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What Is Emotional and Social Intelligence?

Emotional and social intelligence (ESI) has become a key talking point over the course of the last few years. However, the concept is not a new one. In fact, the groundwork for the modern theory was laid more than 30 years ago and properly defined by various notable figures within psychology over two decades ago. 

In this article, we will discuss the various theories behind ESI, as well as its impact on managerial procedures and building relationships.

Outlining ESI calls for more than just opening the dictionary. In fact, notable names within the field of psychology have proposed three major models, which are also discussed in Spielberger’s Encyclopedia of Applied Psychology

  • The initial concept of ESI was posited by John D. Mayer, Peter Salovey and David R. Caruso, and was subsequently developed and interpreted in alternative ways by Daniel Goleman and Reuven Bar-On. All of their theories and models will be discussed here.

The Mayer et al. Model of Emotional and Social Intelligence

ESI as a theoretical concept was generally the product of personality psychologist John D. Mayer in association with social psychologist Peter Salovey and management psychologist David R. Caruso (the latter to a lesser extent) during the early 1990s. 

  • These researchers coined the notion of ESI, and their work laid the foundations for subsequent conceptual interpretations. 
  • Prior to their work, many considered emotion to be detrimental to work and life. 
  • However, they envisaged ESI to be another form of higher cognition , separate from general intelligence (IQ), whose importance had not at the time been considered with regards to functionality and achievement in people’s lifestyles and careers.

The definition of ESI given by Mayer and Salovey in 1997 was that:

"Emotional intelligence is the ability to perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, to understand emotions and emotional knowledge, and to reflectively regulate emotions so as to promote emotional and intellectual growth."

Mayer Abilities

The Mayer-Salovey model consists of four interconnected abilities (or branches):

  1. Perception – perceiving emotion in yourself, others and your environment
  2. Facilitation – using emotion to interpret the world and changes in different ways
  3. Understanding – conceptual knowledge of emotions, how they change and their impacts
  4. Management/Regulation – the ability to steer your emotions and those of your peers

Though these are all interconnected processes and abilities, they suggest that there is perhaps a hierarchy and higher levels such as regulation (where emotions and thinking are interconnected) require a greater level of emotional intelligence than the lowest level, perception.

  • Studies such as Lane et al. (1990) supported this concept by suggesting that those who were strong in one branch of the Mayer-Salovey hypothetical model generally were also very competent in others.

Mayer et al. also developed a test – the Mayor-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT) – which measures ability in each of the four branches/abilities using two tests to quantify overall ESI. 

  • This is one of the most-cited measures of ESI, though it does have its issues, such as a potential lack of internal reliability and application to practical activities.

The Goleman Model of Emotional and Social Intelligence

Science journalist Daniel Goleman was the one to put the psychological theory of ESI on the map for the general public. He wrote three bestsellers on the topic to date and emphasized the importance of ESI to a functional life. 

He also defined four main components involved in the functioning of emotional and social intelligence, a few years after Mayer and Salovey put forth their research:

  1. Self-regulation. This consists of an ability to think prior to acting, and also to suspend emotional judgement on occurrences. In addition to this, it involves having control over mood swings and impulses, and thus not allowing them to disrupt one’s quality of life. Its trademarks include openness to change, integrity, reliability, and an ease in accepting ambiguity.
  2. Self-awareness. A person that is self-aware understands what drives their behaviour, as well as the effects that it has on others. The most common trademarks are self-deprecating humour, realistic assessments of one’s conduit, and a healthy dose of self-confidence. It is the ability to not take yourself too seriously, while at the same time understating your value.
  3. Relationship skills. When you possess strong social skills, you effortless form relationships with your peers, as well as manage them correctly. The trademarks of this characteristic consist of team leadership capacities, managerial aptitudes, and persuasiveness.
  4. Social awareness. Possessing empathic traits does not necessarily involve feeling compassion for others, but rather understanding their emotional makeup and treating them according to subsequent reactions. Trademarks consist of customer service skills, the ability to recruit talent, and sensitivity to sociocultural factors` such as gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

Goleman's Four Components

Goleman also emphasized the value of internal motivation.

  • Professionals that are internally motivated excel at their job for reasons that go beyond status, money, and other material benefits. 
  • They find joy in their actions and have an immense thirst for knowledge that surpasses the satisfaction that comes from external rewards. Their trademarks qualities involve optimism, as well as a desire to achieve greater things each day.

Goleman also posits that the higher someone rises within an organisation, the greater their social skills are required to be. 

Therefore, senior directors and managers are required to be competent in social intelligence.

The Bar-On Model of Social and Emotional Intelligence

The most comprehensive definition is perhaps that outlined by Israeli psychologist Reuven Bar-On , in various publications since 1982. 

In his perception, the term ESI embodies:

 “ a cross-section of interrelated emotional and social competencies, skills and facilitators that impact intelligent behaviour .

There are five main markers of emotional and social intelligence as defined by Bar-On, namely:

  1. Interpersonal
  2. Decision-making
  3. Self-expression
  4. Self-participation
  5. Stress management

They are divided into 15 representative subdivisions:

  • Interpersonal relationships, empathy, social responsibility
  • Problem-solving, reality testing, impulse control
  • Emotional expression, assertiveness, independence
  • Self-regard, self-actualization, emothional self awereness
  • Flexibility, stress tolerence,and optimism

In addition to this, he outlined a method of quantifying and measuring ESI; a self-report measure known as Emotional Quotient Inventory (EQ-i). This system aims to identify and predict ESI markers and their influence on one’s managerial aptitudes. The 15 sub-divisions listed above form the 15 sub-scale scores which together produce a representative EQ-i, on a scale similar to that used by IQ tests.

All of these scales coalesce to forming the motivation behind every instance of human behaviour and the relationships we form during our life. Bar-On has been continuing his studies of ESI since 1982, and his EQ-i has been revised, updated, and improved countless times since the initial iteration of 1997.

When applied correctly, the model has been posited to predict factors such as academic performance, career path, didactic and organisational effectiveness, occupational performance and leadership, and even psychological/physical health and wellbeing.

  • However, its validity has been debated over the years (for instance, some have suggested that it correlated with personality traits which render it ineffective as a measure) but it remains one of the most accepted analyses of ESI to date.

ESI and the Development of Leadership Skills

The three aforementioned theories on emotional and social intelligence discussed the influence of the concept in an executive setting. So, what exactly about this characteristic makes people good managers? 

According to the Harvard Business Review, possessing the aforementioned qualities modify the brain chemistry of both leaders and their followers.

  • Simply put, leaders are neurologically wired to handle the tasks that correspond to their position. 
  • Their intrusion is much sharper, their decision-making process relies less on second-guessing and more on immediate action, and they intrinsically possess the necessary tools to convince others to follow.

Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that you should be born with this type of behaviour deeply ingrained into your synapses. In fact, ESI-based leadership can be coached into people, as emphasized by a 2017 study conducted in South Africa and published in the South African Journal of Economic and Management Sciences.

In a nutshell, the markers or characteristics described in the aforementioned ESI models put together by renowned psychologists and scientific experts alike can be awoken in any of us with the right coaching. This is why a successful manager should always rely on feedback and request assistance when necessary.

  • Understanding the emotions of the people around us can improve our relationship skills, and therefore our ability to influence and communicate with others. 
This comes through an ability to read others’ feelings and reactions more accurately and effectively and to thus adapt our approach and employ appropriate skills to handle the situation.

Ways we can develop our ESI include:

  • Team-building exercises
  • Coaching
  • Training in negotiation and networking

The Bottom Line

Emotional and social intelligence in a unitary concept that consists of multiple colliding facets that create a leader through their powers combined. It isn’t a new concept, but only recently are managers coming to understand its importance and relevance to the professional environment. If you have a proclivity for leadership and are unsure of how to proceed, don’t be afraid to ask for feedback. Thriving follows the right amount of ESI coaching, after all.


- This article was written by Dianna Howell.

Dianna Howell is a non-conformist HR Manager, her main focus is to help as many people as she can to find their dream job. She runs JobInterviewAdvice , a collection of job interview resources for career searchers. Dianna graduated from MBA Managerial and Organisational Behavior, the University of Chicago.