Emotional intelligence has been a prominent talking point in management circles for some years now. How do employees perceive and regulate their own emotions? How do they perceive and react to other people emotions and actions….. and how can these emotions be managed in a way that contributes to both personal and organisational growth?
Indeed, there has been much written and researched on the topic of how EI is linked with work output such as job performance. And given the amount of time we spend at work, it is well recognised how happiness (or otherwise) at work impacts our existence outside of the workplace.
Until now, however, it has been assumed that the relationship between EI and job performance is linear, that is the higher you score for EI, the better you will perform as an employee. In other words, more EI is always for the better.
But what if that isn’t the case? As an employer, might it change the way you select and manage your people?
In order to examine this more closely, I worked with Sanjay Kumar Singh from Abu Dhabi University to look at the relationship of emotional intelligence with various aspects of job performance (in particular, task and contextual performance). Using many aspects of performance allowed a more thorough investigation and, therefore, more confidence on the generalizability of what was found.
Surely those with high EI would also always score more highly on each aspect of job performance and those with low EI would always also score low?
To find out we collected data from 188 participants – all full time well-educated expatriate employees in the United Arab Emirates – from 14 diverse companies and measured their job performance against their EI scores. To ensure further the soundness of our study, we asked their line managers to evaluate job performance.
What we found was that those who scored lowest for emotional intelligence did not always score lowest for job performance. Instead, in most cases they were those who scored “average” (in scientific terms, “around the mean”) who were given the lowest performance ratings by their line managers. In scientific terms the relationship between EI and job performance was not linear – it was U-shaped.
What this means is that generally high performers at work tend to be those who possess high or low EI. And the worst performers are those who are “average” or “ok” as far as emotional intelligence was concerned. This study was the first study ever that considered, tested and confirmed the possibility that EI is not always for the better.
SO – there are instances where an employee with a very low EI score will outperform, or be better suited to a certain job, than someone who scores more highly for EI. This can be understood if we consider that performing well at work sometimes requires doing things that contradict emotional intelligence. For example, we may have to make suggestions about change or improvements that “hurt” others’ feelings or comfort zone.
Another interesting practical consideration is that training for those with low EI could be counter-productive – while those employees around the middle of the EI distribution will be the ones who reap the most reward from EI coaching. Get their EI score up and job performance has the potential to skyrocket! But get the EI score of the emotionally unintelligent up and their job performance may plunge!
Food for thought for managers everywhere!