Mind your Es and Qs part 1: What Does Emotional Intelligence Look Like

First coined by John (Jack) Mayer and Peter Salovey in 1990, emotional intelligence (EI) has been making waves in the corporate world, asking questions such as, “Does EI improve employee job performance? Does it make us better leaders?”. Today, Roundtable Learning is breaking down some of the psychology behind EI in part one of our emotional intelligence series.

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is, as Mayer and Salovey described it in their 1990 journal articles, the ability to understand emotions and emotional information.

Mayer and Salovey believed that people who had a high EI (or EQ) could solve emotion-related problems efficiently and accurately, and they could accurately decipher emotions in others’ faces.

Along with David Caruso, Mayer and Salovey developed test questions that could potentially measure a person’s EI. An example question, as written by Mayer in “What Emotional Intelligence Is and Is Not” is:

George was sad, and an hour later he felt guilty. What happened in-between?

A. George accompanied a neighbor to a medical appointment to help out the neighbor.
B. George lacked the energy to call his mother and missed calling her on her birthday.

People with high EI would recognize that B is the correct answer because it “would better account for George’s change in mood from sadness to guilt,” Mayer writes.

The Mayer-Salovey model describes EI as an intelligence rather than a personality trait, such as optimism, happiness or motivation.

“Such qualities, although important, have little to do with intelligence, little to do with emotions, and nearly nothing to do with actual emotional intelligence,” Mayer writes.

While Mayer and Salovey are credited with creating the term “emotional intelligence,” the concept hit mainstream audiences when psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman released his 1995 book of the same name.

In “Emotional Intelligence,” Goleman describes EI as a set of skills, such as the ability to control one’s emotions, empathy and self-motivation.

Before Mayer, Salovey or Goleman, there was Reuven Bar-On, another leader in emotional intelligence, who, in 1985, coined the term EQ (emotional quotient) to describe his approach to “assessing emotional and social competencies.”

Each model, Mayer-Salovey, Goleman, and Bar-On, takes different approaches to emotional intelligence. The Encyclopedia of Applied Psychology describes the three methods as:

  • the Mayer-Salovey model which defines this construct as the ability to perceive, understand, manage and use emotions to facilitate thinking;
  • the Goleman model which views it as an assortment of emotional and social competencies that contribute to managerial performance and leadership; and
  • the Bar-On model which describes EI as an array of interrelated emotional and social competencies, skills and behaviors that impact intelligent behavior.

While significant research on emotional intelligence exists, there is no scientifically valid test to measure it. According to Psychology Today, this lack of a valid scale makes it difficult to determine or predict someone’s emotional intelligence on the job, which has led to criticism. Some theorists believe EI doesn’t exist.

Mayer believes that what most people think of as emotional intelligence is based on a misunderstanding. He doesn’t believe that EI is an indicator of success, nor does he agree with Goleman or Bar-On. But each EI model reflects how emotional intelligence can benefit a person’s life, and Mayer believes EI is important.

“It expands our notions of intelligence, it helps us predict important life outcomes, and it can be used to help people find the right work and relationships for themselves,” Mayer writes.

What does EI look like?

People who have high emotional intelligence are more self-aware and socially aware.
They are aware of their emotions as well as the emotions of the people around them. They can read people’s faces and actions, and then determine emotions efficiently and accurately.

They can regulate their emotions.
By keeping their emotions in check, people with high EI can get through tough or uncomfortable situations, such as giving or receiving criticism and firing an employee.

People with high EI can also regulate the emotions of others.
Because they can “read the room,” they have the ability to cheer up or calm down people around them. Those with high EI have a greater sense of empathy. They know how to boost morale, which can lead to more motivation.

They can also recognize stress.

Managers and leaders can use their EI to recognize when employees have too much on their plates, and they can better delegate and improve mental health in the workplace.

They can apply emotion to problem solving.
When people are at odds, each person might feel a need to “win.” A person with high EI will know to listen to each side, empathize, and develop a win-win solution that satisfies everyone.

In part two of this series, we’ll discuss how to develop emotional intelligence in your employees. Subscribe to our blog to get the latest updates.


Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence 10th Anniversary Hardcover Edition. Bantam Books, 2006.

Spielberger, Charles Donald. Encyclopedia of Applied Psychology. Elsevier, 2004.