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2001 HR.com Article by S. Hein

In July 2001 an online magazine for human resource managers, HR.com, published an article of mine in which I state some of the problems with Goleman's definition of EI. The editor of HR.com wrote this introduction to the article:

Daniel Goleman has come under some sharp criticism for how he promotes emotional intelligence. If you care about EQ then you should read Steve Hein's article on Understanding Emotional Intelligence.

Below is a copy of the original article. You can search HR.com for "emotional intelligence" to find the original, but you have to be a member of HR.com to read it now. I don't know if this costs money or not.

S. Hein
Aug 2003


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"It is my honest and very real fear that if we do not take immediate action ...
we stand in jeopardy of losing a flight..."

Those were the words in a memo to his management by Morton Thiokol staff engineer Roger Boisjoly on July 31, 1985, some six months before the space shuttle Challenger exploded above the ocean.

Could this disaster have been prevented if the managers at Morton Thiokol and NASA had been what we now refer to as emotionally intelligent? And if so, which definition of emotional intelligence, among the many available, offers us the most hope in this regard?

To help us answer those questions, this is the first in a series of articles on emotional intelligence (EI). I begin the series by reviewing the history of the development of the terms emotional intelligence. I say "terms" because there are two widely different definitions of EI. One is the popular corporate definition which includes almost everything which is not IQ. The other is the scientific definition which is much narrower in one sense, but broader in another sense, as I explain below. So far, the business community has primarily been offered one interpretation of the academic work on EI. In this series I offer you another interpretation to consider.

After reviewing the history of the terms, I compare the popular vs. academic/scientific concepts. I make this comparison by looking at the terms from several perspectives, including the claims, the definitions and the assumptions. After summarizing the more general and fundamental differences between the popular and academic definitions, I offer a more detailed discussion in articles two and three in this series. The second article, for example, compares the important difference between an emotional competence and an emotional intelligence, while the third article discusses another important distinction, that between personality traits and intelligence. In subsequent articles in the series I discuss EI tests, developing EI, and the practical application of the academic version of EI on personal, professional and societal levels.

My assumptions

I'm making a few assumptions as I write these articles. First, that you are a human resource manager who reports to someone higher up in your organization. Second, that you originally got into the field of HR because you cared about people as humans, not just as resources. Third, that you want to feel good about the work you do; that you want to be able to honestly say to your children or friends that you enjoy the work you are doing.

My goals

In writing this series I have several goals.

First, I want you to know what you are talking about and to when your boss comes to you and says, "I am interested in this thing called emotional intelligence. I've been hearing a lot about it. What do you make of it all?"

Second, I want you to know what to do when he says, "Let's find out who the most emotionally intelligent people are in our organization." In other words I want you to know how to recognize true emotional intelligence and how to measure it.

Third, I want you to know how to use it and how to develop it.

Finally, I want to offer you my thoughts on how EI can contribute not just to increased productivity, but also to the advancement of humanity.

A brief history of the corporate definition of emotional intelligence

The popular corporate definition of EI was originally derived from the academic work of the early 1990's, but at present it bears almost no similarity to that scientific work. Starting with the 1995 book by Dan Goleman, the popular press has defined emotional intelligence so broadly and in so many ways that the course has now been paved for nearly anyone to come up with their own creative definition of the term, as can be easily seen by a quick check on the Internet. In his 1998 book Goleman widened his definition of EI even further. Steven Pfeiffer, Ph.D. of Duke says that the term has now been "stretched to the breaking point." Robert Sternberg of Yale says that Goleman's definition "... includes a combination of abilities, personality traits, motivations, and emotional characteristics that seems to stretch even the most liberal definition of intelligence, and seems close to a conception of almost anything that matters beyond IQ".

My own view is that the term has now largely been uprooted from its birthplace in the bed of scientific inquiry. It is now so overused and misused that it has become both trivialized and discredited almost to the point where it is becoming meaningless. If that were to happen, it would be a serious loss not only to business, but to society.

One root of the problem is that Goleman did not start out to write a book on emotional intelligence. Back in 1992-93 he was funded by the Fetzer Institute to study emotional literacy. According to inside sources, when the book was nearly complete Goleman's publisher suggested they change the name to "Emotional Intelligence" to increase sales.

There also appears to have been a political agenda for re-naming the book. It seems there was a desire to discredit the importance of the intelligence research which had been presented the previous year by Hernstein and Murray in their book, "The Bell Curve". In the inside cover of the Goleman book, for example, the publisher wrote: " ..the true 'bell curve' for a democracy must measure emotional intelligence." Whatever the motivation, it is now clear that many sensational, misleading, and insupportable claims were made about the importance of emotional intelligence, and the relative insignificance of traditional intelligence. I will address some of these claims and their consequences below.

A brief history of the academic definition

The term "emotional intelligence" was first used academically in an unpublished 1985 doctoral dissertation by the late Wayne Payne. But it was not until 1990 that researchers began to develop a working definition of the term. In that year, these researchers, Peter Salovey of Yale and John (Jack) Mayer of the University of New Hampshire published an article in an obscure academic journal. They titled their paper, simply enough, Emotional Intelligence.

In that paper the authors defined EI as "the ability to monitor one's own and other's feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one's thinking and action." The paper discussed a wide range of possible implications of EI including its impact on emotional regulation of self and others, flexible planning, creative thinking, attention, priority setting, motivation, relationships, and health. In an often overlooked statement, the authors also wrote that by "recognizing the contribution of emotional intelligence" we may become more aware of "needed changes in social institutions and in cultural practices." A second statement which is seldom reported in the popular media is that "On the negative side, those whose skills are channeled antisocially may create manipulative scenes or lead others sociopathically to nefarious ends."

Though many people have mistakenly credited with Salovey and Mayer for originating the term emotional intelligence, Jack Mayer has, since my earliest correspondence with him, made it very clear that they reject this claim. In fact, Jack has gone out of his way to find other prior uses of the term. One of the earliest uses he has found, in fact, is in a 1961 book of literary criticism. In this book it was said that certain characters portrayed in the novel Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen possessed "emotional intelligence," an intelligence, which "informs the emotions..." It was also Dr. Mayer who uncovered the work of Wayne Payne, to whom he has given citation credit on several occasions.

Since 1990 Mayer and Salovey have continued to lead the academic research in the field of EI. (I've switched the order of their names because after 1990 Mayer took the lead role in writing most of the journal articles) Around the mid 1990's a third researcher, David Caruso, a long time friend of Jack Mayer was asked to help design a test of emotional intelligence. All together the three researchers have published over 25 articles about EI in peer-reviewed academic journals and books.

The work of these researchers has largely been ignored by most writers in the popular press. This is probably partly because the academic journal articles are so difficult to comprehend unless one has a graduate degree in psychology, and partly because the actual scientific research does not support the fantastic claims being made, so therefore is not as useful to those who wish to profit from the popularity of the term emotional intelligence. In some cases, in fact, the academic research starkly contradicts the popular claims. A new book which makes the academic research a bit easier to understand is, "Emotional Intelligence and Everyday Life", edited by Joseph Ciarrochi, Joseph Forgas and John Mayer.

In my opinion, Mayer, Salovey and Caruso have shown remarkable integrity in their work. Instead of exploiting their research, they continued to pursue it. Rather than jumping on the bandwagon, they have instead been, as Robert McCrae puts it, "some of the most articulate critics of the construct." Because I admire their integrity, and because I see much merit in their work as well as the many problems with the popular definitions and claims, my website has been perhaps one of the biggest supporters of the Mayer Salovey Caruso (MSC) model.

As I have followed both their work and the activity in the popular business press I see two trends. First there is growing academic support for the MSC model and test of EI. At the same time there is an increasing split between their work and the writing by Goleman and others who are in his "camp". For example, the group known as the EI Consortium, of which Goleman is co-chair, has recently dropped the link to the eqi.org site, a sign, perhaps, that they are increasingly distancing themselves from the academic research and from serious criticism of their work.

Corp. vs Scientific - Claims

By now you have surely seen the claims made about EI. These claims say things like EI is "more important than IQ", "twice as important as IQ and technical skills combined", and that it is the "best predictor of success in any endeavor". It is worth taking a look at the foundation (or lack of it) for some of these claims.

For example, in his article for the Harvard Business Review, Goleman tells us how he came up with one of his claims. He tells us that he looked at "lists of ingredients for highly effective leaders" and then he says "when I calculated the ratio of technical skills, IQ, and emotional intelligence as ingredients of excellent performance, emotional intelligence proved to be twice as important as the others for jobs at all levels". What Goleman is doing, though, is equating the number of ingredients to their importance. An example from American football will show the problem with this faulty thinking.

Let's say we ask 50 coaches to list the ingredients of a successful quarterback. The list may include the ability to run fast, to change directions quickly, to resist being tackled, to jump, to throw far, to throw accurately, to hand off, to follow directions, to recover fumbles, to tackle (in case there is a fumble or an interception) and to use good judgment in making decisions about when to do all of these things.

That is a list of 11 "competencies." Only one of them, though, specifically requires mental intelligence -- that of course is the ability to use judgment in making decisions. Would it be fair to claim, then, that the other non-intelligence based competencies were ten times more important than the ability to make good decisions?

Such ill-founded claims about the importance of emotional intelligence have alarmed and offended serious researchers who have devoted their professional careers to studying personality and intelligence. In what is normally a fairly polite and reserved community, academic experts have called these claims "ridiculous", "insupportable", and "embarrassing to the profession of psychology". The claims began with the release of Goleman's book in 1995, a book which has been called a "mixture of science and sensationalism". For several years the claims about EI spread like wildfire in a world suffering from a type of emotional health drought. As Jack Mayer explains it, the popular version of EI has now become something of a zeitgeist, an "intellectual or passionate trend that characterizes the moment."

The rapid spread of exciting, but misleading claims led inevitably to even more inaccurate statements. For example, Goleman widely reported that, "At best, IQ contributes about 20% to the factors that determine life success, which leaves 80% to other forces." (source) The problem is that between Goleman mentioning these figures the way he did and all the other claims about EI, people began to get seriously confused and misled. One reporter who attended a Goleman presentation later wrote "...recent studies have shown that emotional intelligence predicts about 80 percent of a person's success in life." (source) Goleman himself surely knows this is far from true, but, perhaps somewhat intoxicated by his overnight fame, he has done very little to reign in such wild claims.

In the academic world however, researchers were much less impulsive. Instead, they were concerned, with methodically and scientifically establishing EI as a true form of intelligence. This process began in 1990 and it continues today. While there is still some disagreement about whether EI is actually an intelligence, the consensus seems to be building that it is. Of course, the scientific process moves at much slower pace than the field of popular and science journalism. In the scientific world theories have to be tested and articles must be accepted in peer-reviewed journals. Independent researchers need to verify claims and results from previous studies. Few such checks and balances exist in the fast and loose world of popular magazines and easily created web sites. I hope that my own site serves a useful purpose in this regard, but I leave you to decide.

Knowing that intelligence is too important to be treated lightly, respected researchers, to their credit, have been extremely cautious in making any premature claims about EI and its value to "success" or society. We are just now starting to see the results of legitimate scientific studies comparing EI and variables such as work performance. In one of these studies, for example, Jamen Graves, Ph.D. writes "...contrary to some findings (e.g., Goleman, 1998), emotional intelligence does not seem to overshadow cognitive ability in predicting performance. It appears that emotional intelligence and cognitive ability play equally important roles..."

It has also been popularly claimed that EI, unlike IQ, is easy to acquire and readily learned. For example, Goleman was once quoted as saying that "people can change from being pessimists to optimists in a matter of weeks." Robert McCrae, one of the developers of the NEO-PI-R personality test, says this is "a claim that most psychotherapists and personality psychologists would dispute".

The claim that EI is readily acquired also implies that EI has no basis in genetic inheritance. The academic view on these points, however, is somewhat different, as we see in this summary statement by Jack Mayer:

It doesn't make sense to me to talk about teaching an intelligence... If emotional intelligence is like most other abilities, it is shaped partly by genetics and partly by environment. I like to talk about teaching knowledge. And I think it makes sense to talk about teaching emotional knowledge. I use this analogy: We don't say, "Can you learn math intelligence?" We say, "Can you learn algebra?" because we don't make our kids derive algebra from basic principles. We teach them about math as we understand it. Source

Using this analogy helps remind us that some people are born with more innate emotional intelligence potential just as some are born with more intellectual potential. Those with higher potential, once identified and given developmental opportunities, can be expected to learn faster and go further than those with less potential but equal opportunity and training. One of your jobs, then as an HR manager, is to help identify and develop such potential, something which this series intends to help you do.

Corp. vs Scientific - Differences in Definition

Since my first assumption is that you are in an organization where you report to someone above you, I encourage you to be very certain you know what you are talking about when you use the term "emotional intelligence". I want to help you avoid a scenario where your boss one day reads some of the academically-based research which starkly contradicts the popular version of EI which has been heavily promoted to the HR profession. I don't want you to feel personally embarrassed, nor do I want the HR profession to suffer any more assaults upon its credibility. I worked in HR myself and I remember the constant credibility problems we faced. We in HR are always (or so it seems) feeling a need to defend ourselves. Let's not give people any more reason to feel skeptical of us and our training programs.

There are several ways the corporate and the academic definitions of EI differ. First, the definitions differ in their scope. As stated earlier, the academic definition of EI is both narrower and broader than the corporate definition. It is narrower because it focuses exclusively on mental or cognitive abilities. In other words, according to the scientific definition, EI necessarily involves thinking, reasoning and information processing, according to the leading academic researchers in the field, Mayer, Salovey and Caruso. One popular definition of EI, in contrast, speaks of "an array of noncognitive capabilities, competencies, and skills ..." (my emphasis). The idea of a "noncognitive intelligence" reminds one of the old joke that "military intelligence" is an oxymoron -- a contradiction in terms.

The academic definition is broader than the popular corporate definitions because, as an intelligence (as opposed to set of competencies or personality traits), it is a flexible ability which helps us either adapt to or change our environment as needed for our health and happiness. It does not require that we are always one way or another. Rather, it gives us the ability to decide when to feel optimistic and when to feel more pessimistic, for example.

The corporate definition popularized by Goleman leads one to believe that there is a certain way of feeling and behaving which is right in all circumstances, at all levels and in all occupations. For example, it is implied that one who is emotionally intelligent is always confident, optimistic, zealous, conscientious, trustworthy, and able to shake off (or suppress) all anxiety. To me, this hints at something more robotic than genuinely human. It also reminds me of the 12 points of the Scout law which I memorized in Boy Scouts as a 10 year old. Only now do I realize that I was being socialized to behave as someone else wanted me to, rather than to follow my own inner voice. The 12 points are, by the way: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. When compared to Goleman's list of "emotional competencies" they seem eerily close.

Goleman's full list of corporate emotional competencies, as presented in his 1998 book, is as follows: emotional awareness, accurate self-assessment, self-confidence, trustworthiness, conscientiousness, adaptability, innovation, achievement drive, commitment, initiative, optimism, understanding others, developing others, service orientation, leveraging diversity, political awareness, influence, communication, conflict management, leadership, change catalyst, building bonds, collaboration and cooperation, and team capabilities. In looking at this list it is also fairly easy to see why people have said it includes nearly everything that is not IQ. (In fairness, I must add that this list has now been consolidated, albeit only slightly.)

The academic definition of emotional intelligence, on the other hand, is much more limited to the specific interaction between emotion and thought. Here is the four branch academic definition, based on the work of Mayer and Salovey: (source)

Emotional Perception and Expression - the ability to accurately perceive, appraise, and express emotion

Emotional Facilitation of Thought - the ability to access, generate and use feelings to facilitate, inform, and guide thinking

Emotional Understanding - the ability to understand the meanings of emotions, their likely transitions, blends and progressions

Emotional Management - the ability to manage emotions for personal and social growth

Though this definition is not yet widely known outside academia, there are those in the businessworld who have tried to incorporate it into their work. One example, is executive coach Randi Noyes. In her book, The Art of Leading Yourself, Noyes suggests that an effective leader must be able to "intentionally access, use, understand and manage his or her own emotions...". Noyes also says that "EI, taken seriously, can have the power of changing the focus of the leadership role in the world and how people in organizations will be treated".

While I will go into more detail in upcoming articles, I conclude this article with a summary comparison chart of the two versions of emotional intelligence, as I interpret them.

Summary of the differences between the popular definition and the academic

                    The Popular Corporate Definition                                                         The Academic Definition

August 2003 Note -- If you'd like to copy the comparison table, please use this newer version of it.

Promises emotional intelligence will make a more effective leader Can help the leader decide in which direction to lead.
Involves selectively using our emotions to achieve corporate goals. Involves using all our emotions to help us decide which goals are worth achieving.
Claims EI is twice as important as IQ and technical knowledge. Makes few such claims; suggests EI and IQ are of approximately equal value.
Suggests EI can help one be a better team member within the organization. Can help the organization become a better member of the world community.
Suggests an emotionally intelligent person can make a lot of money. Can help us decide when we have made enough.
Notes the importance of being a catalyst for change within the organization. Can help us be catalysts for change within society.
Implies that a person high in EI will be driven, zealous and committed to the company goals. Can help us decide when it is time to go home and be with our family.
Notes the importance of being trustworthy. Can help one decide when to "blow the whistle."
Notes the importance of being a catalyst for change within the organization. Can help us each be catalysts for change within society.
Assumes success is equal to financial success. Allows for other definitions of success.
Assumes emotional intelligence is always a "good" thing. Allows for the possibility that it can be used in socially destructive ways and to emotionally manipulate others.
Seems to value people as resources or commodities. Seems to value people as humans with individual feelings, needs, and potential.
Focuses on the implementation of decisions. Focuses on the decision making process itself.
Suggests that with high EI we will sell more products and services. Can help us decide which products and services are really needed in the world.
Seems to value conformity to group standards. Seems to place a higher value on individuality and creativity.
Seems to devalue, discourage negative emotions. Respects the contribution of all emotions.
Focuses on specific competencies and personality traits. Focuses on intelligence, information processing, and potential for learning, understanding, development and growth.


Challenger quote - This quote is found in many places on the net, including many university sites.

Steven Pfeiffer quotes Roeper Review Vol 23, #3. p. 138

Sternberg Quote Personnel Psychology, Autumn 1999, Article begins on page 780

Mayer quote on teaching EI Psychology Today, July/August 1999, Vol. 32 Issue 4, p20.

Goleman quotes about crucial emot. competencies and about 20/80% Emotional Intelligence, 1995, p 34.

80% claims

1. "...recent studies have shown that emotional intelligence predicts about 80 percent of a person's success in life. Carolyn R. Pool, Educational Leadership, May 1997 v54 n8 p12(3).

Four branch EI Model -- Mayer, J. D. & Salovey, P. (1997).  What is emotional intelligence?  In P. Salovey & D. Sluyter (Eds).  Emotional Development and Emotional Intelligence: Implications for Educators (pp. 3-31).  New York: Basic Books.