Emotional Intelligence: Is it Always Good?

New research helps bolster our understanding of emotional intelligence by identifying situations in which it is useful and situations in which it may be detrimental.

Emotional intelligence is the somewhat controversial but intriguing idea that people can monitor feelings to achieve positive workplace outcomes. People with a high level of emotional intelligence have the ability to successfully identify their own feelings as well as the feelings of other people. They allow this knowledge to strategically guide their behavior, which may result in workplace productivity. But does emotional intelligence always lead to positive results? Research suggests it may depend on the circumstances.


This study (Farh, Seo, & Tesluk, 2012) used a sample of 212 young professionals and their supervisors, and found that emotional intelligence was related to improved job performance only when the job involved a high level of managerial work. When jobs included little managerial work, emotional intelligence was actually associated with lower job performance.

Why did this happen? The researchers propose that this relationship is due to trait activation theory. This theory suggests that any connection between traits and job performance is more likely to occur when environmental cues in the workplace show that the particular trait is valued. For example, if we find that conscientiousness is related to better performance at certain types of jobs, we’d be more likely to observe this relationship if employees were working in an organization that consistently espoused the importance of being careful and organized.

In a managerial context, communication and people skills are valued. In this setting, emotional intelligence assumes increased importance, and leads to better teamwork and better job performance. If the job does not involve managerial duties, people skills are not as highly valued. The authors explain that in this situation, people with high levels of emotional intelligence may overemphasize the importance of emotional cues in situations where they are not meant to be important.


Emotional intelligence seems to play a role in workplace success. In this study, the authors found that this only occurs in jobs that have a high level of managerial work. Research that defines the limitations emotional intelligence equips professionals with the ability to decide if emotional intelligence is useful in a more specific organizational context.


Farh, C.I.C.C., Seo, M., & Tesluk, P.E. (2012). Emotional intelligence, teamwork effectiveness, and job performance: The moderating role of job context. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(4), 890-900.

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