Forget IQ, whatseparates stars from ploddersin the workplace is emotional intelligence. Ayala Ochert meets the man who wants academics to teach EQ
In the beginning the word was IQ. Everyone believed it was what led to success in school, in university and in work. But then Daniel Goleman gave us EQ - emotional intelligence - and he was lauded by educators and hailed as a messiah by the business world.
When Goleman's book Emotional Intelligence came out in 1995, it was an instant hit, catapulting its author headlong onto the lecture circuit. It has since sold four million copies worldwide. Goleman has received hundreds of invitations to deliver the message of the book - that IQ is less important to how you do in life than what he calls "emotional intelligence", a set of skills unrelated to academic ability. The book spoke to ordinary people, who felt released from feelings of inadequacy and society's fixation on IQ. Neither was this just another self-help book full of well-meaning platitudes - Goleman had serious scientific data to back up his claims.
"I found that there was a new and compelling understanding of emotions that had been ignored in neuroscience, cognitive science and psychology. Suddenly, we were starting to learn about the dynamics of the emotional centres of the brain. I felt there were implications for our personal lives and for important social problems, particularly those of young people," recalls Goleman, who was then a science journalist for The New York Times, having left a fledgling academic career to become an editor for Psychology Today.
Goleman hoped the book might act as an antidote to the "emotional malaise" that he felt had crept into society and was most pronounced in children. He felt that by learning to recognise emotional intelligence, we could become happier, healthier people. This rosy message stemmed not from naive hopefulness, but from a new understanding of human emotions that had been emerging from neuroscience for over a decade.
Emotional intelligence is nothing magical; it is something we all recognise. It is typified by people who seem at ease - people who get ahead but also get along with all kinds of people. Goleman identifies five "domains" of emotional intelligence: the first is "self-awareness", the ability to recognise your own emotions, to know your strengths and weaknesses and to generate a sense of self-worth. The second is "self-regulation", the ability to control your emotions rather than allowing them to control you. The third is "motivation", the strength of will needed to achieve your goals and to pick yourself up after a fall. While these first three areas concern your own emotions, the last two, "empathy" and "social skills", relate to other people's emotions, the ability to recognise them and to nurture relationships or inspire others.
His books are grounded in examples. He describes the New York bus driver who soothes an irritable crowd of passengers on a stuffy bus with his jovial banter. He contrasts this with the cab driver who feels compelled to vent his frustration at New York's traffic by shouting obscenities out of his window. And to illustrate how IQ and emotional intelligence have little to do with each other, he tells the story of the straight-A student who stabs his physics teacher for giving him a B.
Goleman brings insights in neuroscience to bear on this commonsense understanding of the emotions, drawing together hundreds of pieces of scientific research to explain how two parts of the brain - the "emotional brain" and the "rational brain" - link to form the neural circuitry responsible for emotional intelligence. An intricate dance between the amygdala, the ancient emotional centre responsible for our primal impulses, and the prefrontal lobes of the newer neocortex dictates how we behave in everyday situations.
"IQ is based on the neocortex alone, and the neocortex can do that (largely) without the emotional centres," explains Goleman. "But when we talk about emotional intelligence, we're talking about integrating a wider sweep of the brain, both limbic and cortical areas."
The amygdala is responsible for the rapid "fight or flight" response in which it creates an "emotional short-circuit", taking over the entire brain in an instant. But in most situations the prefrontal lobes are able to temper the amygdala's primal response with reason. If the prefrontal areas do a good job, a person might defuse a tense situation with humour. If not, the person might fly into a rage or be paralysed with fear.
Emotional Intelligence inspired a host of programmes in emotional development worldwide. Educators rallied to Goleman's cry that something could be done to reverse the trend among children to be more emotionally troubled than previous generations, more unruly and depressed. Although he had expected teachers to take an interest, Goleman was taken aback by the book's impact.
"I was surprised to see that I'd got as much interest from business people as from educators," he says.
"I grew up with a slight disdain for business people, which I think many academics feel," he admits. "I had a stereotype that was erroneous - I find the business world a more congenial universe to operate in than I had anticipated."
His latest book, Working with Emotional Intelligence, explains how emotional intelligence is at least twice as important as IQ or technical skills in determining how well a person will perform on the job. In it he also warns businesses that they are wasting billions of dollars every year on training programmes destined to fail.
Over the years, the business world has come to believe that IQ and personality tests can help them pick the right people. But it was one of Goleman's own professors at Harvard, David McClelland, who pointed out 25 years ago that while IQ is a good predictor of what job a person can get, it is a very poor predictor of how well they will do once in the job. This, he suggested, was because IQ measured the wrong skills.
In the intervening time, firms have followed McClelland's advice and have explored what distinguishes "star performers" from average workers. Time and again, says Goleman, it is emotional intelligence competences, such as initiative, self-confidence, relationship abilities and the drive to improve, that these people excel in.
A well-known test of emotional intelligence and its impact on our lives is the "marshmallow test". A marshmallow is placed in front of a four-year-old, and they are told that it is theirs, but that if they can wait while the adult goes out of the room for a while, then they can have two marshmallows on her return. One such study was conducted at Stanford University in the 1960s. When the children were tracked down as adolescents, those able to delay gratification at age four were found to be more socially competent, less likely to cave in under stress and more self-assertive than those who gave in to temptation and grabbed the marshmallow. They also achieved considerably higher grades on leaving school than their more impulsive peers.
While this example paints a picture of emotional intelligence as something fixed throughout life, Goleman firmly rejects that conclusion. "There is probably a Bell curve for emotional intelligence just as there is for IQ, but the difference is that the emotional brain is very plastic - it reshapes itself through repeated experience. That is one reason I'm against evaluating people for emotional intelligence the way we do for IQ, particularly in childhood," says Goleman. Emotional intelligence rises through each decade of life - in other words, says Goleman, people mature.
One important insight from neuroscience is that the emotional brain learns in a different way to the rational brain. While a classroom setting and textbooks may be appropriate for learning technical skills, they are almost useless for learning how to behave in a more emotionally intelligent fashion. The appropriate model of learning is one of habit change, learning new skills through practice. "It's not enough to just read about it. Companies have been wasting billions of dollars on training and development programmes that don't pay, because they follow the wrong model of learning," asserts Goleman.
Academia is one area Goleman concedes that IQ does count towards on-the-job performance, but it may be the exception that proves the rule. "In terms of how well that article is received and how often it's cited, I'd like to think that the sheer brilliance of the work counts more than any political lobbying you may do on its behalf," says Goleman. "But, equally, if you can't persuade people that yours is an important concept it'll wither, and persuasion is not a purely rational art."
Increasing collaboration among academics means that emotional intelligence skills such as empathy are likely to matter as much as they do in the private sector. And when it comes to teaching, they are paramount. "The most gifted lecturers are emotionally intelligent," says Goleman. "I'm in favour of rethinking the curriculum and going back to a classical view of education. We've become parochial in what we regard as the mission of education, particularly at the graduate level. When you think about preparing students with the abilities they'll need to be effective in their jobs, I don't see why you wouldn't include this range of competences."