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Sizing up emotions

The value of emotional intelligence tests, widely used by employers, is being questioned.

March 15, 2004|Benedict Carey | Times Staff Writer

Do you realize how your feelings affect your judgment? Can you openly acknowledge your weaknesses? Do you have "presence"?

More to the point: Would your co-workers and boss agree with your answers?

It's worth thinking about. Because in the last 10 years, these kinds of inquiries have made their way into employee development programs, management coaching seminars and selection criteria for upper-management positions. The answers help measure what is one of the most popular concepts in workplace psychology: emotional intelligence.

Daniel Goleman, a journalist and author of the 1995 bestselling book "Emotional Intelligence," describes this quality as a type of sixth sense -- one distinct from educational achievement or book smarts that allows people to skillfully manage their emotions and perceive those of others. Goleman and others who have since commercialized tests based on this idea say that emotional intelligence trumps previous pop-psych theories of workplace behavior: It can actually predict success, better than IQ, and accounts for an astounding two-thirds of the skills of top-flight leaders.

These claims sound so authoritative that thousands of business consultants and executive coaches have adopted emotional intelligence as a working theory for evaluating and advising companies. In 2001, Johnson & Johnson began measuring emotional aptitude in employees in its consumer products division being considered for key management jobs. Avon Products Inc. uses similar measures of emotional competence to evaluate employees and train managers. In all, roughly 10% of Fortune 1,000 companies have used emotional intelligence concepts in employee development, according to estimates by the Hay Group, a Philadelphia-based firm that markets the programs.

"We've developed a seven-hour training program on emotional intelligence, and about 500 people a year go through it," said Stephen Sutton, organization development manager at BB&T Corp., a large financial services company based in Winston-Salem, N.C. "We have adjusted a lot of budgets over the past year, but not this one. We believe it really helps people grow as employees."


Skepticism about the hype

But some social scientists and psychologists are skeptical of the claims being made about the theory, including the two researchers who coined the term "emotional intelligence" in 1990.

"We have not made claims about this being a powerful predictor of success, and think it's unlikely that they're true," said John Mayer, a University of New Hampshire psychologist who, with Peter Salovey of Yale University, continues to research the concept.

"I think many in the field feel that the whole concept of emotional intelligence has been over-hyped," said Gerald Matthews, a psychologist at the University of Cincinnati and coauthor of "Emotional Intelligence, Myth and Science" (MIT 2002). "It's quite amazing how this kind of movement can take off without any good empirical data to support it."

Measurements of emotional intelligence vary depending on who's doing the testing, and for what purpose. Typically, commercial programs involve asking people to complete a self-evaluation, rating their patience, flexibility, decisiveness and emotional self-awareness. Peers and co-workers are asked to do a similar evaluation of that person. Counselors compare the results from the self-test with reports from peers, or with comparable national or international test results. Counselors may then use the results to discuss similarities and differences between how individuals perceive themselves and how co-workers view them.

For example, a counselor or coach might point out to a taciturn manager that her silences frighten or confuse co-workers, or to a jocular executive that his jokes can be unnerving. A manager who believes he or she is open and attentive to people's needs may discover that most co-workers consider him or her aloof and unapproachable.

According to proponents, emotional intelligence can be used to rate leadership skills including self-confidence, moral character, adaptability, motivation, initiative, a sense of humor and the ability to manage conflict.

But the broadness of this definition of emotional intelligence provides another target for critics. "It seems to include so many disparate things it's hard to know what we're measuring, except maybe a kind of introspection," said Edwin Locke, a psychologist who studies business at the University of Maryland. "Good businessmen and women are not known primarily for their introspection; they're very externally focused, and in complex businesses they have to have real, rational intelligence. And that seems to be the one thing that's not included" in the definition.

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