A week ago an email landed in my spam filter from a company called TalentSmart (based in San Diego, USA) advertising “Working with an emotional intelligence mentor”. What a very seductive concept emotional intelligence has always been since it hit the headlines over a decade ago. It felt like emotionally intelligent executives were suddenly being described as ‘attractive and intelligent’ or ‘good in bed and a great conversationalist’ – the perfect combination. So who wouldn’t want an emotional intelligence mentor?
Normally this sort of unsolicited email would not get past my own bullshit detector but being evidence-based does not automatically make me resistant to new ideas, mean-spirited, mechanistic, obsessed with measurement or devoid of human sensibilities. So I read further and found that TalentSmart offer (apparently): -
“Everything you need to develop an emotionally intelligent workforce. From books, to selection tools, to the leading emotional intelligence assessment.”
If that is “everything” I am not sure where it leaves one’s existing personality, parental influence, genes and a host of other factors that probably have a part to play in the way someone behaves in the workplace – but let us not worry ourselves unduly about such minor details. Also, let us not open up the eternal debate again about nature versus nurture, or whether emotional intelligence is a skill, competence, attribute or whatever. Instead let’s just get to the logic and evidence on offer. Here is one snippet from their “Business Case for Emotional Intelligence (EQ) 2009 Update” – which, incidentally, invokes a quote from Jack Welch in support of emotional intelligence – yes, that Jack Welch – the one who developed that emotionally intelligent system called forced ranking.
“Fortune Brands saw 100% of leaders who developed their EQ skills through classroom training, coaching, and online learning exceed the performance targets set for them in the company’s metric-based performance management system. Just 28% of leaders who failed to develop their EQ skills exceeded their performance targets. (Bradberry*, 2005).”
As with all statistics, we need to check what we are reading first. There are only 4 possible outcomes from this exercise. Some of the participants could have: -
a. developed their EQ skills and exceeded targets (i.e. the 100% referred to)
b. developed their EQ skills and not exceeded their targets (must be 0% if a. is true)
c. failed to develop their EQ skills and exceeded targets (the 28% referred to)
d. failed to develop their EQ skills and did not exceed targets (no mention of this group)
The only data we are actually given though is percentages, not actual numbers of participants. So, let us assume that for every 100 ‘leaders’ who participated, the actual numbers in each category were as follows (with the relative percentages in parentheses) -
a. 1 (1% of the total but 100% of those who developed skills and exceeded targets)
b. 0 (0% of the total)
c. 28 (28% of the total but also approximately 28% of the group who did not develop EQ skills)
d. 71 (71% of the total)
On this basis TalentSmart’s EQ approach would have a success rate of just 1% and yet would still be able to justify their claims on a purely statistical basis. We don’t know if this was the split of course but you could play around with any other combination that achieves the same relative percentages (e.g. 20/0/23/57 – but b. will always be zero).
Regardless of the questionable statistics though, what the evidence-based manager would really take issue with is the methodology itself – the focus here is on the process of ‘developing EQ skills’ and not on any evidence of the likely causes of under or over performance. The ‘solution serum’ has been pre-prepared and injected into everyone before any evidence is offered. Of course, this approach is supported by Daniel Goleman’s** article in Harvard Business Review (March 2000) entitled ‘Leadership that gets results’ because HBR informs us that
“drawing on research of more than 3,000 executives, Goleman explores which precise leadership behaviors yield positive results. He outlines six distinct leadership styles, each one springing from different components of emotional intelligence.”
The evidence-based manager does not have to challenge this assertion so much as ask the simple question – is this just correlation masquerading as causation again? Where is the evidence that attempting to develop emotional intelligence actually gets results (and doesn’t have any side effects)? Those who are offering EI or EQ have to do better than this.
*Bradberry is a partner at TalentSmart
** Daniel Goleman has been appointed as an adviser to the UK’s NHS Leadership Council