Dec 25, 2022 7 min read

EI vs IQ: Misled and Oversold on Emotional Intelligence

How important is emotional intelligence to your career and where does it stand relative to IQ?


Overestimating the importance of EI

Ever since Daniel Goleman's 1995 bestseller Emotional Intelligence popularized the concept, EI(emotional intelligence) and EQ(emotional quotient) have become part of the common vernacular in companies.

Thanks to clever marketing and well designed TED talks, its importance in some circles is gospel and beyond question. Almost every other article or in-house training touches on aspects of EI in some form— most of them based on EI as “science based”, “research backed”, and “proven” as a determinant of career success.

But this popularity has also lead to the proliferation of correct sounding but potentially damaging misconceptions.

For example, folks hear some version of "emotional intelligence is more important than technical ability", or the commonly cited statistic that "emotional intelligence makes for 80% of success". This leads many to mistakenly assume that technical skills do not matter as much as EI, or that they are secondary. But this is only partially true, completely misleading and far removed from the reality of workplace dynamics.

What often gets left out is that the studies backing up these claims are based on a highly self-selected sample, and it really depends on the stage of your career, your level in the hierarchy, and the context of your role.

So what does the research actually say?

Findings from EI research

In their book Primal Leadership, the authors(including Goleman) give a technical background on emotional intelligence research that offers some clues:

In recent years, we have analyzed data from close to 500 competence models from global companies, as well as from healthcare organizations, academic institutions, government agencies, and even a religious order. To determine which personal capabilities drove outstanding performance within these organizations, we grouped capabilities into three categories:

purely technical skills such as accounting or business planning; cognitive abilities such as analytic reasoning; and traits showing emotional intelligence, such as self-awareness and relationship skill. Whichever method was used, this process resulted in lists of ingredients for highly effective leaders.

....Analyzing all the data from hundreds of competence models yielded dramatic results. To be sure, intellect was to some extent a driver of outstanding performance; cognitive skills such as big-picture thinking and long-term vision were particularly important. But calculating the ratio of technical skills and purely cognitive abilities (IQ) to emotional intelligence in the ingredients that distinguished outstanding leaders revealed that EI-based competencies played an increasingly important role at higher levels of organizations, where differences in technical skills are of negligible importance.

… In other words, the higher the rank of those considered star performers, the more EI competencies emerged as the reason for their effectiveness. When the comparison matched star performers against average ones in senior leadership positions, about 85 percent of the difference in their profiles was attributable to emotional intelligence factors rather than to purely cognitive abilities like technical expertise.

One reason has to do with the intellectual hurdles that senior executives jump in obtaining their jobs. It takes at least an IQ of about 110 to 120 to get an advanced degree such as an MBA. There is thus a high selection pressure for IQ in order to enter the executive ranks—and relatively little variation in IQ among those who are in those ranks.

On the other hand, there is little or no systematic selection pressure when it comes to emotional intelligence, and so there is a much wider range of variation among executives. That lets superiority in these capabilities count far more than IQ when it comes to star leadership performance.

While the precise ratio of EI to cognitive abilities depends on how each are measured and on the unique demands of a given organization, our rule of thumb holds that EI contributes 80 to 90 percent of the competencies that distinguish outstanding from average leaders—and sometimes more.

To be sure, purely cognitive competencies, such as technical expertise, surface in such studies—but often as threshold abilities, the skills people need simply to do an average job. Although the specifics vary from organization to organization, EI competencies make up the vast majority of the more crucial, distinguishing competencies.

In most popular interpretations of applying emotional intelligence, the important caveat of EI being a differentiating factor "where differences in technical skills are of negligible importance" gets left out either by design or by ignorance.

Common misperceptions about EI

In 2005, a decade after Emotional Intelligence was first published, Goleman himself acknowledged exaggerations of the importance of EI:

EI is not 80% of success

Unfortunately, misreadings of this book have spawned some myths, which I would like to clear up here and now. One is the bizarre—though widely repeated—fallacy that “EQ accounts for 80 percent of success.” This claim is preposterous.

The misinterpretation stems from data suggesting IQ accounts for about 20 percent of career success. Because that estimate—and it is only an estimate—leaves a large portion of success unaccounted for, we must seek other factors to explain the rest. It does not mean, however, that emotional intelligence represents the rest of the factors in success.

EI is not more important than IQ

Another common misconception takes the form of recklessly applying this book’s subtitle—“Why it can matter more than IQ”—to domains like academic achievement, where it does not apply without careful qualification. The extreme form of this misconception is the myth that EI “matters more than IQ” in all pursuits.

Domains where EI shines primarily over IQ

Emotional intelligence trumps IQ primarily in those “soft” domains where intellect is relatively less relevant for success—where, for example, emotional self-regulation and empathy may be more salient skills than purely cognitive abilities.

The “floor effect” of IQ at the highest levels

IQ scores predict extremely well whether we can handle the cognitive challenges that a given position demands. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of studies have shown that IQ predicts which career rungs a person can manage. No question there.

But IQ washes out when it comes to predicting who, among a talented pool of candidates within an intellectually demanding profession, will become the strongest leader. In part this is because of the “floor effect”: everyone at the top echelons of a given profession, or at the top levels of a large organization, has already been sifted for intellect and expertise. At those lofty levels a high IQ becomes a “threshold” ability, one needed just to get into and stay in the game.

EI is a discriminating competency only in certain situations

…EI abilities rather than IQ or technical skills emerge as the “discriminating” competency that best predicts who among a group of very smart people will lead most ably. If you scan the competencies that organizations around the world have independently determined identify their star leaders, you discover that indicators of IQ and technical skill drop toward the bottom of the list the higher the position. (IQ and technical expertise are much stronger predictors of excellence in lower-rung jobs.)
At the very highest levels, competence models for leadership typically consist of anywhere from 80 to 100 percent EI-based abilities.

Clearly emotional intelligence is not a slam dunk as many would have us believe. Neither is it easy to clearly differentiate it from other factors in actual practice.

You already have enough emotional intelligence

Marc Effron in 8 Steps to High Performance, takes it one step further. Based on more recent studies he outright rules out EI as a predictor of success even at the highest levels:

Emotional Intelligence Doesn’t Predict Leadership Success



It’s a wonderfully intuitive idea that our performance might improve if we better manage our emotions and more accurately perceive others’ emotions. What’s often sold as emotional intelligence (EI) is almost entirely from the fixed 50 percent factor of personality and does not predict job performance any better than personality does. 



Leading personality scientist Tomas Chamorro- Premuzic commented that EI had simply repackaged very unsexy elements of personality in a nicer wrapper, saying, “Even if EQ [emotional quotient] is largely old wine in a new bottle, at least the wine is very drinkable.”



Turning up the dial too high on EI can even create a condition called psychopathy, where you’re so insightful about others’ emotions that you become manipulative and superficial. EI can make up for lower IQs in some situations, but if you’re missing IQ points, you have a much larger performance challenge ahead.



WHAT TO DO INSTEAD. It is helpful to understand how people see you manage your own and others’ emotions and to correct any harmful behaviors. Doing each of these things well enough to be successful isn’t a different type of intelligence than IQ. It’s just about behaving in a way that your peers and coworkers value. ...there are people who are very successful despite what appear to be lower levels of EI.

Key takeaways

So where does this leave us and how should we factor emotional intelligence in developmental efforts?

  • Technical and cognitive skills are clearly "threshold factors" that cannot be ignored— they get you in the game and let you keep playing it. While they might not be sufficient, they sure are a necessary condition for success in most domains.
  • In order to stand out on your EI/EQ skills you have to be first competitive on your technical/cognitive skills. It will be tough to compete just on your social skillset.
  • EI/EQ is probably not a differentiator at lower levels and early stages of your career. Technical chops, cognitive skills and execution will probably help you stand out more. It's only when you move on to the managerial and executive ranks that EI/EQ starts becoming a differentiator, what Goleman calls a "discriminating competency".
  • Even at higher levels, EI is not a given. Where it can probably make the most impact is in avoiding pitfalls once you get there, what researchers call “leadership derailment", rather than being an active mechanism in reaching there.

Like any other widely accepted "advice" out there, EI is no panacea, and its applicability is highly contextual. EI might be very relevant to someone in a leadership role who wants to avoid derailment, but probably not as much for an individual contributor climbing the ladder early on in their career.

As with a lot of intuitive sounding advice, "it depends". Caveat emptor — proceed cautiously.


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Liked this post?You will dig The Managerial Mind on Mondays newsletter. It's free and every edition covers essential frameworks on leadership, careers, and organizations in bite sized form.

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Most leaders already have a good baseline competence of emotional intelligence. What's often lacking is skilled reflection and a practice of doing it regularly and reflexively.

Sources and references

  • Primal Leadership by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatsis, Annie Mckee
  • 8 Steps to High Performance by Marc Effron
  • Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
  • John Antonakis, Neal M. Ashkanasy, and Marie T. Dasborough, "Does leadership need emotional intelligence?", The Leadership Quarterly.
  • D. L. Joseph, J. Jin, D. A. Newman, and E. H. O. Boyle, “Why Does Self-reported Emotional Intelligence Predict Job Performance? A Meta- Analytic Investigation of Mixed EI,” Journal of Applied Psychology.
  • Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, “Emotional Intelligence Is Not Quite Total B.S.,” Talent Quarterly.
  • D. L. Joseph and D. A. Newman, “Emotional Intelligence: An Integrative Meta-Analysis and Cascading Model,” Journal of Applied Psychology.
Sheril Mathews
I am an executive/leadership coach. Before LS, I worked for 20 years in corporate America in various technical & leadership roles. Have feedback? You can reach me at sheril@leadingsapiens.com.
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