Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Emotional intelligence

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Emotional intelligence: What is it? Do you have it? How can it be developed?

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Emotional intelligence as a concept has come a very long way in a very short time. The term was coined in 1990 by two American psychologists; Peter Salovey and John Mayer (Ugwu, 2011). Within just five years, emotional intelligence as a term had been named the American Dialectic Society’s word or phrase of year, and it appeared on the cover of Time Magazine (Mayer, Salovey & Caruso 1999).

Since then, the business community has embraced the concept enthusiastically on the premise that an emotionally intelligent manager will be a more effective manager and better able to deal with change (Mayer, 2002). The concept has also successfully crossed the scientific/popular culture divide (Mayer et al, 2002) with self help books, magazines and numerous websites extolling the virtues of emotional intelligence and offering instruction to readers on how to acquire it. Complicating this already cluttered scene is the fact that emotional intelligence theory has fragmented into at least three main streams making it hard to precisely define (Zeidner, Roberts & Matthews, 2002) and even harder to measure in a scientific fashion (Cherniss, Exstein, Goleman & Weissberg, 2006). The lack of a clear, unified definition and its broad mainstream popularity has led some to suggest that emotional intelligence may be nothing more than another psychological fad (Matthews, Roberts & Zeidner, 2004).

The purpose of this chapter is to help the reader understand the concept of emotional intelligence by firstly mapping its evolution, and then introducing the four main streams of thought on emotional intelligence. The reader’s evaluation of emotional intelligence will then be assisted by providing answers to the following questions:

  • Is emotional intelligence "really" intelligence?
  • Can emotional intelligence be taught; and
  • How can it be developed?

But first, the following hypothetical situation will illustrate how emotional intelligence might manifest itself in the workplace.

A day at the office[edit]

Imagine a large, open plan office. As a manager arrives for work, staff members look up, but the manager heads straight for her office, avoiding any eye contact. During morning tea, she stays in her office, and after 15 minutes emerges to wonder out loud whether people have any work to do. During the course of the day, she calls an employee in for a performance appraisal. She tells the staffer she’s noticed a slackening of his performance and that he’d better pick up his act or his job might be on the line. The staffer tells his manager about a number of serious personal issues which are affecting his concentration. The manager responds that everybody has problems to deal with and that he should seek help from the company’s employee assistance service. She then sets a number of performance targets the staffer will have to meet if he is to avoid dismissal and terminates the meeting.

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In another part of the same office, a different manager arrives for work. He offers a general “good morning” to staff, goes into his office to check messages and then strolls around each desk inquiring about the weekend with one person, the wellbeing of another worker’s sick child, or the football results with a known football fan. Later, the manager joins staff for morning tea and takes a genuine interest in the conversation. During the course of the day, he calls an employee into his office for a performance appraisal. He tells the staffer that he’s noticed the staffer seems to have been a little distracted lately and that this seemed to be very much out of character. The manager says he’s worried because these distractions might be affecting the person’s work. He then inquires if everything is alright. The staffer tells him she has a number of personal issues which are affecting her concentration. The manager responds by inquiring whether there might be something he could do to help the situation. Does the worker need to take some leave to resolve the issues? Would some counselling help? The manager concludes by telling the staffer that they can work together to make sure she gets back to firing on all cylinders.

Both managers have Masters of Business Administration qualifications, both have high IQs, strong management experience, and a record of delivering results, but they differ markedly in their approaches to the same scenario. The first could be said to have adopted a reasoned approach, in which she has refused to allow emotion to interfere with getting the job done, while the second manager exhibits an emotionally sensitive, or feeling approach to his work (Ciarrochi, Forgas & Mayer, 2001).

A brief history of emotional intelligence[edit]

Reason and feeling have traditionally been regarded as separate dimensions of the human psyche, with the ancient Greeks dismissing feelings or emotions as nothing more than 'wind' (Salovey & Mayer, 1990). But attempts have been made to integrate reason and emotion with a concept that has evolved over the last century and become known as emotional intelligence (Ciarrochi, Forgas & Mayer, 2001).

In the early 1900’s Charles Spearman developed his famous two factor theory of “g” or general intelligence which placed task specific abilities alongside of general ability when intelligence was being measured (Spearman, 1904).


In the early 1920s , American educationalist E. L. Thorndike (1920) proposed that intelligence could be divided into the abstract, mechanical and social. In a later paper, Robert Thorndike and Saul Stein (1937) posited that ‘social intelligence’ could include economic and political issues, fair-mindedness and honesty, or more generally, an individual’s understanding of, and response to society.

This is similar to a later triarchic theory of intelligence proposed by Robert Sternberg. Sternberg stressed the importance of cognitive processes with his analytic, creative and practical view of intelligence (Hunt,2008). Psychologist Howard Gardner (1998) went on to develop an even broader list that specifically included personal intelligences which entailed the ability to accurately perceive one’s own and other’s moods and feelings and then use that information to inform behaviour. Click the arrow on the right of the following drop down box for more about Gardner's concept.