How Your Emotional Intelligence Works in Leadership

EI is vital to leadership effectivenessSince the 1990s, Emotional Intelligence (EI)—the space where cognition and emotions meet—has been widely researched and its importance acknowledged, making this a recommended field of study for organizations and a multimillion-dollar training industry  (Kunnanatt, 2004). While there is general agreement that emotional intelligence is vital to leadership effectiveness, there is a lack of consensus on a single agreed-upon definition and EI measurement model.  This lack of clarity makes it challenging to show consistent empirical evidence that shows EI positively impacts organizational performance.

The fundamental debate on whether EI is a trait, ability, or an intellectual construct makes it challenging for organizations to justify investment and resources into EI coaching and training as standard practice. For organizations to experience the benefits resulting from high EI in their leadership team, the argument needs to shift from “if” EI works to “how” and “what” are the best ways to make developing EI work.  Organizations are making investments in training and will need to continue to test the most efficient ways to conduct EI training and coaching interventions.

There are conflicting views that state EI cannot be taught or learned (Antonakis, et al., 2009; Dulewicz & Higgs, 2004; Fambrough & Hart,2009; Lindebaum, 2008; Zeidner, et al., 2004). Still, the evidence will show that EI is teachable and learnable. Although, because of the lack of standardization surrounding EI, organizations struggle to prove the efficacy of training and coaching interventions.  Due to technological advances, the polarizing political climate, and a global pandemic, business leaders must earn employees’ hearts and minds. These emotionally intelligent leaders possess the characteristics necessary to address these challenges of modern leadership. This paper will show through using the Bar-on (1997) model that emotional intelligence is a significant driver of organizational performance, investing in developing a leader’s emotional intelligence is critical. The evidence will show that emotional intelligence can be developed through training and coaching interventions.

What is the main focus of this research?

My research focused on three primary areas, (a) emotional intelligence definitions and measurement models, (b) leadership development of emotional intelligence through coaching and training interventions, and (c)the impact of emotional intelligence on organizations.

An interesting theme that the literature turned up in industrial-organizational psychology was the impact of EI on work teams. Based on research, work teams have become one of the most common forms of organization within the organization, and EI is a critical factor for social effectiveness constructs (Prati, et al., 2003). As employees work in teams to accomplish complex organizational objectives, they must possess reliable communication, cohesion, and innovation. Research of EI suggests that leaders with high EI can foster these characteristics through effectively communicating and empathizing with others; EI is also a suppressor of social loafing(Prati, et al., 2003), the concept that people tend to reduce their work effort when working as part of a group (Levy, 2017).

The topic of EI presents another prevalent issue in I/O, the Scientist/Practitioner gap.  Even though I/O psychologists train in both theory and application, a gap exists between them due to job requirements. In an academic setting, publishing papers with new theories is essential, even if they do not apply to the workplace. As an I/O practitioner, designing and launching a training program in a short time frame may be necessary without time to do significant research, so they do their best, even though they know it is probably not scientifically backed up (Levy, 2017). This gap occurs with EI; much of the research on EI can be confusing to apply to the workplace, but organizations value and invest in the training to develop the EI levels of their employees and leaders’ EI levels.

What is EI and what are the measurement models?

The field of emotional intelligence is confusing to navigate; the literature references over 30 EI measurement models. However, scholars have clarified these measurement models into three theoretical models of EI: the ability model, trait model, and mixed model. Through this research, Bar-on (1997) emerged as the best measure to support this paper’s topic and arguments.

Emotional intelligence EI was initially introduced by Mayer and Salovey (1990); this model is classified as an ability EI and defined as “the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.” (Salovey&’ Mayer, 1990, p. 185)The Mayer–Salovey–Caruso Intelligence Scale (MSCEIT, 1997) appeared seven years later to test the understanding of one’s emotions at maximum EI, which was important because it uses a cognitive lens to comprehend and regulate emotion. However, it does not predict typical workplace behavior (O’Connor, et al., 2019).

After the initial introduction by Mayer and Salovey (1990) into the academic world, EI reached mainstream popularity when Goleman published the book, “Emotional Intelligence” (1995). Millions of people today refer to EI according to Goleman’s five characteristics; self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. The Emotional and Social Competency Inventory (ESCI) (Boyatzis & Goleman, 2007) model emerged to support the measurement of these competencies. However, scholars criticized its use as a scientific instrument due to imprecise terminology, anecdotal evidence, and unsubstantiated claims (Petrides, 2010).

The most recent model developed was the trait EI model; it differs from ability EI in that it measures typical behaviors in emotional situations, making it a better predictor of actual behavior (Cherniss, 2010). The debate between traits and ability is an important topic that creates conflict and confusion in EI measurement; however, it is out of scope for this paper. This high-level summary presents the most-used models because each of them offers valuable techniques and views of EI. Still, none of these models provide evidence to support this paper’s topic.

This paper will show results with The Bar-On model (1997) due to studies’ relevancy in studies’ applicability to the corporate environment. Organizations often use Bar-on for employee selection, employee development to measure organization commitment (Miao et al., 2017), and job performance (O’Boyle, et al., 2011). Bar-on (1997) broadened the perspective of ability EI and combined traits, emotional and social competencies, and social skills to determine how effectively we understand and express ourselves and others. Criticisms of the model claim it lacks validity; as a self-reported model, it only measures self-perceptions rather than abilities and competencies, and several terms are used interchangeably (O’Boyle, et al., 2011). However, the Bar-on (1997) model established its validity and robustness through numerous global studies and thousands of participants (Bar-on, 1997). According to previous studies, EI, as measured with EQ-i, is inclusive and tested across all ages, with multiple ethnicities and genders performing the same on the model(Bar-on, 2007), which is vital as organizations are more focused on building inclusive work environments.  A critical finding that scholars argue is based Bar-On’s (2007) observations that EI skills are “teachable and learnable.” (Nafukho, et al., 2016), emphasizing that EI coaching and training interventions can develop the level of EI in leaders resulting in higher organizational performance.

 How Your Emotional Intelligence Works in Leadership 1How does EI impact Organizations?

Organizations are investing in developing EI in their leaders as the ultimate determinant of effective leadership in the new era of the 4th Industrial revolution (Kim & Kim, 2017). Multiple studies have shown that individuals with high EI have higher performance levels at work (Cote & Miners, 2006; Lopes, et al., 2006). A considerable amount of research also indicates that the benefits extend beyond the leader to their teams and the overall organization (Prati, et al., 2003).  A study by the Institute of Corporate Productivity (2011) found that 25% of companies have implemented emotional-intelligence initiatives and that these companies were the top performers in their respective categories. The study does not show a direct cause and effect between these initiatives and company performance, but it does show that higher-performing companies tend to have EI initiatives. (Coate & Hill, 2011).

Iconic business executive Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, describes what he looks for in a leadership candidate. “A leader’s intelligence has to have a strong emotional component. He has to have high levels of self-awareness, maturity, and self-control. She must be able to withstand the heat, handle setbacks, and, when those lucky moments arise, enjoy success with equal parts of joy and humility. No doubt, emotional intelligence is rarer than book smarts, but my experience says it is actually more important in making a leader. You just can’t ignore it” (Welch, 2004).   Mr. Welch is correct. He made this statement made over 16 years ago, and scholars are still arguing over EI’s validity, which is a missed opportunity for corporations. Organizations could use the support of scientific research that shows that investing in coaching and training interventions will develop business leaders’ emotional intelligence.

John Mackey, the founder of Whole Foods, is another leader that has spoken out publicly about the benefits of leadership associated with emotional intelligence. Mr. Mackey looks for leaders with a high degree of emotional intelligence, a high capacity for caring, and virtues such as integrity, honesty, courage, love, and wisdom (Walter, Humphrey& Cole, 2012).

Leaders like Welch and Mackey prepare their organizations to stay competitive in times of change. For example, around the turn of the century, as business climates shifted and organizational structures became flatter and less hierarchical, employees needed to take on increased responsibilities and step into leadership, which required a high degree of EI (Prati, et al., 2003). A meta-analyst of effective leadership found that organizations should recruit and promote emotionally intelligent users capable of effective leadership to influence their teams and achieve desirable outcomes across groups and organizations (Miao, et al., 2018).

Due to the threats of social and economic uncertainty, changing work environments, and the concept of worth and meaning to individuals about their lives, it would be beneficial for organizations to consider coaching and training interventions to foster the health of individuals and the organization (Di Fabio & Kenny, 2016.)  Often when organizations focus on their corporate culture, EI emerges as a popular topic and tends to have multiple leadership philosophies overlap into the concept of EI. Without making this right or wrong from a scientific perspective, it is a trend that continues to develop, and organizations are embracing EI as a competitive differentiator.

How does EI affect leadership development?

Emotionally intelligent leaders are influential in communicating vision, inspiring and motivating teams. They develop trust, encourage collaboration, and settle problems or disagreements with win-win solutions(Nafukho, et al., 2016). A few rigorous studies have shown that EI training in adults produces positive effects on well-being, health, relationships, and employability (Lopes, 2016). These qualities and the results produced in individuals show the value of investments made in developing EI, especially when research shows that 85% of the population has low or average EI; there is an extensive upside to investing in EI coaching and training (Kruml & Yockey, 2011). The literature includes multiple studies with evidence proving the efficacy of developing a leaders’ emotional intelligence levels (e.g., Boyatzis, et al., 2002; Boyatzis &Saatcioglu 2008; Chang, 2006; Cherniss & Goleman, 2001; Dulewicz & Higgs, 2004; Groves, et al., 2008; Nafukho, 2009).

An example of one such study of MBA students reveals that EI scores increased after the training intervention and that those with low or average EI were even more improved after the EI training intervention than those who started with high EI (Kruml & Yockey, 2011). This study used an experiential curriculum to teach EI, grounded in organizational behavior, including self-reflection, self-assessment, case analysis, and practical applications; it also provides trainers and coaches with valuable insight into focusing the development in the area’s empathy and self-awareness. Due to the curriculum used, the study is easily transferable to various institutions, including corporate training (Kruml & Yockey, 2011). This study’s findings guide a specific curriculum that is learnable and teachable, both of which are important in leadership, empathy, and self-awareness.

Another critical study that proves EI’s teachability was with NGO leaders from 30 countries; it provided empirical evidence that leaders could improve their EI scores. However, this provided some conflicting evidence to the study by Kruml and Yockey (2011), in that it found that that training improved EI of those with low or average scores and those that started with high EI (Nafukho et al., 2016). This finding suggests that coaching and training are significant in developing EI regardless of what the leader’s EI was before the training intervention. Once a leader’s EI is developed through coaching and training, this leader raises the team’s collective EI and team members. It then proliferates throughout the organization, raising the bar of EI for all leaders in the organization.

While there is still no empirical evidence regarding the length of time necessary for coaching and training interventions to produce results, even a relatively short training may effectively improve emotional abilities and habits(Nelis, Quoidback, et al., 2011; Nelis, Kotsou, et al., 2009). Companies should be highly motivated to continue to invest in EI training interventions and determine what timing works best for their organization; for top leadership positions, emotional intelligence is more than 85% of what sets star performers apart from the average person (Watkin, 2000).

The future implications of EI

The first section of this paper, EI: Definitions and Measurement Models, sets the foundation for the conflict and confusion surrounding emotional intelligence.  Researchers have differing opinions on EI’s definition and measurement models, and there are many critics of EI as a scientific tool.

However, even with the confusion around EI, the importance of EI to organizational performance is shown in the EI and Organizations section, through study results and experiences of notable CEOs. Assuming that EI is the ultimate determinant of effective leadership in this new era (Kim & Kim, 2017), to stay competitive, organizations must hire and develop leaders that build trust, communicate vision, motivate employees and provide inspiration (Nafukho, et al., 2016). These skills are critical because these emotionally intelligent leaders will determine the effectiveness, innovation, and productivity of organizations by creating the culture through their influence over organizational dynamics.

In support of my hypothesis, this paper shows that EI can be developed through coaching and training intervention. In the EI and Leadership Development section, the evidence across multiple studies shows that EI is, in fact, trainable and learnable (Bar-on, 1997).  With 85% of the population having low or average EI (Kruml & Yockey, 2011), organizations have the opportunity to develop emotionally intelligent leaders that can create solutions that are critical to business today, which is the rationale for my recommendations around future EI research.

While scholars in EI have done an excellent job of looking at EI from many different angles, the debate over EI and measurement models’ definition still poses a substantial issue for organizations to justify investment and resources into EI and coaching interventions as standard practice. Going forward, I propose that the research focuses on standardizing EI measurement for the corporate environment to offer empirical evidence of the efficacy of developing EI in leaders.  This research should define the most efficient way to deliver these interventions,  the amount of time and balance between group training and one-on-one coaching programs.

Until these standards are agreed upon, forward-looking research to maximize EI’s potential could be exploring efficacy and investments of hiring new leaders with high EI versus investing in training and coaching interventions for existing leaders within the organization. There are also gaps in the research that should address EI and its impact on inclusive leadership in race, gender, class, and sexuality, as these are essential topics in organizational leadership at present.

Many organizations acknowledge emotional intelligence as a top predictor of leadership success and are making investments in EI coaching and training; However, the efficacy still must be proven to stakeholders to become standard practice in Human Resource Development. Organizations should exercise care when selecting the measures they use to develop EI training and coaching interventions until an agreed-upon standardization of emotional intelligence is determined. In the meantime, this conversation around emotional intelligence should change from “if” EI works to “how” EI works.

A Research Paper By Elizabeth Weesner, Executive Coach, Facilitator Coach, UNITED STATES


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