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Transcript: How do we rate emotional intelligence at work?

Hillary Anger Elfenbein, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis

Karl Moore, Talking Management

KARL MOORE – This is Karl Moore of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, with Talking Management for The Globe and Mail.. Today I am delighted to speak to Hillary Anger Elfenbein who is a professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

Good morning, Hillary.


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KARL MOORE – You have been studying emotions for a number of years. What is some of your latest research telling us about emotions at work?

HILLARY ANGER ELFENBEIN – So in a lot of my recent work I have been looking at how well we understand the emotional abilities of others. I think with the groundbreaking work on emotional intelligence by Daniel Goleman and others that we have come, in the management world, to understand that these are important abilities. But how do we recruit people? How do we train people? How do we identify people with these abilities?

So there are some tests that have been used but by and large these tests lag the scientific rigour that we would want for some kind of objective assessment. So what do we do on a day-to-day basis? We judge other people, we interview them, we speak to them, we work with people on a day-to-day basis and we form impressions about their emotional abilities: Is this somebody who reads other people well, is this somebody who can keep their calm, is this somebody who brings out our excitement in others and who brings out their best? So there is a range of emotional abilities and we have our opinions and we form opinions over time while we work with people.

So along with Sigal Barsade from Wharton and Noah Eisenkraft from the University of North Carolina we set out, empirically and scientifically, to test whether these judgments are themselves accurate. So do I just think somebody is great at something and they're not good at it? How valid is it? How much do people agree? So we started out by asking how valid is it that we judge other people's emotional abilities?

The first thing we found was when working with people who were in teams together doing real work for months together, working very close together, was that they agreed with each other. So we asked everyone on the team about the emotional abilities of each other person on the team and we looked, in general, they agreed.

Now, they don't agree overwhelmingly largely so you actually do want a multitude of perspectives in order to judge how emotionally intelligent somebody is. On average we found it would take something like eight people, making that judgment, for you to take that average and have a reliable number that you actually could use in a workplace setting to hire, to train, and to coach people. Now of course this was an academic setting and there were no stakes about these judgments – they were used purely for professional development and learning purposes. It would be hard, I think, to recruit people on this basis because people want to be generous in order to help people get ahead. But on a strictly learning basis we found that this was very valuable feedback.

KARL MOORE – Understanding what you came up with, how do I, as a manager, perform more effectively emotionally in the workplace?

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HILLARY ANGER ELFENBEIN  – I think for us the biggest recommendation is around feedback – the kind of 360 [degree] performance appraisals that we use for more objective and analytical parts of performance, we need to use more of those for performance too. Simply knowing, simply holding up that mirror and knowing how other people view you, is the first step to improving those skills. That is for each person as an individual. For the manager who has a span of control they have to worry about, get that feedback to help understand who to put on the team or who needs what kind of coaching. So having that kind of information itself can lead to productive activities for professional development.

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