Measuring intelligence – Why employers are getting emotional

Peter Crush

Monday 9 March 2015

Your IQ score was how people – and employers – used to measure intelligence, but smart firms are now gauging their staff’s emotional intelligence scores too.

How intelligent are you? For years, people have explained this in terms of the number of qualifications they have, and, like it or not, it’s a person’s IQ (‘intelligence quotient’) that still holds weight in academic circles today.

However, there’s a newer view of intelligence in town: emotional intelligence (EQ). First made popular by psychologist Daniel Goleman, it’s often dubbed ‘the soft stuff’ – the way a person is able to manage their emotions, relate to others, read and adapt to different cultural environments and influence others positively. In short, it’s their ‘people skills’. While some might say this has always been important to employers, hard skills – such as IT professionals being fluent in programming languages – have tended to win out. A grumpy IT expert, companies might argue, is better than a personable amateur.

But, given that many company-specific hard skills can be taught on the job, and with many employers repeatedly saying it’s soft skills they see a dearth of, EQ is increasingly being seen as the new IQ.

With it, though, comes news debate about just how much prominence should be placed on it. EQ arrived as a concept to help explain why studies showed people with average IQs outperformed those with higher IQs 70 per cent of the time. It was Goleman who identified that, of all the competencies required for excellent working performance, 67 per cent were emotional and that EQ has no particluar connection to IQ.

“There’s no doubt we’re living in a world described by the acronym VUCA: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous,” says Jenni Lloyd, director at NixonMcInnes – a certified democratic workplace. “Mindfulness, empathy and collectiveness are the new emerging skillsets. To let go of power, to admit that they don’t know all the answers requires leaders with high levels of emotional intelligence,” she continues.

The good news is that EQ is actually very easy to measure. Psychometric testing now gives a very accurate picture about people’s predilections, and recruiters say clients take it very seriously: “For one client we work with,” says Michael Barrington-Hibbert, managing partner of search firm Barrington Hibbert, “if candidates don’t pass their psychometric test, the client won’t invite them back to the next stage.”

EQ is now so important in recruitment, he says, because the best hires – those who contribute to growth and profit – are those that best fit-in with each other and the culture of the organisation. “Testing for EQ also prevents the unconscious bias that often happens in recruitment,” he explains, such as discriminating against someone because of the school/college they went to, their ethnicity, or even if they are male or female.

But the bad news is that even he thinks there are limitations to purely recruiting for EQ. “I think its significance will always be organisationally-dependent,” he says. “Some companies that are highly performance-driven still need the sort of people that will chase and chase, and won’t care if doing this hurts other people’s feelings. There will always be unpopular decisions that need to be taken, and if the profile of person suits the company, that’s fine too.”

Meanwhile, the latest crop of academics are now challenging the likes of Goleman by saying EQ may not be the only answer to how people tick. Adam Grant, best-selling author of Give and Take, has an alternative view of recruitment and people’s traits, arguing most people fall into three basic groups – ‘givers’, ‘takers’ and ‘matchers’ – with EQ being less important than these three types.

“Givers do things beyond their job description. Having more givers is the most efficient way firms can boost engagement, retention and innovation,” he states. “The key is not to hire more givers, but reduce the number of takers, because matchers will act more like givers around other givers.” He adds: “People continually ask me whether givers have higher EQ than takers or matchers, but, while people assume they do, all my research shows that the things that make a difference – wisdom and empathy – are not really EQ, they’re personality.”

This, of course, opens up a whole new debate – what is personality, and does it change? What does seem clear is this: EQ – if taken to be a person’s ability to recognise their own emotions, and using that to guide them in their thinking and relations with others – is almost equally vital in today’s service-driven economy as hard intelligence. Just how much companies want to hire for it is arguably a reflection of what sort of company they want to run, and be seen to create.