Emotional Intelligence – If Anything, It’s Underrated!

emotional-intelligence-computer-key-Hendrie WeisingerIs emotional intelligence overrated? Is it better to be more emotionally intelligent or cognitively intelligent?

I wrote my first book on emotional intelligence, Emotional Intelligence at Work fifteen years ago. Shortly after, I wrote the first books that customized emotional intelligence to specific industries: The Emotionally Intelligent Financial Advisor and The Emotionally Intelligent Real Estate Advisor. Before than, I wrote several books on giving and taking criticism and managing anger, both EI skills.

I have also given numerous presentations on the topic in executive education programs at Wharton, Cornell, UCLA, Penn State, University of Washington, NYU, Columbia, MIT, and others. In addition, I’ve spoken and conducted workshops and consulted on the subject for dozens of Fortune 500 Companies in numerous industries, mental health organizations, hospitals, and professional organizations such as the Young Presidents Organization.

I make no claim that I am emotionally intelligent, but I do claim to know a lot about the subject, especially the theory of emotional intelligence, the nature of EI research, and how to apply and develop your EI.

I would not dispute the point that cognitive intelligence is more important as a predictor of success than emotional intelligence – depending of course, on how you define “success.” If your success depends on calculating sales projections, managing a hedge fund, or designing software, you certainly need cognitive intelligence capabilities that help you manipulate numbers and think abstractly. In other words, if you want to go to MIT, you better be able to do the math.

On the other hand, how about a “successful” marriage or relationship? In all my years of providing marital counseling, I never heard a husband or wife make the complaint: “He or she knows nothing about organic chemistry,” but I heard all the time, “He or she can’t manage their anger. He can’t talk about his feelings.” It’s good that these people are successful in sales – they can afford therapy twice a week – usually with the need to increase some dimension of their emotional intelligence.

It is also very common that the downfall of many successful people and their organizations is due to a lack of EI, not cognitive intelligence. Politicians and CEOs that have lots of cognitive horsepower often derail because of their lack of EI, or at least their failure to apply it.

I remember doing a presentation for MBA students: “Emotional Intelligence & Job Interviews.” I asked students, “What’s your edge,” and before they could reply, I warned, “If you think it’s your degree, just remember the applicant before you might be from Harvard and the person behind you from Stanford.”

People “in the know” never stated emotional intelligence is more important than cognitive intelligence; more accurately, the driving EI finding is: given the fact that two individuals are equal in talent or cognitive IQ, the individual that is more emotionally intelligent has an edge, and sometimes, individuals with more emotional intelligence but less talent and cognitive intelligence often trounce those with a high cognitive IQ. We all know this to be true.

Sports, relationships, the classroom – no matter what the arena, when talent or skill is equal, those who have more emotional intelligence have an edge – that is undisputable.   For sure, a professor who knows how to relate to students, establish positive relationships with her colleagues, get involved in social networks and university functions, has an edge over an equally intelligent faculty member who is quick to anger, abrupt with students, and cannot manage his competitiveness.

Similarly, a recent article in the American Psychological Association publication, the APA Monitor (September, 2014) pointed out that college students are under more pressure than ever before, and as a result, student counseling services are requested more now than ever before. While it is true that all students, regardless of academic achievement, utilize counseling services, there are still many that are under the same pressure to succeed that do not have the need for psychological services. I’d bet those are the kids who are more emotionally intelligent and that gives them an edge over those students who have the same cognitive ability, but are less emotionally adept at navigating their emotional landscape.

The same is true for “parenting success.” I know many “cognitively bright” parents who are in constant conflict with their kids. These parents are often successful physicians, lawyers, and business executives but are far from successful when it comes to parenting.

A high level of cognitive intelligence comes in handy if you are stranded on an island and have to figure out how to make an animal trap or navigate the terrain. However, it will be emotional intelligence that helps the same individual stay motivated, keep hope alive, and manage his or her frustration when things get tough.

On the other hand, in the same situation, an individual loaded with cognitive intelligence is apt to come up with more ways to manage their emotions and stay motivated than an individual with significantly less cognitive intelligence.

An important point is made: while there are different types of intelligence, they all interact with each other. In essence, the degree to which each an individual’s different types of intelligence interrelate and enhance each other is considered the true measure of an individual’s intelligence. Some people have high cognitive intelligence and terrible people skills. Others have high cognitive intelligence and great people skills.  Which individual would you consider “more intelligent?” Which individual would you want on your team, or for your partner? Emotional intelligence is overrated. Not!

Ever since EI became “popular,” there has been a dispute of whether or not emotional intelligence is more important than cognitive intelligence. In my opinion, it’s a silly question and offers little value because it obscures the point that can actually help individuals and organizations: understanding the function of intelligence.

We have intelligence because it helps us adapt to our environment, to solve what evolutionary scientists call adaptive problems: the challenges that all members of all generations have had to solve since the dawn of man to advance in life.

For example, just as the Roman Empire had to develop young warriors to ensure the Empire’s future, the financial institution has to develop young financial advisors to secure its future. Thus, “How do I develop others,” is an adaptive problem. Companies and parents today have to solve it, and so will future companies and parents.

Similarly, just as early man had to “shelter-seek,” – find a secure and safe environment to foster his development, so too will your great grandchildren have to shelter seek if they are to stand a chance for advancing in life as it is hard to thrive in an environment, be it a bad marriage or company, that is not empowering.

Because different adaptive problems call for man to interact with his environment – “to put out” a variety of responses, we have different types of intelligence. In fact, besides cognitive and emotional intelligence, psychologists have identified social intelligence, moral intelligence, personal intelligence, and cultural intelligence. All of these intelligences help us adapt and interact with our environment more effectively.  Obviously, the value of the intelligence is in the context of the situation.

It may be, for example, a student who has exceedingly high cognitive intelligence spends her semester abroad going to classes and studying in her room. She has little interest other than to earn her “A.” When she gets home, she has little to share with her friends and parents except, “it was good. The museum was nice.”

On the same trip, there is a student who has a respectable amount of cognitive intelligence but also in her “intelligence portfolio” is plenty of cultural intelligence – capacities that motivate one to learn about new environments. Consequently, she spends her time venturing out, exploring the city streets, local cafes, talking to everyone she can out of the classroom and not on her trip. During her stay, she makes “foreign” friends. She doesn’t get an “A” in her course but fondly remembers her abroad experience forever. Her cognitive intelligence might have gotten her into the university, but in her junior year abroad, it is her cultural intelligence that enriches her life.

Catch the point: cultural intelligence – or any other type of intelligence, is not more important than cognitive intelligence, and cognitive intelligence is not more important than cultural intelligence or other intelligences. They are just different in function and thus have utility in different situations. A hammer is an effective tool  if you have to put a nail into a piece of wood, but if you need to remove a screw, you will use a different tool… a screwdriver.

If I have to take SATS, I’d do best with high cognitive intelligence. If I want to “work the room” at a party, give me social intelligence. If I want to take stock of myself and assess whether I am over estimating my abilities or have unidentified talent, I need personal intelligence. If I want to be a contributing member to society and advocate against social injustice, my moral intelligence will be my guide.

Individuals and organizations that understand the function of intelligence give themselves an advantage because they will better understand what type of intelligence they need to foster that will make their organization more effective, the caveat being that some intelligences are easier and more susceptible to development than others. For example, there is wide acceptance that past a certain age, cognitive intelligence cannot be increased; you can attain more knowledge but your cognitive intelligence remains the same. In contrast, numerous studies demonstrate that emotional intelligence, personal intelligence, and cultural intelligence can be enhanced or increased.

A company, then, that requires its managers to keep their teams motivated, help them resolve conflict, and give them positive criticism would be smart to invest in emotional intelligence training on the grounds that one of the functions of EI is to help individuals perform these tasks – a manager in this environment who equals her colleagues in cognitive intelligence will outshine the other managers if her emotional intelligence is greater.

An institution whose executives must continually make ethical decisions would be wise to make sure its decision makers have high moral intelligence.

A company whose managers are in the rocket science business would be wasting money on rolling out a cognitive intelligence program but would be using their cognitive intelligence if they used “cognitive intelligence” as a selection factor. In fact, high-tech and science-based organizations do this by selecting students from the best academic schools.

For a sales force, psychologists have demonstrated confidence, optimism, tenacity, and enthusiasm are better job success predictors.

A student who knows his spelling rules has a better chance to reach the final round of the National Scripps Spelling Bee if he or she can develop his EI capability of managing emotions; if not, his cognitive intelligence may never be given the opportunity to spell with the best. Noted University of Pennsylvania psychologists Martin Seligman and Angela Duckworth are two that can provide you with ample evidence to support this point.

When you consider that all businesses – including the business of an early tribe exchanging their beads for another tribe’s furs – consists of relationship building, and that ill-managed emotions and feelings are often relationship breakers, it seems foolish to say or even question whether emotional intelligence is overrated.

Realize – nobody “invented” emotional intelligence. Like all intelligences, it evolved so man could be more adept in interacting with his environment. Finding a mate and developing a family, dealing with frustrations and adversities, exhibit compassion and empathy, are all acts that when performed successfully help the individual advance in life. Clearly, EI – like all types of intelligence, give an individual an evolutionary edge.  And for sure, in an unpredictable world – aka volatile economy to financial advisors – emotional intelligence more than cognitive intelligence will probably be a little more helpful in managing the unpleasant “surprises” that come our way.

I’ll end with the message I give many executives: Don’t get caught up in the debate of whether or not emotional intelligence is more important than cognitive intelligence – that is small thinking, similar to, “Is it better to be cooperative or competitive?” It depends on the situation, doesn’t it?

Instead accept the fact – based on dozens of empirical studies – that the more EI you have, the more effective you will be in meeting life’s challenges. Perhaps this is why Peter Salovey, co-creator of the theory of emotional intelligence and current president of Yale, has made his mission to make Yale a more emotionally intelligent community.  He knows that will give his top-notch cognitive intelligent students an edge!

I’ll help you get that edge in my next ExecuNet article.



Hendrie Weisinger

Hendrie Weisinger

Hendrie Weisinger, Ph.D. is a celebrated and influential psychologist, pioneer in the field of pressure management, the originator of criticism training and the author of two New York Times bestselling books. He has consulted with and developed programs for dozens of Fortune 500 Companies and government agencies and has taught in Executive Education and Executive MBA programs at Wharton, UCLA, NYU, Cornell, Penn State, and MIT. His work has been featured several times in The New York Times Sunday Business Section, and numerous popular magazines. His article for The Wall Street Journal, So You’re Afraid To Criticize Your Boss, was selected as one of their 60 best management articles and reprinted in Dow Jones on Management. He has appeared on more than 500 radio and television shows including Oprah, Good Morning America, Charlie Rose, and was the featured expert for 5 consecutive days on The Today Show for their anger management special. His newest book and NY Times Bestseller is Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most You can learn more about Dr. Weisinger and his new empowering E Workshop Experience, Performing Under Pressure at hendrieweisingerphd.com

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