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Almost everyone has an interesting career path. At the age of 12, a girl I knew was running a motel for her parents in Denver, often relying on intuition to deal with every customer who walked through the door.
When she wasn’t figuring out who could pay their room bills or cleaning the lobby, she was racking up good grades at school, and eventually she majored in finance and marketing in college. As she was graduating, she looked back on what she’d learned from her studies and her experiences working at the motel and wondered, “What can I do with all of this?”
Thinking this through, the girl told herself she needed a job that would allow her to apply her experience working with people in lodging while using the knowledge she picked up in her schooling. So within a year of graduating, she became a recruiter of Wall Street executives. It was the rational thing to do.
That little girl was me, and while I didn’t think about it at the time, that decision-making process was not automatic. Most assume that leadership is made up primarily of raw intelligence, or IQ, and emotional intelligence, or EQ. But my IQ didn’t help me reflect on the past, and my EQ didn’t make me methodically go over my choices. I relied on my Rationality Quotient—sometimes shortened to RQ—and in my view, this could very well be the missing ingredient in organizations right now, especially in an era of dread and disruption. Thinking something through and making a rational decision seems like it should be a given for leaders in organizations around the world. But it’s not: workers from entry-level employees to CEOs make irrational decisions all the time, and some of the ones that leaders make have huge costs.
IQ, of course, is someone’s ability to learn. At some point, nearly everyone takes an IQ test, and unfortunately, it’s difficult to raise one’s IQ, especially as you get older. These days, more people understand that a person’s EQ plays a major role in our ability to work and lead too. These so-called soft skills affect a person’s ability to be empathetic, self-aware, and mindful.
But neither of those really accounts for the ability to think rationally and, hopefully, make good decisions. The idea that raw brainpower doesn’t make you rational has been around for some time. Social scientists back in the early 1970s conducted a series of experiments showing that all of us, even highly intelligent people, are prone to make decisions based on gut feeling rather than reason. By the mid-2000s, researchers theorized that you could test how rational someone was, their RQ, separately from their IQ.
The good news about RQ is that it’s learnable, but the bad news is that even when you have it you can still make irrational decisions. Take the recent push by many leaders to get all their employees back in offices before the end of 2020. These leaders, many of whom are smart and charismatic, want things to go back to normal as quickly as possible, and “normal” to them looks like the pre-pandemic times, when most everyone worked in offices.
But that irrationally ignores all that we’ve learned during the pandemic. Productivity didn’t fall off a cliff, or fall at all, at many organizations. Allowing more people to work remotely could not only make workers happier and more loyal but also open the talent pool considerably (not everyone wants to work on Wall Street). Plus, technology, politics, and demographics are constantly changing; it’s not rational to think that “normal” times look like January 2020, even if there weren’t a pandemic.
So the next time you have a major decision to make, remember that your leadership quotient doesn’t rely solely on book smarts or your emotional intelligence—it also includes your ability to make time to think something through in order to make a rational decision. It works for CEOs and girls who run motels alike.
You could test how rational someone is, their RQ, separately from their IQ.
Vyas is a Korn Ferry senior partner and global head of the firm’s Applied Intelligence practice.