Briefings Magazine

Is Emotional Intelligence on the Decline?

The epidemic of emotionless firings feeds a hunch I've had.

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By: Daniel Goleman

When I was a youngster, my uncle was director of a national laboratory, overseeing several thousand research scientists. As a scientist himself, he loved his work. But the part of his job he hated, he told me, was laying off employees.

Firing people no doubt ranks among the least favorite tasks of any leader. Yet executives, driven by the downturn in the economy, are firing thousands these days. But there are better and worse ways to let someone go.

The business news this year has been rife with examples of the latter. At one company, thousands of employees were fired out of the blue via a text or email message that told them not to come to work the next day; it said further that they would have no severance or health insurance going forward. At several other organizations, employees were fired with no explanation nor advance notice. One firm’s CEO actually walked out of a Q&A session about layoffs with employees.

It’s relatively painless to fire someone at a distance—at least for the person doing the firing. But an impersonal message carries added pain for the recipient. One abruptly fired employee said that he wished his manager had called him—acknowledged his 20 years of service to the company and thanked him—to soften the blow of losing his job. That employee was looking for a little empathy, and some recognition of his emotional pain. In other words, doing what’s difficult in a better way takes emotional intelligence.

The epidemic of at-a-distance, emotionless firings feeds a hunch I’ve had: that levels of emotional intelligence are worsening a bit these days. Maybe it’s a by-product of the lack of in-person connections during the COVID lockdown, or of so many people working at home rather than coming into the office. But some early signs indicate this essential people skill is in decline.

I found one indicator when I was given a heads-up about the latest data collected by researchers who monitor emotional intelligence every two years. In a random sample of 10,000 people worldwide, they found many declines. The biggest was in “emotional self-regulation,” a fancy way of saying folks are more prone to rage, panic, and anxiety now than in past years.

The less bad news here is that empathy did not erode much, perhaps suggesting that—despite the loneliness of lockdowns and working at home—people are motivated to connect.

That new data correlates with a Korn Ferry Institute analysis of data from a 360-degree assessment over several years. The metric used comes from the Emotional and Social Competence Inventory, which I co- designed with a Korn Ferry group. The data is revealing.

Consider self-mastery, which we defined as a combination of emotional self-awareness and self-regulation. Leaders with self-mastery tend to show outstanding performance in many ways—for instance, they improve the working climate of their team, which in turn boosts its performance.

Emotional self-awareness is the foundational skill in emotional intelligence. Lacking awareness of your emotions makes regulating them difficult. Leaders with strengths in self-awareness, the Korn Ferry Institute found, are likely to demonstrate effectiveness in the emotional-intelligence realm. But leaders with few strengths here are more likely to have direct reports who are quietly planning to exit.

Think about the worst boss you’ve ever had (or known about), and you will sense why someone who works for such a person would want to leave. And even as companies are shedding employees, they still—of course—want to retain their most talented people.

Then think about the best boss you’ve had. In contrast with the worst, the ones we prefer manage their emotions well. And the good news here is that strengths in emotional intelligence, unlike your IQ, are learned and learnable—and, if you are motivated, you can boost them at any point in life.

Goleman is the author of the international best seller Emotional Intelligence. See for his series of primers.


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