In a battle between EQ and IQ, who will win?

A regular boxing ring surrounded by ropes spotlit in the missle on an isolated dark background

My three kids act like they’re scavenging for scarce resources in the jungle. They race to the car, they tussle over who gets to set the napkins versus silverware on the dinner table, they argue about seating, they squabble over who gets “the good cup.” It’s never-ending. I find myself saying, It’s not a competition, people! several times a day…and I say it under my breath possibly just as often among adults. I’m sure evolutionary psychology could provide an interesting explanation for our fixation on competition, but it’s a mindset that, applied inflexibly, can cause problems. We have to work hard to shake up this win-lose mentality, this either-or attitude. It’s tiresome, not to mention inaccurate and irrational much of the time.

The reason I am ruffled over this at present is because of a Forbes article I read recently that highlights some details of recent research on how IQ and EQ respectively influence key leadership skills. You can read the whole thing here (It’s Not All About EQ: Study Suggests a New Balance Between Emotions and Intellect). My beef has nothing to do with the research itself, but rather how it will be framed and consumed, and with our all-too-human tendency toward dealing with complex issues in a simplified fashion.

The tenor of discussions around IQ and EQ usually involves pitting one against the other. “Which is really the most important?” is another way of saying Who wins? Pretty much since the advent of IQ tests, general intelligence was considered the most critical predictor of success (winner!). But when we began attempting to quantify emotional intelligence and leverage the possibilities it could offer, we became far less enchanted with IQ and “EQ” became de rigueur (IQ dethroned! EQ is the new champion!). And now the pendulum swings, as it does.

But back to the research. The DDI study was fairly broad, but two findings relevant here include (1) which leadership skills most impact bottom-line business performance, and (2) the extent to which IQ or EQ accounts for variability in each skill. The researchers found that entrepreneurship, business savvy, driving execution, decision making, and leading change had the biggest bottom-line impact. They further found that IQ and EQ played varying roles in each skill. For example, business savvy is most associated with IQ (99%), whereas driving execution is most associated with EQ (83%).

The real point, which our predilection for competition and simplicity often obscures from us, is that they are both important. Yes, IQ and EQ play more or less of a role depending on the skill in question, and yes, for some key executive leadership skills, IQ has a bigger influence on effectiveness than does EQ. However, you still need both to be successful. As the researchers stated, “Overall revenue growth required executives with a broader skill profile, with empathy the interaction skill with the strongest impact on leader effectiveness.”

It’s also important to recognize that you can’t truly separate one from the other. IQ is a multi-faceted concept. If you take an IQ test, it will assess domains such as verbal ability, perceptual reasoning, working memory, processing speed, etc. While you may get a global IQ score, we each have a unique pattern of specific intelligences that have differing impacts on our functioning. You may have astounding verbal ability but dreadfully slow processing speed. You may have strong working memory but crummy spatial ability. But my point is that these distinct facets of cognition surely influence how we perceive and respond in social situations (EQ). If you are slower to process information, it will be harder to pick up in real time how people are reacting to you – but not necessarily impact the depth to which you process it or extent to which you care.

As we digest ongoing research into leadership effectiveness, we have to resist the urge to distill and simplify. While it’s tempting to dichotomize, it can backfire. If we just “pick a side,” we lose motivation to focus develop in what very well may be key areas to success. We want to understand and play to strengths, but we also have to be cognizant of shoring up weaknesses. We should likewise appreciate how intellect and emotional intelligence both have a role to play. Further, whether we are considering our own development or larger-scale decisions about selection and development in your organization, we have to respect that key skills aren’t fixed, but rather a function of roles and goals. We have to be willing to do some harder, deeper thinking about what it takes to be successful.

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