’s also a third “mixed” model popularized by Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book Emotional Intelligence, which is a combination of the ability and traits model. While there are pros and cons to each model, there is no general consensus within the scientific community about which one is more accurate.

To complicate things further, the research linking emotional intelligence to job performance shows very mixed results. One meta-analysis of dozens of studies on EI and the workplace concluded that the results so far are inconsistent. Noted psychologist Adam Grant, himself a fan of the new emphasis on emotional intelligence research, recently argued that the evidence does not yet support the use of EI tests to inform hiring decisions. In comparison, tests of cognitive aptitude (or traditional intelligence) are consistently shown to be much more predictive of performance than emotional intelligence.

This is not to say that emotional intelligence isn’t valuable in the workplace. Much of what we perceive EI to be may actually overlap with other more established measures. For instance, some evidence shows that EI may be linked to some traits commonly measured in personality tests, including agreeableness and openness, although the extent of those relationships vary from study to study. What’s more, EI is shown to be positively correlated with cognitive aptitude, suggesting that some components of EI may be encompassed within traditional intelligence.

But many questions still remain: How can we measure EI in a way that is predictive of job performance? What relationship does EI have to cognitive aptitude? What relationship does EI have to personality?

Here at Criteria, we think emotional intelligence is a really exciting frontier for research. While a lot of fascinating work is being done to uncover the link between emotional intelligence and workplace performance, the current research isn’t quite strong enough for us to recommend using it as a factor for making hiring decisions.

So while for now there might not be a well-validated EI test for hiring purposes, there are ways you can approximate emotional intelligence through other more predictive factors. In the meantime, we look forward to seeing what future research has to tell us about emotional intelligence and the workplace.

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