by Claudio Fernández-Aráoz
Call it Grant vs. Goleman. Two academic heavyweights face off on a topic that every student of leadership and HR cares — or at least hears — a lot about: emotional intelligence. Wharton professor Adam Grant kicks it off with a LinkedIn blog post, “Emotional Intelligence Is Overrated,” arguing that “it’s a mistake to base hiring or promotion decisions on it” and that “even in emotionally demanding work, when it comes to job performance, cognitive ability still proves more consequential than emotional intelligence.” Daniel Goleman, the psychologist credited with coining the term EI (and, full disclosure, a friend), issues his rebuttal, “Let’s Not Underrate Emotional Intelligence,” questioning the specific assessment of EI used by Grant, and referring to the various studies conducted by “The Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence.” And the comments fly.
I have huge respect for both men, and I’m not an academic. But as a privileged practitioner, who has helped companies around the world make sound hiring and promotion decisions for the past three decades, I thought I would offer my perspective to the debate. Working as an executive search consultant at Egon Zehnder, I’ve personally led more than 500 senior appointments and been involved in many more, interviewing more than 20,000 candidates. And, as the leader of our firm’s management appraisal practice, professional development, and intellectual capital creation, I’ve also carefully studied various assessment approaches and their performance impact.
My conclusion about emotional intelligence based on this experience? I can’t emphasize enough the crucial importance of EI-based competencies for success in leadership roles.
Back in the late 1990s I did my first quantitative analysis on the subject, using information on 250 managers I had personally hired or recommended for promotion to our clients, mostly in Latin America in those days. I analyzed the correlation of three main candidate variables (experience, IQ, and emotional intelligence) with the person’s performance once on the job and was amazed with the results. When the appointees excelled in experience and IQ but had low emotional intelligence, their failure rate was as high as 25%. However, those people with high emotional intelligence combined with at least one of the other two factors (experience or IQ) only failed in 3%-4% of the cases. In other words, emotional intelligence coupled with high IQ or very relevant experience was a very strong predictor of success. However, highly intelligent or experienced candidates who lacked emotional intelligence were more likely to flame out.
My colleagues soon replicated this analysis for many different geographies and highly diverse cultures, including Japan and Germany, and the results were similar everywhere. People are hired for IQ and experience and fired for failing to manage themselves and others well.
Since then, our firm has continued to use candidate assessment and performance data to develop our competency model, which guides us in our executive search and appraisal work across 69 offices. While some of the attributes and skills that have proven to be necessary for success at the top are indeed mainly cognitive, such as strategic orientation or market insight, most of them are based on emotional intelligence, including results orientation, customer impact, collaboration and influencing, developing organizational capability, team leadership, and change leadership. In my teaching at Harvard’s graduate program on talent management, I’ve met hundreds of leaders from successful corporations all over the world and, without exception, the vast majority of the competencies they use to select and develop leaders are also based on emotional intelligence.
I agree with Adam that EI is no panacea. Neither is IQ, or any other variable. As I explain in my most recent book, the right candidates need to be clever in the traditional IQ sense, but also have the right values, the right conditions for portability, and the right competency fit for the job.
Potential for growth is also critical, as I emphasized in this June 2014 HBR article. Interestingly, however, the hallmarks of potential — the right motivation, curiosity, insight, engagement, and determination — are also heavily based on emotional intelligence. To adapt to changing circumstances, you’ll require much more than just IQ.
In sum, you can choose to ignore EI — but make sure you understand the risks.