The Truth of Emotional Intelligence: A Review

There are buzz words that go around the professional world. In IT, “The Cloud” and “Agile” are often considered such words, concepts that were at once perhaps well-defined but due to popular use and wide aspirations have become somewhat vague concepts used by just about everyone who knows “just enough to be dangerous.” The problem with buzz words is they often lose some value in their wide usage. They collect a definition far beyond their original intent that makes them unrealistic concepts, being attributed with qualities nearly beyond any one thing’s capacity. One will hear IT professionals say “The Cloud” in an almost mocking tone, making fun of what became the almost magical definition of a place that easily and securely stores all data, “out there,” without limits.

Another one of these buzz words to arise some time ago was “Emotional Intelligence.”  The word emotional intelligence was first coined by psychologists Peter Salovey and John Mayer in their 1990 article “Emotional Intelligence” (Cummins, “The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence”).  Salovey and Mayer defined the term 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 and Mayer, 189). Since this introduction, there have been many books, articles, blog posts and trainings around emotional intelligence, most lauding it as an alternative type of intelligence and saying it is a key to success in any workplace. Due to the continued talk around the subject, the popular definition, like with many buzz words, has come to be somewhat ephemeral. It is clearly a positive attribute, but it seems that exactly what everyone is seeking in having emotional intelligence has been somewhat lost through the commending of it.

The purpose of this article is to explore the buzz word “emotional Intelligence,” to substantiate it and to explore the reality of the concept behind the buzz word and its value to the professional world.

Daniel Goleman’s 1990 book “Emotional Intelligence” is attributed with popularizing the idea of emotional intelligence (Coleman). He makes the concept alluring even with the caption for the book, reading “The Groundbreaking Book that Redefines What It Means to be Smart” (Goleman). In this book, Goleman argues that emotional intelligence (EI) is responsible for job success and good leadership more than IQ or expertise. He then walks through what emotional intelligence is and how one can hone it. Goleman says, “Even so, your career will depend, to a greater or lesser extent, on how well you have mastered these capacities” (Goleman, “Working with Emotional Intelligence”). From this work, the idea of emotional intelligence as key for work success spread like wild fire and one can find limitless articles, opinion pieces and blogs about the importance of emotional intelligence and its link to success.


Why Emotional Intelligence Is So Important to the Professional World

“People like the high-performing business consultant with the low GPA told me they found emotional intelligence, not technical expertise or book learning, to be what mattered most for excellence. My book, they said, made it safe to speak up about the business costs of emotional ineptitude, and to question a narrow, expertise-is-all view of capabilities. They felt they now had a new way to think about what they wished for in their own workplaces.” (Goleman, “Working with Emotional Intelligence”)

In an article summarizing his book, Goleman attributes a host of qualities to emotional intelligence, including cooperation with employees, self-discipline, gracious acceptance of criticism, adaptability, and confidence (Goleman, “Working with Emotional Intelligence”).  A Forbes article says “5 signs of high emotional intelligence” are accepting criticism well, being open-minded, being a good listener, being honest, and apologizing appropriately. The same article also notes how “research shows a link between emotional intelligence and career success” (Murphy, “5 Signs of High Emotional Intelligence”). Another article commends emotional intelligence’s benefits, saying, “It is not always the best workers who receive raises and promotions but the workers with the best social and political skills” (Cummins, “The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence”).

Such statements and attributes as those above beg the question: how is emotional intelligence any different from being a “good person”? Sure, not everyone has been trained to listen well or respond to situations appropriately, and whether this is training, demeanor, or personality, is a matter of opinion. Still, is this really a matter of intelligence? Are these not merely traits of a person being decent, respectful or “raised right”?


The Other Side of Emotional Intelligence

For every handful of articles lauding emotional intelligence and its workplace benefits, there are now articles countering this that state emotional intelligence is nothing more than personality, emotional intelligence is not a scientific theory, emotional intelligence cannot be truly measured, etc. (Woodland, “The Truth About ‘Emotional Intelligence’ and ‘Emotional Quotient’). Like the question above asking if emotional intelligence is merely a figment, these vast articles claim a construct not supported by science and impossible to truly measure. Entire websites are dedicated to the case that emotional intelligence is not a real thing and is merely a buzz word or social construct. Some go so far as to say Goleman misled and “manipulated” the public through this concept (Critical Review of Daniel Goleman).

Another psychologist, Cummins (2014), does not argue emotional intelligence is not real, but she does argue there is a “dark side” to emotional intelligence that is not widely mentioned or discussed. She says the emotional intelligence that can make one flourish in the workplace is also linked to one’s ability to manipulate and deceive; thus, though emotional intelligence can hold many benefits. By promoting it, one can also inadvertently promote characteristics of manipulation and deception through emotions (Cummins, “The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence”).


The Truth Behind Emotional Intelligence

Goleman spent an entire article defending his stance on emotional intelligence against critics, proving there were quite a few critics to refute (Goleman, “Cluing in the Critics”). Due to the controversial nature of his work, however, I found a more convincing argument for the “truth” of emotional intelligence from one of the concept’s founders, John D Mayer. Mayer (2009) wrote an article entitled “What Emotional Intelligence Is and Is Not” – and who better to state this than the one who coined the term? Mayer starts by redefining the term emotional intelligence as “the capacity to reason about emotions and emotional information, and of emotions to enhance thought.” He explains this as one’s ability to interpret emotions and their consequences quickly. Mayer then goes on to attack directly what I think of as the “buzz word” definition of emotional intelligence, as alluded to above. Mayer says:

Emotional intelligence…is not agreeableness. It is not optimism. It is not happiness. It is not calmness. It is not motivation. Such qualities, although important, have little to do with intelligence, little to do with emotions, and nearly nothing to do with actual emotional intelligence.

Mayer also speaks against the idea that emotional intelligence is a predictor of success – in life or business – by saying:

EI [emotional intelligence] is certainly not the best predictor of success in life - as was once suggested on the cover of TIME magazine in the United States. My colleagues and I never made such claims.

Here, Mayer separates emotional intelligence from many of the broad and varied “good person” and “superpower”-esque definitions it has come to take on over the years (Mayer, “What Emotional Intelligence Is and Is Not”).


What This Means for the Workplace

I think it can be generally agreed that we would like to work with good people, but if we strip away the “generally good person” definition of emotional intelligence, is it still beneficial to have in the workplace? If being a good listener, reacting well and being honest are not actually traits of emotional intelligence, does it still hold some value in the workplace?

After explaining everything emotional intelligence is not, Mayer’s summation of emotional intelligence’s value is: “…. It expands our notions of intelligence, it helps us predict important life outcomes, and it can be used to help people find the right work and relationships for themselves” (Mayer, “What Emotional Intelligence Is and Is Not”). Interestingly, this seems to be more of a personal benefit than a corporate one. So should we care about our employees’, coworkers’ or even our own emotional intelligence?

If we take Mayer at his word and agree that emotional intelligence is a sort of intelligence, then the answer seems to be “of course this is beneficial to the workplace.” Whether emotional or intellectual, intelligence of any sort is a benefit to a workplace, successful projects and careers. Emotional intelligence in particular is likely helpful in workplaces because it contributes tact and ease to a workplace. Emotionally intelligent people can likely diffuse tense situations before they rise to a level of having severe consequences. Emotionally intelligent people will likely be better at “moving things along” as they can read people’s reactions and demeanors. Emotional intelligence adds to the fabric of a workplace.

However, despite the value of emotional intelligence, I think decoupling the idea of emotional intelligence as a “super trait” is also important for modern culture. It is good to recognize how strengths can be different and having a balance and diversity of strengths enriches any workforce; however, any concept that begins to separate people possessing it as superior in some way will rarely achieve good, commendable or genuine results in a workplace. Too much emphasis on any one trait only achieves competition and envy. An appreciation for the variety of strengths in a workforce, including the strength of emotional understanding, will likely lead to flourishing teams and workplaces.



Cummins, Denise 2014. “The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence.”

Goleman, Daniel 1998. “Working with Emotional Intelligence.”

Goleman, Daniel 2006. “Cluing in the Critics.”

Hein, Steve, 2006. Critical Review of Daniel Goleman.

Mayer, John D. 2009. “What Emotional Intelligence Is and Is Not.”

Mayer, John D and Salovey, Peter 1990. Emotional Intelligence.

Murphy, Mark 2016. “5 Signs of High Emotional Intelligence.”

Woodland, Katie 2016. “The Truth about ‘Emotional Intelligence’ and ‘Emotional Quotient’….”