After 100 years of research, there’s little agreement on the definition of intelligence or how to measure IQ. Yet Adam Grant insists cognitive skill trumps all, and “Emotional Intelligence Is Overrated.” His critique is wrong, but important.

His latest post on LinkedIN is a follow up to his Atlantic piece on “The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence,” where he warns it’s risky to develop emotional competence. For example, he even speculates that Hitler used emotional intelligence to manipulate people into a frenzy of mindless loyalty.

Framing this as “IQ versus EQ” demonstrates neither. At any meeting, any dinner table conversation, it’s obvious that these aspects of intelligence need to work together. The ability to conduct complex analysis is hobbled (and dangerous) without the ability to connect meaningfully with other human beings. The ability to sense and manage emotion is nearly useless without the ability make meaning from rational observation.

Traditional psychological research has treated emotion and cognition as separate, even competitive. The current trend in neuroscience says something new, and powerful: Thoughts and feelings are interdependent.

Emotions Drive People

That said, in the human brain, no signal is more powerful than emotion. Emotion is a primary filter; it’s a signal of survival. Any high school teacher can tell you: Algebra can’t compete with love. As a growing body of neuroeconomics research shows, we make decisions with emotion, then justify those with logic. Obviously, we’ll do a better job in that process if IQ and EQ work together.

Science is a process of mounting evidence. Grant cites a couple of studies to support his opinion, but the real test comes from hundreds. While there certainly are studies that find EQ to have little value, and studies that find IQ to be essential, today Google Scholar lists over a hundred thousand studies on emotional intelligence. The evidence is growing. The interest in EQ as an important construct is indisputable.

The Evidence for Emotional Intelligence

This year, for the first time, a “big data” approach was used to assess the significance of emotional intelligence around the globe. Using a random-sampling process from a database of over 75,000 people, Six Seconds created a sample that’s balanced across age, gender, role and region to publish The State of the Heart Report. Assessing both EQ and performance outcomes (e.g., effectiveness, relationships, decision-making). The result: Between 50-60% of variation in these performance scores are predicted by EQ.


While Grant says EQ is unimportant on the job, The Business Case for Emotional Intelligence and The School Case for Emotional Intelligence, scores of studies say otherwise. Perhaps more importantly, in real-world examples, in people’s daily lives, we can see emotional intelligence skills improve performance at work, in school, and in life. They predict career success, school success, classroom behavior, stress management, leadership influence, employee engagement & performance, plant safety, change leadership, employee retention and even life success for professional athletes.

Even more, emotional intelligence is an enabler of cognitive development. Looking at the fascinating body of neuro-learning research from Mary Helen Immordino Yang and other cognitive neuroscientists (see Medina’s Brain Rules for a good intro), a new perspective emerges: at a neurological level, thinking and emotion work together. We don’t “think” with one part of the brain and “feel” with another; the process of learning is built into the very same neural circuits as the process of social-emotional interaction.

Is EQ More Important than IQ?

None of this is to say that IQ is unimportant. In education and business we ALREADY focus on IQ. For the last hundred+ years, cognitive development has been the primary goal of education: we have seen IQ scores increase by two standard deviations over the last century (that means a “somewhat smart person today” would be a “genius” in 1915). This “Flynn Effect” suggests (a) that IQ tests don’t actually measure intelligence, and (b) that around the world massive attention is given to cognitive development.

Growing IQ is helping us in many ways (creating innovations such as tiny computers that can be inserted into our hearts). At the same time, all this attention to IQ hasn’t solved other of the world’s most pressing problems (from poverty to environmental destruction to divorce to war). In fact, people today are more stressed, more lonely, and therefore less able to solve problems.

Here in Silicon Valley, you can throw a rock and hit a building full of uber-intelligent engineers. These people are painfully smart – they graduated or dropped out from the top universities, they are only hired if they have good-to-scary levels of IQ. So now what? As Daniel Goleman explained in his rebuttal to Grant’s article (which includes a link to that piece), IQ gets you hired, but EQ gets you promoted.

The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence

While Grant’s LinkedIN post is deliberately hostile (promotional intelligence?), his Atlantic article has a more thoughtful and important point. Capabilities can be misused. So should we avoid these skills? The Taliban knows that educated girls will eventually overthrow the regime, so they suppress education to keep this “danger” at bay. Is that the approach we want to take emotional skill, or about any area of knowledge?

Emotional intelligence is a tool. Can someone misuse it? Sure. A baseball bat is for play, but in the wrong hands… One can make the danger argument for any skill, but it doesn’t make it inherently dangerous. There is nothing inherently manipulative about understanding one’s emotions and using that understanding for better decision making. The only real path forward is wisdom.

Intelligence is not enough. We need to apply intelligence with the discernment that comes from awareness and compassion. Our purpose at Six Seconds is to support people to create positive change. Change that ennobles and empowers self and others. It’s the essence of leadership, and it’s urgently needed. While we must have cognitive power, but people are not just rational: the missing link is emotional intelligence.


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Joshua Freedman

Joshua is one of the world’s preeminent experts on developing emotional intelligence to create positive change. With warmth and authenticity, he translates leading-edge science into practical, applicable terms that improve the quality of relationships to unlock enduring success. Joshua leads the world’s largest network of emotional intelligence practitioners and researchers.
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