Quiz: Does Your Job Require High Or Low Emotional Intelligence?

It’s become cliché to assert that having high emotional intelligence equals better performance at work. But I’m going to shock you, because the link between emotional intelligence and job performance is wildly overstated.

In fact, research suggests that in certain jobs, having higher emotional intelligence is actually correlated with lower job performance! I know, this is mind-blowing. In 2010, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign conducted an exhaustive meta-analysis of every available study linking emotional intelligence to job performance. They analyzed 476 such studies, involving 191 distinct jobs, and discovered that the determining factor in whether emotional intelligence would be positively or negatively related to job performance was something called “emotional labor.” 

Emotional labor is the extent to which we have to regulate and display certain emotions to achieve our goals. For example, nursing would be a job with high emotional labor (involving lots of empathy, interpersonal interactions, they need to express positive emotions, etc.) By contrast, low emotional labor jobs, like accountants, welders, and some programmers, would have fewer interpersonal interactions and less need for cheerful service and empathy. If you’re unsure whether your job demands high or low emotional labor, I’d recommend you take the free quiz “Does Your Job Require High Or Low Emotional Intelligence?”

In jobs with high emotional labor, having high levels of emotional intelligence led to better job performance. This is pretty intuitive. Let’s imagine you’re a management consultant. Every day you’re expected to make customers feel good, understand and empathize with their emotional states, and probably even appear upbeat and friendly (whether you feel that way or not). In jobs like this, having high emotional intelligence, and specifically being able to regulate your emotions, is a really important ability.

But now let’s imagine that you’re a statistician whose job is to crank out hundreds of data analyses. Resource allocation theory suggests that spending energy on regulating your emotions may distract you, and drain your attention, from the task in front of you. If your job is cranking out statistical reports, your finite attentional energy could easily be consumed by displaying the most appropriate emotions or empathizing with your coworkers or putting on a happy face.

Now, I’m not suggesting that emotional intelligence is a bad thing and that we should all stop being empathic and regulating our emotions. But what I am saying is that many of the claims that emotional intelligence is a magic cure-all are overblown.

Let’s take empathy as a component of emotional intelligence. At first glance, it would seem like a really good thing to understand and share the feelings of others (i.e. empathy). And in a great many cases, empathy is a wonderful ability. But imagine you employ a team of commission-driven cold-calling salespeople. Every day they face rejection, insults, and objections. A key to their financial and psychological survival is the thickness of their skin. These are people that need to withstand fifty angrily disconnected calls and still make the fifty-first call undaunted.

If they empathize too much with each person on their calling list, they might start to question the very nature of their job. “Am I really annoying when I call?” “Maybe I shouldn’t interrupt people while they’re working.” “I guess that I wouldn’t like these calls either.”

Or what about a turnaround executive who’s been ordered to restructure a failing company? This is another case where an abundance of empathy can actually make the job significantly more difficult. Conducting layoffs is already difficult, but doing so while making a deep emotional connection with every single affected employee is a recipe for sleepless nights (and maybe depression and alcoholism).

It’s been a while since psychologists Peter Salovey and John Mayer introduced the world to emotional intelligence in 1990. And ironically, the concept’s subsequent popularity may have hampered the development of a more nuanced view. As companies rushed to implement emotional intelligence training everywhere and anywhere, most forgot to ask whether this would have the hoped-for results. Emotional intelligence has tremendous potential as a concept and a developable skill. But rather than applying it in every nook and cranny of our lives, we’d be better served by asking where and how it should be applied.

I would strongly encourage you to think through your own job; does it demand high or low levels of emotional labor? Does your job require empathy, faking a smile, suppressing anger, or making emotional connections? Depending on your answers, you may need to rethink whether you spend your energy developing emotional intelligence or a very different set of abilities.

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