The term "emotional intelligence" (often abbreviated to EQ or EI) was first coined by the psychologist and former New York Times journalist Daniel Goleman in 1995, and while it’s had its critics, the term’s buzzword status hasn’t relented much since. That’s partly because the skills and attributes it describes are indeed in hot demand by employers.
But for job seekers, there’s also reason to be cautious about prioritizing emotional intelligence at the expense of all else.
The reason emotional intelligence is so widely valued is pretty simple: "It plays a role in everything," A.J. Marsden, a professor of psychology at Beacon College, tells Fast Company, like "task performance, contextual performance, interactions with customers and peers"—the list goes on.
That’s all stuff that employers like. People with a high EQ, Marsden explains, are "very effective at work, they’re confident in the work they do, they’re happy and satisfied at work, [and] they’re incredibly liked at work by their peers and their subordinates." As a result, they’re often good leaders and, at least in some cases, easier to retain for less pay. "They have a tendency to do their work because they find it internally rewarding, so money isn’t necessarily going to motivate them," she says.
But while emotional intelligence is a strong predictor of success, and Marsden says she expects its importance in the job market will keep growing, she also points out that its decisiveness can vary. "If you’re in IT, for example, EQ isn’t nearly as important as if you’re in sales." And some of the critical traits for certain positions might not actually come from emotional intelligence, even if they’re strongly correlated with it.
"Personality and EQ definitely go hand in hand," Marsden acknowledges, "and of the 'big five,'"—the major characteristics that psychologists believe make up personality—"conscientiousness is definitely the most important. It’s being dependable, it’s being detail oriented, it’s being responsible." (The other four, which you can read more about here, are extroversion, agreeableness, openness to experience, and neuroticism.)
There isn’t a hiring manager out there who doesn’t care about those traits. But there are likely plenty of them who can find a conscientious candidate who doesn’t have an especially high EQ—and doesn’t really need one for their job.
Emotional intelligence is "good for simple emotions," says Fordham University psychologist Dinesh Sharma, but it "doesn’t get at the complex dynamics that play out in a workplace, where you’re in multilateral relationships."
Highly emotionally intelligent people—who rank high on responsiveness, empathy, listening, and self-awareness—excel at interpersonal interaction, but they still might struggle with groups that are too big to manage through personal face-time. "A skilled manager who’s good at one-on-one interaction and is skilled at group interaction," says Sharma, "is hard to find. Invariably you have people who are very good at one or the other."
Plus, emotional intelligence describes a degree of empathy that may actually prove a poor leadership tool. "A manager, to be successful, has to have some level of power dynamic that plays out in order to get projects done," Sharma explains. It’s been argued that high-EQ leaders with bad intentions can be deft manipulators, but the pure-hearted may pose their own risks in some contexts, like being too sensitive to others’ feelings to get much done.
Sharma also adds that when the concept of emotional intelligence debuted over 20 years ago, diversity issues simply "weren’t as much a part of that conversation at the time." There's now evidence to suggest that the ability to navigate culturally diverse working environments may trump general and emotional intelligence for certain "cross-border" managers. As Sharma puts it, "culture and complex emotions now interact when we talk about globalization," which in his view is transforming the workplace in ways we’re only beginning to realize. "If you’re working across global teams, as a lot of managers do today, it takes more than EI to be successful, like knowledge of places and people and local cultures."
The ways people experience and communicate their emotions already vary tremendously from person to person. When you throw race, ethnicity, gender, religious beliefs, social mores, and other factors into the mix, the complexity grows exponentially.
To illustrate how, Sharma recounts working with United Nations officials dealing with climate change. In those cases, he says, "It’s less about emotions. It’s just a different order of analysis" altogether trying to convince stakeholders to make coordinated decisions—with interpersonal, commercial, local, regional, national, and global consequences. It isn’t that emotions don’t matter there (they do), they’re just one piece of a much bigger puzzle.
So if those are some psychological and cultural limits, what about the economic ones?
Katherine Newman, co-author of Reskilling America, puts it bluntly: "Soft skills have always been important. That’s not newsworthy. People have always worked in organizations where teamwork matters."
In her view, it’s job skills that have nothing to do with emotional intelligence that need more attention and investment than they’re currently getting. "That’s going to cost us as those industries gathering force depend on that kind of training, and we don’t have that kind of ecosystem that other countries"—like Germany—"do for producing people that have those hard skills."
Newman counts advanced manufacturing, IT, and mechatronics among those rising fields. And while expert forecasts have identified sales and caregiving as big growth professions for the next decade, where emotional intelligence would be an asset, "computational thinking" also tops the list of increasingly valuable job skills.
Positions for software developers, computer systems analysts, and market researchers are all expected to grow by 18–20%, according to the latest data. Others predict outlandish-sounding professions that don’t exist today to come onto the scene, like "neuro-implant technician" and "smart-home handy person," which would require much more technical know-how than emotional intelligence.
Marsden observes that while the hype around emotional intelligence may be fully warranted, it still "reflects the skills we value in organizations" today, relative to those we've valued previously. "Businesses have changed since the 1950s and 60s, so today it’s more about those things and being able to work in ambiguous situations" than was necessary a half-century ago. As for what we'll need a half-century from now, that's more of an open question by comparison.
The truth is that it’s hard to predict what certain industries or the global economy will demand most and when—or why. In the meantime, we can make educated guesses and bet on the constants. As Newman is quick to add, "It doesn’t mean I don’t think soft skills are important. I think they’re perennially important." It’s just that they may only go so far tomorrow, even if it's hard to know how far.
What's clearer is that emotional intelligence won't be the only kind of skill-set you’ll need to thrive in the future workforce—and that the others are likely to surprise us.