Past research has confirmed that emotional intelligence (EI) is more important in jobs such as teaching or nursing because it provides resources and methods for personally managing the high emotional loads common to such positions. A new paper demonstrates that jobs that involve high managerial demands benefit from EI for a different reason: the specific ability to detect emotional cues helps smooth over issues and keep team relations positive. However, in some cases, EI could be doing harm rather than good.
EI can be conceptualised in many ways, and lead researcher Crystal Farh and her colleagues chose to focus on Mayer and Salovey’s model, a purely ability-focused scheme that comprises emotional perception, the use of emotions to facilitate thinking, understanding emotions, and regulating emotions. They asked 212 early-career managers to complete web surveys that measured personality together with managerial work demands, defined by items such as "This job is a dramatic increase in scope". Managerial demands were of interest because they reflect work situations that are challenging and involve degrees of stress and intense emotions to deliver ambitious outcomes; Farh's team believed that emotional cues in these contexts need to be picked up quickly by managers. EI was measured through a series of standardised ability tests, and participants' supervisors contributed ratings of overall job performance together with perceptions of how effective the participant's team was.
When managerial work demands were great, higher EI was associated with higher teamwork effectiveness, but the relationship disappeared when the managerial demands were at or beyond one standard deviation below the sample average. EI made a difference in busy, complex and multi-layered managerial contexts, not when managing single teams under less pressured conditions. Farh's team predicted that the first EI component, emotional perception, would be the most crucial component, because noticing emotions is a precondition to acting upon them. They duly found that when each component was analysed separately, only emotional perception maintained the effect under high managerial demands; moreover, when those demands were low, emotional perception was actually associated with a penalty to teamworking. Why? The paper conjectures that being hypersensitive to emotional cues in a low-stress environment may actually be counterproductive, leading to 'reading too much' into situations and rocking the boat unnecessarily.
Does teamworking matter? An analysis demonstrated that in this sample, higher EI was associated with better job performance, and this was due to the positive relationship between EI and teamwork effectiveness. All analyses controlled for personality, as in particular conscientiousness tends to be tied to meeting specified work outcomes.
The research adds to the literature that EI matters in a range of work roles, acting as a solution to specific problems rather than acting as a global resource that improves every situation. The authors conclude that 'managers should recognize that selecting emotionally intelligent employees or training employees’ EI may not lead to higher performance outcomes in all situations, but that investing in the EI of employees working in jobs characterized by high managerial demands may be a worthwhile endeavour.'