Emotional Intelligence: Where Did It Start & Where’s It Going?

Ushdhanak is a member of BBG Enterprise in Sydney  | May 29, 2017 | 

‘Emotional intelligence’ may seem to some people like a buzzword coined in the boardrooms of major US corporations and shipped around the world in the form of the latest ‘management speak’.

However, that’s far from the truth. And some of the basic concepts of emotional intelligence are, in many respects, as old as mankind itself…or at least as old as Plato.

It is perhaps a measure of how far the world of business had removed itself from human nature that we are now relying more and more on the concept of emotional intelligence to help redress the balance.

That is perhaps the key to why you are increasingly hearing the term used in the HR departments of Australian organisations up and down the country.

But let’s go back a little further and consider some of the history of emotional intelligence. This will help understanding of why it has such an important role to play in all areas of our organisations and beyond – not just in human resource manuals.

The roots of ‘Emotional Intelligence’

The first use of the term ‘emotional intelligence’ is widely attributed to the work of Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer in 1990.

While it had been used before in an academic paper during the 1980s, these two US professors of psychology were the first to draw attention to the phrase and to help define it. They described it as:

“a form of social intelligence that involves 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 action”.

They have since amended this definition to:

“the ability to perceive emotions; to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought; to understand emotions and emotional knowledge; and to reflectively regulate emotions so as to promote emotional and intellectual growth.”

Their work on the subject included tests that found that people who were able to identify and ‘label’ emotions were better able to recover from them; they also found that people who could perceive, understand, and appraise the emotions of others (those able to empathise) were more flexible and able to build supportive social networks.

While this thrust the term ‘emotional intelligence’ into the public for the first time, Plato had written 2000 years before how “all learning has an emotional base.”

This reminds us that ‘emotional intelligence’ as a term may be new, but the importance of emotion in the human experience is absolutely fundamental to everything we do – learning included.

Had business forgotten about where it came from?

It seemed for a few decades at least that the world of business had forgotten where it came from.

The common view in business was that people should leave their emotions at home; that they only got in the way of good decision-making in the workplace; that they were an unnecessary distraction.

Yes, we were in denial. It was as if everyone accepted that we had to leave our emotions hanging on the coat-stand at the door when we walked into work.

In more recent times, psychological research started to suggest that the opposite was true: emotion was actually the basis for decision-making and for forming strong relationships.

It started to become a popular idea that understanding more about emotions empowered us to handle ourselves and other people more effectively and to become better leaders.

In fact, successful relationship-forming and decision-making are both key to successful leadership. So it wasn’t surprising to see that, before long, the term ‘emotional intelligence’ started to make its appearance in more business literature.

Changing perceptions: IQ and EQ

As the aforementioned Peter Salovey points out, over the last few decades, beliefs about emotions and intelligence have changed.

Most people used to be comfortable with the concept of IQ: a fixed level of intelligence that you were born with and could not change. The concept of emotional intelligence (emotional quotient or EQ) initially left people uncomfortable: emotions were an inconvenience.

But this soon changed as more research came to light to back up what everyone perhaps knew inside: emotion did have a value and it was possible to become more emotionally intelligent and to use this for everyone’s benefit.

Latching on to Salovey and Mayer’s work in the 1990s, psychologist and science writer for the New York Times, Daniel Goleman, released a book called Emotional Intelligence in 1995.
David McClelland and a group of researchers had pointed out that traditional tests of cognitive intelligence seemed to have little bearing on the ability to be successful in life. It contradicted many of the previous assumptions but, when emotional intelligence was added to the equation, Goleman argued, it started to make more sense.
Goleman included a ‘definition’ of emotionally intelligent people as having the following qualities:

  •       Ability to understand their own emotions (self-awareness)
  •       Ability to manage their emotions (self-management)
  •       Ability to empathise with the emotional drives of other people (social awareness)
  •       Ability to handle other people’s emotions (social skills)

Goleman’s book, which sold over 5 million copies in the next five years, had a profound influence on businesses as we moved into the new millennium.

This idea that IQ was actually a predictor for very little in terms of success caught on, and gradually the view that EQ needed to play a greater role took root.

But David Caruso pointed out that EQ is not the opposite of IQ: rather, it is the bringing together of both:

“it is not the triumph of heart over head — it is the unique intersection of both.”

Where is emotional intelligence going?

At the same time that emotional intelligence has gained more prominence, the field of neuroscience is teaching us more and more about the workings of the brain and how it relates to human behaviour.

It is no coincidence that the two fields have grown alongside each other – as more scientific proof of the role of emotions in everything that we do becomes available.

Antonio Damasio’s work is a good example of this. He focused on how emotions function in the brain to create people’s sense of identity and guide rational decision-making and contends that our sense of being conscious comes from emotion.

These are exciting times and Dr. Salovey himself offers this view of the future of emotional intelligence:

“I think in the coming decade we will see well conducted research demonstrating that emotional skills and competencies predict positive outcomes at home with one’s family, in school, and at work. The real challenge is to show that emotional intelligence matters over-and-above psychological constructs that have been measured for decades like personality and IQ. I believe that emotional intelligence holds this promise.”

The field of emotional intelligence, then, will continue to grow and exert more influence on how we run our organisations, how we approach leadership, and what drives performance; and also in many other areas of our lives outside of the workplace.
Is your organisation looking for a new approach based around more focus on emotional intelligence? That’s my area of speciality!

Feel free to start a conversation with Ush at ush@ushdhanak.com