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Journal of Organizational Behavior

J. Organiz. Behav. 26, 425–431 (2005)


Published online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com). DOI: 10.1002/job.318

Why emotional intelligence


is an invalid concept
EDWIN A. LOCKE*
Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, U.S.A.

Summary In this paper I argue that the concept of emotional intelligence (EI) is invalid both because it is
not a form of intelligence and because it is defined so broadly and inclusively that it has no
intelligible meaning. I distinguish the so-called concept of EI from actual intelligence and
from rationality. I identify the actual relation between reason and emotion. I reveal the funda-
mental inadequacy of the concept of EI when applied to leadership. Finally, I suggest some
alternatives to the EI concept. Copyright # 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Why Emotional Intelligence Is an Invalid Concept

The concept of intelligence refers to one’s ability to form and grasp concepts, especially higher-level
or more abstract concepts. The observations on which the concept of intelligence is formed are that
some people are simply able to ‘get’ things better than others; that is, they are able to make connec-
tions, see implications, reason deductively and inductively, grasp complexity, understand the meaning
of ideas, etc., better than other people. Motivation obviously plays a role in understanding concepts and
can partly compensate for low ability, but even highly motivated people differ in intellectual ability.
Those who are better able to grasp higher-level concepts are better able to handle complex tasks and
jobs.
Intelligence must be clearly distinguished from rationality. Whereas intelligence refers to one’s
capacity to grasp abstractions, rationality refers to how one actually uses one’s mind. A rational indi-
vidual takes facts seriously and uses thinking and logic to reach conclusions. A person can be very
intelligent and yet very irrational (cf. many modern philosophers; Ghate & Locke, 2003). For example,
a person’s thinking may be dominated by emotions, and they may not distinguish between what they
feel and what they can demonstrate to be true.
The concept of emotional intelligence (EI) was introduced by Salovey and Mayer (1990), although
related ideas such as ‘social intelligence’ had been introduced by earlier writers—originally by E. L.
Thorndike. Salovey and Mayer (1990, p. 189) defined emotional intelligence as ‘the ability to monitor
one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information

* Correspondence to: Edwin A. Locke, 32122 Canyon Ridge Drive, Westlake Village, CA 91361, U.S.A.
E-mail: elocke@rhsmith.umd.edu

Copyright # 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Accepted 5 January 2005
426 E. A. LOCKE

to guide one’s thinking and actions.’ (Note: definitions of EI are constantly changing, an issue I will
return to later.) There are several problems with this definition. First, the ability to monitor one’s emo-
tions does not require any special degree or type of intelligence. Monitoring one’s emotions is basi-
cally a matter of where one chooses to focus one’s attention, outwards at the external world or inward
at the contents and processes of one’s own consciousness. (This claim obviously implies that people
have volitional control over focusing their minds. For a detailed discussion and defense of the claim
that people possess volition or free will, see Binswanger, 1991; and Peikoff, 1991.) Focusing inwards
involves introspection. Similarly, the ability to read the emotions of others is not necessarily an issue of
intelligence. It could simply be a matter of paying attention to others and being aware of one’s own
emotions so that one can empathize with others. For example, if one is unaware, due to defensiveness,
that one can feel fear, one will not be able to empathize with fear in others.
Second, discriminating between emotions is a learned skill, just as is detecting a given emotion.
A highly intelligent person may be better able to make very subtle distinctions between similar
emotions (e.g., jealousy and envy), but for basic emotions (e.g., love, anger, fear, desire) it just a matter
of focusing inwards so as to develop one’s introspective skill.
Third, whether one uses one’s knowledge in everyday action is not an issue of intelligence per se.
Many factors may come into play here. Among them are rationality (vs. emotionalism), being in (vs.
out of) focus, integrity (including courage in the face of opposition), and the nature of one’s purpose. In
sum, the definition of EI indicates that it is really some combination of assorted habits, skills and/or
choices rather than an issue of intelligence.
It is simply arbitrary to attach the word ‘intelligence’ to assorted habits or skills, as Howard Gardner
and EI advocates do, on the alleged grounds that there are multiple types of intelligences. This exten-
sion of the term simply destroys the meaning of the concept—which, in fact, is the hidden agenda of
the advocates of multiple intelligences. The ultimate motive is egalitarianism: redefining what it means
to be intelligent so that everyone will, in some form, be equal in intelligence to everyone else. The
agenda here is not scientific but political. However, arbitrary redefinitions do not change reality. Some
people actually are more intelligent, in terms of their ability to grasp concepts, than others, but this
ability is not necessarily reflected in every skill that people choose to develop. If one wants to group
a set of related phenomena into a single concept, there must be a conceptually identified, common
element among them. Otherwise, the concept has no clear meaning.
As another case in point, consider how Salovey and Mayer, in the same article cited above (Salovery
& Mayer, 1990, p. 190), expand their conceptualization of EI. It is said to include: the appraisal and
expression of emotions in the self, both verbal and non-verbal; the appraisal and identification of emo-
tions in others through non-verbal identification and empathy; the regulation of emotions in oneself
and in others; and the utilization of emotions so as to engage in flexible planning, creative thinking,
direction of attention, and motivation.
Observe that the concept of EI has now become so broad and the components so variegated that no
one concept could possible encompass or integrate all of them, no matter what the concept was called;
it is no longer even an intelligible concept. What is the common or integrating element in a concept
that includes: introspection about emotions, emotional expression, non-verbal communication with
others, empathy, self-regulation, planning, creative thinking and the direction of attention? There is
none.
Following Salovey and Mayer, Daniel Goleman (1995) popularized the concept of EI. According to
Goleman, EI involves: self-motivation and persistence; skill at introspection; delay of gratification;
self-control of impulses, moods and emotions; empathy; and social skills (the ability to make
friends). These elements overlap considerably with those of Salovey and Mayer and are equally
un-integratible by means of a single concept. Most of the actions involved actually require the use
of reason.

Copyright # 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Organiz. Behav. 26, 425–431 (2005)
WHY EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE IS AN INVALID CONCEPT 427

To add to the confusion, in another article, Mayer (1999, p. 50) defines EI as, ‘the capacity to reason
with emotion in four areas: to perceive emotion, to integrate it in thought, to understand it and to man-
age it.’ The fundamental problem here is that one cannot ‘reason with emotion.’ This is a contradiction
in terms. Reason and emotion are two very different cognitive processes, and they perform very dif-
ferent psychological functions. To reason means to observe reality starting with the material provided
by the senses, to integrate, without contradiction, sensory material into concepts and concepts into
principles. Reason is the means of gaining and validating one’s knowledge. It is a volitional process
guided by the conscious mind.
In contrast, emotions entail an automatic process based on subconsciously held knowledge and
values. Emotions reflect one’s stored beliefs about objects, people or situations, and one’s subcon-
scious appraisal of them based on one’s values. Emotions are the form in which one experiences auto-
matized value judgments (Peikoff, 1991). Every emotion reflects a specific type of value judgment. For
example, fear is the automatic response to the judgment of a physical threat. Anger is the response to
the judgment that a wrong has been done to you or valued others. Joy is the result of having achieved
some important value. Desire results from appraising some object that one does not possess or some
person who one does not yet have a relationship with as a positive value.
Because emotions are automatic and based on subconsciously stored beliefs and values, they cannot
be assumed to be valid assessments of reality. one’s beliefs might be wrong; one’s values might be
irrational. Emotions—automatic productions of the subconscious mind—are not tools of knowledge.
The psychological function of emotions is not to know the world but to make automatic evaluations
and motivate action. Emotions contain, as part of the experience, felt action tendencies. Positive emo-
tions entail the felt tendency to approach, possess, or retain the appraised object; negative emotions
entail the felt tendency to flee, harm, or destroy the appraised object. This does not mean, however, that
emotions have to be acted on. Through the power of reason we can decide whether action in a given
case is appropriate or not and, if appropriate, what action is most suitable given the total situation.
One cannot, therefore, ‘reason with emotion;’ one can only reason about it. It is through reason that
one identifies what emotion one is experiencing, discovers the beliefs and values that gave rise to it,
and decides what action, if any, to take on the face of it. It is also through reason, which, as noted
earlier, is an active, volitional process, that one determines whether the beliefs behind an emotion
are valid and if the values that underlie it are rational. Reason also enables one to reprogram the sub-
conscious so that the automatized appraisals (beliefs, values) that give rise to specific emotions are
changed. Further, reason is used to identify defense mechanisms which may distort or prevent one
from experiencing emotions, and thus stultify their motivating power.
Reason is also the key to self-regulation, not only of one’s emotions in the sense described above,
but also of one’s life in general. Regulating one’s life requires being purposeful, which means setting
long-range goals and identifying plans which will enable one to achieve them. This process is not
divorced from emotions, since one has to identify what one wants (e.g., in one’s career, in romance)
before setting a goal to pursue it, but reason must be used to identify one’s desires and ensure that they
are rational if one is to achieve one’s long-range goals. In short, reason, the volitional, active part of
one’s mind, has to be in charge or one is left at the mercy of the emotions of the moment.
Some EI advocates might agree with all this and argue that EI, despite the definitions usually given,
really means being intelligent about emotions, that is, recognizing their nature and proper function,
their relationship to reason, and the need for introspection. If this is what EI advocates mean by their
concept, then what they are actually referring to is not another form or type of intelligence but intelli-
gence (the ability to grasp abstractions) applied to a particular life domain: emotions. Intelligence, of
course, can be applied to any of thousands of life domains, but it does not follow that there are thou-
sands of types of intelligences. If we want to talk about how well a person has mastered a certain
domain, we already have a word for it: skill.

Copyright # 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Organiz. Behav. 26, 425–431 (2005)
428 E. A. LOCKE

There is one more aspect to the EI story. In a later book, Primal Leadership, Goleman, Boyatzis, and
McKee (2002) take EI theory a step further, into the realm of leadership. Effective leadership traits
which they claim to be based on EI include:
 Objective self-assessment
 Self-confidence and self-esteem
 Moral character (e.g., honesty and integrity)
 Adaptability and flexibility
 Achievement motivation
 Initiative and self-efficacy
 Organizational awareness (e.g., of organizational politics)
 Customer service
 The use of persuasion tactics
 Developing the ability of followers
 Initiating change
 Conflict management
 Team building
 The use of humor
Goleman et al. (2002) also argue that EI includes the use any or all of the six following leadership
styles:
 Visionary
 Coaching
 Affiliative
 Democratic
 Pacesetting
 Commanding
The question one must ask here is, given that leadership based on EI allegedly encompasses such a
long list of characteristics that people have associated with effective leadership, what does EI not
include? One thing is missing from the list: actual intelligence!
In addition to making the concept of EI–leadership preposterously all-encompassing, Goleman et al.
(2002, p. ix) seriously misconstrue what organizational leadership involves. They claim that ‘The fun-
damental task of leaders is to create good feelings in those they lead.’ This is simply not true.
The function of organizations is to attain goals; in the case of private organizations the goal is
long-term profitability. Organizations, other than psychotherapy clinics, are not in the ‘feel-good’
business. Employee morale is important, but as a means to an end not as an end in itself divorced from
effectiveness.
It ironic that Goleman et al’s EI approach to leadership, despite its long list of elements, omits any
discussion of the intellectual aspects of leadership—aspects which are critical to organizational suc-
cess, including business success. These aspects require the leaders of profit-making organizations to
focus not inwards but outwards, at the business environment. For example, does the leader know or
understand:

 Where the company should be heading?


 The role of the different corporate functions?
 The big picture? (Is there an integrating vision?)
 How to fit the different parts and processes of the organization together?
 The strategic and technological environments?

Copyright # 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Organiz. Behav. 26, 425–431 (2005)
WHY EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE IS AN INVALID CONCEPT 429

 How to attain a competitive advantage?


 How to achieve cash flow?
 How to prioritize?
 How to balance the short term with the long term?
 How to judge talent when hiring and promoting?
 How to build a culture?
 How to formulate and enforce core values?

Note that performing these very complex tasks requires, among other qualities, actual intelligence.
Making oneself or other people feel good will not substitute for intellectual deficiencies. Good leader-
ship requires consistent rational thinking by a mind that is able to grasp and integrate all the facts
needed to make the business succeed.
Michael Dell (1999, p. 206) makes an important observation regarding the relation of emotions and
knowledge:
there are countless successful companies that are thriving now despite the fact that they started with
little more than passion and a good idea. There are also many that failed, for the very same reason.
The difference is that the thriving companies gathered the knowledge that gave them a substantial
edge over their competition, which they used to improve their execution . . . those that didn’t simply
didn’t make it.
Leadership is not primarily about making people feel good; it’s about knowing what you are doing
and knowing what to do.

Conclusion

Despite the insuperable problems with the various definitions of EI, there is no denying the importance
of one element of EI in human life: introspection. Introspection is a very important human skill; it
involves identifying the contents and processes of one’s own mind. It is only through introspection
that one can monitor such things as one’s degree of focus, one’s defensive reactions, and one’s emo-
tional responses and their causes. Such monitoring has important implications for self-esteem and
mental health.
Given their emphasis on introspection, it is ironic that advocates of EI show virtually no under-
standing of the actual nature of emotions. For example, while granting that emotions entail impulses
to action, Goleman’s (1995) discussion of their causes is confined almost entirely to neuro-
physiology, especially brain structure. But psychology cannot be reduced to neurophysiology
(Bandura, 1997); ideas do not have the same attributes as neurons. Especially unfortunate—and mis-
taken (see Peikoff, 1991)—is his claim that, like a Frankenstein monster, we have an innate mind–
body dichotomy, two clashing brains, one rational and one emotional. This is reminiscent of Freud’s
arbitrary division of the personality into opposing parts (id, ego and superego)—a notion which
originated with Plato.
What is the error here? If EI advocates actually used introspection themselves, they would observe
that emotions, as noted earlier, are the product of subconscious ideas—stored knowledge about the
objects and automatic value appraisals based on that knowledge. Thus there is no inherent clash
between reason and emotion (Peikoff, 1991). As noted, it is through reason that we are able to acquire
the knowledge and the values which cause our emotions. It is through reason that we can identify and,

Copyright # 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Organiz. Behav. 26, 425–431 (2005)
430 E. A. LOCKE

through reprogramming, change our emotions. It is through reason that we have the power to decide
whether and how to act in the face of emotions. Emotions obviously have a neurophysiological aspect,
but brain structure does not determine the content of our knowledge nor of our values. Nor does it
determine whether and how we use our reason, since reasoning is a volitional process (Binswanger,
1991).
EI’s extension into the field of leadership is even more unfortunate. By asserting that leadership is an
emotional process, Goleman denigrates the very critical role played by rational thinking and actual
intelligence in the leadership process. Given all the add-ons to the concept proposed by Goleman
et al. (2002), any associations between leadership effectives and an EI scale that included these
add-ons would be meaningless.
What, then, are we to conclude about EI?
1. The definition of the concept is constantly changing.
2. Most definitions are so all-inclusive as to make the concept unintelligible.
3. One definition (e.g., reasoning with emotion) involves a contradiction.
4. There is no such thing as actual emotional intelligence, although intelligence can be applied to emo-
tions as well as to other life domains.
A more productive approach to the EI concept might be to replace it with the concept of introspec-
tive skill. (This would be a prerequisite to emotional self-regulation.) Alternatively, it might be
asked whether EI could be relabeled and redefined as a personality trait—possibly, provided it was
(re)defined intelligibly and that it was differentiated from skills and from traits that have already
been identified (e.g., empathy). However, it is not at all clear at this point what such a trait would
be called.
Ayn Rand (1975, p. 77) stated that ‘Definitions are the guardians of rationality, the first line of
defense against the chaos of mental disintegration.’ With respect to the concept of EI, not to mention
many other concept in psychology and management (Locke, 2003), we are more in need of rational
guardians that ever.

Author biography

Edwin A. Locke is Dean’s Professor of Leadership and Motivation (Emeritus) at the R. H. Smith
School of Business at the University of Maryland, College Park. He received his BA from Harvard
in 1960 and his PhD in Industrial Psychology from Cornell University in 1964. He has published over
240 chapters, notes, and articles in professional journals, on such subjects as work motivation, job
satisfaction, incentives, and the philosophy of science. He is also the author or editor of nine books,
including Study Methods and Study Motivation (Second Renaissance Books, 1998), Goal Setting:
A Motivational Technique that Works (Prentice-Hall, 1984, with G. Latham), A Theory of Goal
Setting and Task Performance (Prentice-Hall, 1990, with G. Latham), Handbook of Principles of
Organizational Behavior (Blackwell, 2000), The Prime Movers: Traits of the Great Wealth Creators
(AMACOM, 2000), and Post Modernism and Management: Pos, Cons and the Alternative (Elsevier
Science, 2003. His goal-setting theory (with Latham) was rated as #1 in importance among 73 manage-
ment theories. Dr Locke has been elected a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, of the
American Psychological Society, and of the Academy of Management. He is interested in the applica-
tion of the philosophy of Objectivism to the behavioral sciences.

Copyright # 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Organiz. Behav. 26, 425–431 (2005)
WHY EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE IS AN INVALID CONCEPT 431

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Copyright # 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Organiz. Behav. 26, 425–431 (2005)

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