What is Emotional Intelligence?

Just about everyone today has heard of emotional intelligence, often referred to as EI or EQ. But emotional intelligence is a relatively new construct. It was first conceptualized in 1990 by Salovey and Mayer, but it didn’t capture the public’s attention until 1995 when Daniel Goleman published his book Emotional Intelligence.

Since then, the concept of emotional intelligence has continued to evolved as psychologists have sought to define and measure it. Because it is still rather new, there is ongoing conversation around what exactly it is, and whether it can be thought of as a type of intelligence or as more of a personality construct.

Defining Emotional Intelligence

One of the most well-established models of emotional intelligence was put forward by Peter Salovey (President of Yale University, formerly Chair of Psychology) and John Mayer (Professor of Psychology, University of New Hampshire). They defined it as “the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.”1

In this model, they define emotional intelligence as an ability similar to general intelligence, with four distinct branches.

1. Perceiving emotions: The ability to recognize what you and other people are feeling. How quickly can you accurately identify the emotions in others? Some of this comes down to the ability to read facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. The ability to accurately perceive emotions is an important first step in responding appropriately to any given social situation.

2. Using emotions/facilitating thought: The ability to use emotions in thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making. Can you generate emotions that will help you solve problems or be creative? Are you able to empathize with others? This component has to do with your ability to harness emotions in a productive manner.

3. Understanding emotions: The ability to have a strong understanding of complex emotions and how emotions can change over time. How well do you understand the causes and consequences of different emotions? Do you understand how someone can transition between emotions, or even feel different, contradictory emotions at the same time? Emotions are not simple, and this ability helps individuals work through some of the complexity.

4. Managing emotions: The ability to intelligently integrate emotional information in yourself and others to come up with strategies that lead to positive outcomes. Are you able to use emotions appropriately, for example, putting an emotion “on hold” if it won’t be beneficial in a particular situation? Can you manage other people’s emotions to inspire and motivate them? This is potentially the most challenge component, but when applied successfully, can be a powerful tool for leadership.

Emotional Intelligence at Work

Emotional intelligence is useful across all areas of life, and the workplace is no exception. At work, emotional intelligence can help us collaborate with others, understand how others are feeling, and influence and inspire people.

Many researchers have found strong correlations between EI and important organizational behaviors, including leadership, job performance, commitment, job attitudes, stress, well-being, and teamwork. High EI also increases the quality of interpersonal relationships, enhances decision-making, and improves the experience of stress, pressure and conflict.2 Studies have also shown it increases positive attitudes toward work and enhances altruistic feelings.3

While emotional intelligence is important in most roles, it’s particularly helpful in roles that involve heavy interaction with other people, including customer service, leadership, or roles that involve a lot of teamwork.

Measuring Emotional Intelligence

Organizations are increasingly viewing EI as an important quality to look for in job candidates, but how do you measure it in an accurate way? Strong EI cannot be demonstrated on a resume, or even through past job experience. And the interview is not an ideal setting to get a read on a candidate’s emotional intelligence (and interviews also rely heavily on the emotional intelligence of the person who is doing the interviewing!).

In the last few years, assessments have emerged as a way to accurately and reliably assess emotional intelligence. There are debates about the best ways to measure emotional intelligence. One method, through ability-based assessments, views emotional intelligence as an ability similar to intelligence. These types of assessments ask candidates to demonstrate that ability, sometimes by identifying emotions in faces, or making decisions based on situations where emotions are involved.

Another method views emotional intelligence more as a personality construct and asks candidates to self-report the extent to which they demonstrate qualities related to emotional intelligence. Because this method requires a candidate to make an assessment of their own emotional intelligence, it may not be as effective.

At Criteria, we view emotional intelligence more as an ability, and therefore have developed an ability-based assessment for measuring EI. If you’re interested in learning more, we encourage you to reach out to our team to see it in action.


1. Salovey, P., & Mayer, J. D. (1990) ‘Emotional Intelligence’ Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 9(3), 185–211.

2. Lopes, P. N., Grewal, D., Kadis, J., Gall, M., & Salovey, P. (2006) Evidence that emotional intelligence is related to job performance and affect and attitudes at work. Psicothema, Vol 18 supplement, 132–138.

3. Carmeli, A. (2003) The relationship between emotional intelligence and work attitudes, behaviour and outcomes: An examination among senior managers. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 18(8), 788–813.