By Catherine A. Sanderson, Amherst College
When it comes to emotional intelligence, an important and reassuring point is that the components of emotional intelligence are competences that can be improved. The cumulative evidence is strong that emotional intelligence can change and that this change affects performance.
Jobs High in Emotional Labor
A 2011 meta-analysis, examined 213 different school-based programs teaching social and emotional learning skills for over 250,000 students, from kindergarten through high school. Students who received training in these hallmarks of emotional intelligence showed a significant increase in these abilities: perspective-taking, goal setting, identifying emotions. They also showed a significant gain in academic achievement, as assessed by grades as well as scores on standardized tests.
And yet, these skills may be less important in certain careers than in others. One comprehensive analysis of people in nearly 200 different jobs, published in 2010, found that emotional intelligence or EQ, was strongly linked to better performance only in those jobs where paying attention to and managing emotions is directly tied to success.
These jobs are those they describe as high in ‘emotional labor’. For people in particular jobs—salespeople, real estate agents, counselors, call-center representatives—knowing how to read emotions and respond effectively is an essential aspect of success, especially in stressful situations.
But for people in jobs where reading emotions isn’t important, emotional intelligence actually is not linked with success.
High EQ Can Lead to Poor Performance
In fact, for some particular types of jobs—mechanics, scientists, factory workers—more EQ was actually associated with weaker job performance. This is owing to the fact that paying attention to emotions can distract from the typical requirements of some jobs.
We probably don’t want a tax accountant or a car mechanic who devotes too much attention to how his or her colleagues are feeling. We want someone who’s devoting most of their attention to checking their numbers or fixing our car. And we want a pilot who has the technical skills necessary to safely fly the plane.
Maybe it’s only during rare moments of extreme stress that emotional intelligence becomes an important skill. Thus, clearly, emotional intelligence is probably more important for success in some careers than in others.
A Dark Side to EQ
An ability to understand and manage emotions is a skill that can be used for negative as well as positive outcomes. Researchers at the University of Toronto have found that for people with self-serving, Machiavellian tendencies, skills in emotional intelligence can be used to manipulate, embarrass, and undermine other people for personal gain.
In one case, a manager who was high in emotional intelligence told a colleague how excited he was about the project the colleague was working on. And, at the same time, the manager was distancing himself from that project so that he could blame the colleague if things went poorly. Therefore, the skills of emotional intelligence need to be supported by other skills or attributes in order to lead to positive outcomes.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to Psychology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Developing Emotional Intelligence
Given the benefits of emotional intelligence, there’s been interest in both schools and businesses in teaching these abilities as skills that can be learned. After all, if much of our success—both personal and professional—is driven by things like self-awareness, self-regulation, intrinsic motivation, empathy, and social skills, well then, surely, we should be trying to develop these abilities.
Many school districts now provide some type of training in these skills, with the expectation that fostering social and emotional skills will lead to better academic performance.
One study examined the long-term effects of school-based programs that help children recognize and understand their own emotions and feel empathy for others. This analysis included data from 82 different programs, involving nearly 100,000 students in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe.
Children who participated in some type of social-emotional learning program during school experienced numerous positive outcomes, even years later. They were more likely to graduate from high school and college; they were less likely to develop problems with drugs, be arrested, or develop a mental health disorder. And these findings make sense.
If one learns effective ways of managing their emotions, they’re probably less likely to rely on unhealthy strategies that can lead to serious consequences.
Some of the most important work on training people in the components of emotional intelligence is now being done in medical schools and hospitals. This emphasis was prompted by a growing awareness of the serious problems of physician burnout, a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.
A report by the National Academy of Medicine in 2019 found that between 35% and 54% of doctors and nurses in the United States show signs of burnout. In the United States, which has roughly a million physicians, close to 400 physicians a year die by suicide.
Of course, many occupations face problems of burnout. But physicians deal with intense life-or-death stakes, face malpractice lawsuits for medical errors, and so on. And given the highly competitive nature of medical school admissions and training, it’s also likely that many physicians have focused more on developing skills in traditional intelligence—memorizing, problem-solving, decision-making—and less so on emotional intelligence.
Emotional Intelligence Training
Even if social and emotional skills may have been part of their natural repertoire, the physicians may well have neglected further development of those skills.
A growing recognition of the serious consequences of physician burnout has led a number of medical schools and hospitals to start providing training in emotional intelligence: regulating emotions, developing empathy, and working well on teams.
This has been promising as doctors who complete an emotional intelligence skills training intervention have later shown higher levels of emotional intelligence, as well improved skills in managing stress that lead to higher overall wellness.
Common Questions about Learning to Improve Emotional Intelligence
Students who received training in the hallmarks of emotional intelligence showed a significant increase in these abilities: perspective-taking, goal setting, identifying emotions.
A report by the National Academy of Medicine in 2019 found that between 35% and 54% of doctors and nurses in the United States show signs of burnout.
Given the highly competitive nature of medical school admissions and training, it’s also likely that many physicians have focused more on developing skills in traditional intelligence—memorizing, problem-solving, decision-making.