“The GMAT is a surrogate of IQ,” Goleman added, because it measures analytic abilities. “Getting in the 90th percentile positions you for a career platform that starts out at a very high level.” But, as Goleman explained, everyone else on that career platform has similar cognitive aptitudes: “There’s very little to distinguish you on an intellectual basis. The other aptitudes turn out to matter more for real-world success, because there was no selection pressure for them, and there’s more variation among your peers.”
Mirrors of Maturity
Goleman calls this dynamic the “floor effect.” As smart, well-educated people compete for high-level business positions, they all demonstrate the same baseline of qualifying cognitive abilities. Only their emotional qualities can distinguish them. Moreover, low levels of empathy and poor self-management skills may not be visible in many organizations until solo performers rise to positions of leadership — and then create the kind of destructive atmosphere that brings everyone’s performance down. Thus, in high-tech companies, Goleman notes, successful software programmers often founder when they are asked to lead product development teams. “This is also rife in newsrooms,” he adds, recalling Pulitzer Prize–winning reporters he has known who were promoted to editor positions, where they performed miserably. In academia, an equivalent would be a star research scientist who cannot cope with the social demands of a department chair position; in the corporate world, it would be the successful salesperson failing as vice president of sales.
Fortunately, says Goleman, EI can be learned. (This sets it apart from IQ, which is generally thought to be static in people from birth.) An individual can acquire competence, stability, and self-possession over time; the first step is to regularly pay attention to the subtleties latent in ordinary conversation. Hence the value of executive coaches, who can act as a mirror and foster emotional and social awareness.
The business value of this kind of personal growth is backed by a large and growing body of research. Vanessa Urch Druskat, an associate professor of organizational behavior and management at the Whittemore School of Business & Economics at the University of New Hampshire, has reviewed more than 200 doctoral dissertations and 30 peer-reviewed articles on this subject. “Overwhelmingly, they tell us that EI is linked to performance,” she says. “You see that over and over again.”
Unfortunately, Druskat says, the long-term benefits of emotional intelligence are often undermined by corporate realities like executive turnover. In one project, she spent two years helping a major consumer products company improve team performance. “But then there was a change of management at the top of the organization, a couple of key people got laid off, and subsequently nothing has been done with it,” she says. Indeed, skeptics argue that even if emotional intelligence makes a difference, it will always be stunted by modern organizations. “One thing Goleman doesn’t talk about is that being put in a position of power drains the emotional intelligence from most people,” says Robert I. Sutton, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and the author of The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t (Warner Business Books, 2007). “They become more focused on satisfying their own needs and less on the needs of others, and they start acting as if the rules don’t apply to them.”
The counterargument, put forth by Goleman and his colleagues, is that the practice of building emotional intelligence in individuals ripples out to change the larger corporate culture. “It is playing out everywhere,” says Richard Boyatzis, a professor of organizational behavior at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, and coauthor, with Goleman and Annie McKee, of Primal Leadership. “Although there are not a huge number of companies that would say they give EI training, if you ask, ‘Do you promote or screen on the basis of empathy, teamwork, or network building?’ they all say, ‘Definitely.’ It’s become pretty much universal.”