Getting smart about Emotional Intelligence

By Katina Cremona

Many people, it seems, have heard of the term, emotional intelligence. Books, courses and tests have been available in the area in increasing supply since around 1994. However, if you’re confused, sceptical or even downright ‘turned off’ the whole idea, it’s not surprising as there are some good reasons why this might be the case. In this article, I will attempt to clarify what emotional intelligence is and is not, highlight the relevant history of its development and finally, discuss how it can be incredibly useful in the workplace.

A definition of emotional intelligence, according to Mayer, Salovey and Caruso (‘Emotional Intelligence meets traditional standards for an intelligence’, Intelligence, 27, 1999), is the ability to reason and problem-solve on the basis of emotions. This includes the capacity to recognise emotions, assimilate emotion-related feelings, understand the data from these emotions and manage them. Being emotionally intelligent does not imply being ‘nice’ or ‘emotional’. In fact, there would be many situations where being emotionally intelligent would involve being tough or restrained around emotions, either in ourselves or others. This is one common example of confusion about what it means to be emotionally intelligent.

A short history of emotional intelligence
Let’s now look at a potted history relating to the development of emotional intelligence to gain a clearer idea about why it can be a confusing area. Until 1970, research on intelligence and emotions was done separately. From 1970 to 1989, these two areas were integrated into a new field of research, ‘cognition and affect’. However, it wasn’t until 1990 that Salovey and Mayer (MSCEIT User’s Manual, Toronto, 2002) reviewed the literature and then developed a theory of emotional intelligence. They had originally met at Yale in 1985 and had begun writing papers on the topic, ‘Can emotions be intelligent?’.

Where does Goleman fit into this? In 1995, Daniel Goleman published his book called ‘Emotional Intelligence’. Goleman’s theory was based on the work of Mayer and Salovey but he also stretched the concept. In 1998, when his second book came out, he focused more on an elaboration of emotional intelligence in the workplace which included skills and personality traits.

How to define emotional intelligence
Goleman’s work has done much to put emotional intelligence on the agenda. However, along with this new-found prominence has come a plethora of new tests, rebranded tests and programs and loosely founded claims about the benefits of emotional intelligence. In many cases, it has not been clarified as to what is actually being called emotional intelligence. Much research has shown that a great number of tests claiming to measure emotional intelligence are really measuring various personality attributes. Even though they may be effective and useful instruments, the research suggests that they are not measuring an emotional intelligence ability, i.e., how well people perform tasks and solve emotional problems (MSCEIT User’s Manual, Toronto, 2002).

Another potential area of confusion with the different emotional intelligence tests available is that many use self judgments and/or observer judgments to measure emotional intelligence. Research shows that observers’ and self judgments are not highly accurate in judging intelligence, like IQ. Even though self ratings and observer ratings are useful in 360° feedback questionnaires, this is because they are measuring perception of behaviour, not actual ‘ability’. A behaviour is an observable action. An ability is what someone is capable of or shows potential in like with IQ. An ability is best measured by a performance test where responses can be judged as right or wrong against objective, scoring criteria that are pre-determined.

How to measure emotional intelligence
The MSCEIT (Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test) was developed from an earlier scale the authors developed in 1997. It is a performance test, which means that it measures how people actually perform tasks and solve emotional problems. This avoids the limitations of asking people directly how emotionally intelligent they think they are, or asking observers to rate them. The MSCEIT is based on decades of scientific research on emotions and is continually being researched and developed. Most importantly, research suggests that it is actually measuring something unique and new compared with personality and other aspects of our functioning.

The basis of the MSCEIT is a four-branch model of emotional intelligence that is both simple and sophisticated. The four branches of emotional intelligence are:

  1. perceiving emotions;
  2. using emotions to facilitate thinking, problem-solving and creativity;
  3. understanding emotions; and
  4. managing emotions

The remainder of this article will discuss these four branches and their importance to the workplace.

1 Perceiving emotions
Perceiving emotions involves accurately identifying how you and others feel. It also involves expressing emotion and reading people. Some workplace applications of this ability include reading people accurately during meetings and important decision-making forums; reading clients’ and customers’ intentions, attitudes and behaviours; recognising employee’s responses and attitudes to their work, to you and to the organisation; and recognising your own emotions and stress levels before they become difficult to manage and affect others in a negative way.

Our ability to perceive emotions during meetings can be useful. It can also be helpful when preparing for meetings, whether performance management meetings, interviews or more regular forums. We often prepare for meetings by reviewing content and/or predicting questions and obstacles but we don’t so readily prepare from an emotional perspective. A client recently made a different decision as to how she would conduct a meeting after she thought about how people might react. She predicted what her direct reports might feel in relation to what she planned to say to them and therefore decided to change the timing and set-up of her meeting. She reported that her meeting went extremely well as a result of her thinking in this way.

2 Using emotions
The second branch of this emotional intelligence model is the ability to use emotions to influence how you think and problem-solve. There is a great deal of research on how different emotions affect our thoughts and behaviour, including our creativity, memory and ability to focus on detail. This has strong relevance to the workplace, especially to our ability to move in and out of moods and, consequently, how we empathise, motivate and influence others. Both this and the first branch, recognising emotions, are categorised as the ‘experiential’ area in this model.

An example related to this branch is that it is emotionally intelligent to realise you are in a ‘bad’ mood and to postpone a meeting rather than have to make amends after the meeting does not go well. Giving more thought to the kind of mood you’re in and the impact this might have on your discussions and quality of work can be a constructive use of your time.

3 Understanding emotions
Understanding emotions involves having insight into people and why they feel how they do. Having an understanding of how emotions change over time is also an important aspect of this branch of emotional intelligence. People who need to develop in this area are often surprised by people’s reactions and claim that they ‘didn’t see it coming’. They don’t register that a feeling can progress to a stronger one over time if underlying issues are not addressed. In the workplace, it is important to understand people’s responses to your decisions and behaviour so that you can take effective action. This may not always translate into changing your mind but certainly has implications for how you go about things.

A colleague applied this branch as he was designing a presentation. As a result of focusing on what he wanted people to feel, as well as what he wanted them to think, he changed the way he ran the presentation. He wanted to get them in a specific mood before he introduced a topic and he understood that if he introduced the topic first, he would have to work extra hard to get them out of a particular mood. He said that his presentation went very well and was much more effective than if he had retained his original design.

4 Managing emotions
The final branch is managing emotions. This refers to making effective decisions using a balance of emotion and thought. It means managing your own emotions and solving problems in which emotions are involved. We don’t have to look further than our own workplaces to see how emotions that are not well managed can have damaging effects on working relationships and on productivity, turnover and the bottom line. The first step in managing emotions is to be aware of emotions and accept them. Then we can think about how best to manage them. Understanding and managing emotions are categorised as the ‘strategic’ area in this emotional intelligence model.

Extensive research sits behind each of the four branches. For example, one study at Stanford University demonstrated that we remember less when we suppress the expression of our feelings. This has interesting implications in the workplace if we upset someone during a discussion, don’t recognise or understand that we have and are then surprised that the person didn’t seem to take our words very seriously. Based on this research, the person may have forgotten the details of the discussion and therefore couldn’t take effective actions based on the discussion.

The area of emotional intelligence is rich with a history of research that clearly shows that our emotions and our thinking processes are far more linked than we ever thought they were. For example, Damasio’s work (Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, USA, 1994) shows that without feeling and emotion, it is almost impossible to make good decisions. The research also suggests that emotional intelligence is an important ingredient in how we behave, relate and lead in the workplace. The emotional intelligence model developed by Mayer, Salovey and Caruso provides a robust and theoretically sound approach to this often confusing area.

This article appeared in:
Keeping good companies (Journal of Chartered Secretaries Australia Ltd), October 2004, Vol. 56, No. 9.

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