The Surprising Secret to Success in Tech

It has nothing to do with IQ, best-selling author Daniel Goleman writes.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry.

We all know that in the tech world, the smarter someone is, the better he or she will do, right?


The most successful engineers, new findings show, stand out because of superior emotional intelligence, not their IQ. That statement seems not just counterintuitive but downright heresy. Engineering schools, for instance, understandably focus on technical skills, which depend on IQ-type cognitive abilities.  And the tech culture prizes such smarts.

But consider the data from a study newly published in the journal Career Development International. When engineers at a multinational manufacturing company were assessed on their effectiveness along with their IQ, personality, and emotional intelligence, only one of those three factors predicted how well they were seen as doing: emotional intelligence.

The size of the effect was substantial. Engineers’ level of emotional and social intelligence predicted about 30 percent of their effectiveness, as rated by their colleagues, while IQ and personality had no significant impact. “In scientific journals, scholars get excited when there is a two- to five-percent impact,” says Richard Boyatzis, professor at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western University, who did the study. “So this degree of effect is huge!”

IQ and cognitive or technical skills, it seems, are mainly threshold competencies, abilities you need at a certain high level in order to become an engineer in the first place and hold a job. But once you are in that job, you compete with a pool of other engineers who are about as smart as you are—your cognitive abilities have less power in setting you apart from the others. This is due to a “floor effect,” statistically speaking: You need an IQ at least one standard deviation above the norm just to become an engineer.

But emotional and social intelligence, which determine how well you manage yourself and work with others, present another skill set entirely. A high level here makes you a great team member and helps you emerge as a leader. Emotional intelligence, then, is a distinguishing competence, an ability that set stars apart from average.

In past decades an engineer might work well alone, as an “individual contributor.” Huddled solo in a cubicle, the cognitive abilities of the engineer would make the biggest difference in his or her success. But the profession has changed. Today, especially in large firms, engineers work as team members, interact with clients, need to convince others of a given viewpoint, and in general deploy people skills, not just technical ones.

For instance, one engineer I heard about was brilliant in analyzing systems but was dangerous with clients: He came off as arrogant and cold. He never asked the clients what they thought the problems were, but would launch into his own prescriptions for a fix. The company left him out of client meetings and his career stalled.

In the new study, the engineers’ effectiveness was measured by asking co-workers questions such as, “Overall, to what extent do you feel this person is performing the job the way you would like it to be performed?” Such peer assessments have proven the best predictor of how well a person actually does.

The engineers’ emotional intelligence was assessed by the Emotional and Social Competence Inventory, or ESCI 360, which I co-developed with Professor Boyatzis and Korn Ferry Hay Group. 

The ESCI measures four aspects of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-management, empathy, and relationship awareness.  Within those four areas are a dozen learned—and learnable—competencies, such as adaptability, empathy, and teamwork.  

These competencies have been shown to distinguish outstanding leaders. They are evaluated by asking co-workers if, for example, the engineer “convinces others by getting support from key people,” a persuasion strategy that goes beyond sheer IQ. And that spotlights a key point. A high IQ is no guarantee that an engineer will know how to work smoothly and effectively with other people.

Professor Boyatzis, who himself has a degree in engineering from MIT as well as a Harvard Ph.D. in psychology, adds, “Engineering, once thought to be a solo job, we now see as a team sport.”