Daniel Goleman Interview

2011 Ranking: #39

Daniel Goleman is among the most influential thinkers to hit the business world in recent years. The bearded psychologist and former journalist has spread the gospel of emotional intelligence (EQ) to a largely grateful business world. It is based on the notion that the ability of managers to understand and manage their own emotions and relationships is the key to better business performance.

His 1997 book, Emotional Intelligence, has more than five million copies in print and was on the New York Times best seller list for 18 months. His follow-up book, Working With Emotional Intelligence applied his ideas to the business world, and became an immediate best seller. His latest book The New Leaders (entitled Primal Leadership in America), makes the case for cultivating emotionally intelligent leaders. In it, Goleman and co-authors Richard E. Boyatzis and Annie McKee, explore how the four domains of emotional intelligence – self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management – give rise to different styles of leadership. These constitute a leadership repertoire, which enlightened leaders can master to maximise their effectiveness.

Goleman is both a clinical psychologist and a distinguished journalist. He has received two Pulitzer Prize nominations for his articles in the New York Times. He works with companies through the emotional intelligence practice of the Hay Group. He is also co-chairman of the Consortium for Social and Emotional Learning in the Workplace, based in the School of Professional Psychology at Rutgers University, which recommends best practices for developing emotional competence.

Emotional intelligence isn’t a new phenomenon, it’s always been there. So why has it become so important in today’s business world?

It has always been a factor in success individually, particularly in business, but that fact hasn’t been clearly identified until recently. Two things: there’s been a convergence of forces that have called it to collective attention. On is the fact that in the last 10 years there’s been a critical mass of research in science – brain science and behavioural science – that makes clear that there is capacity called emotional intelligence.

The notion itself was articulated first in 1990 so it’s quite a new notion. Two Yale psychologists first came up with the term emotional intelligence. Peter Salovey and John Mayer. They wrote an article in what frankly was a very obscure psychology journal, but I was a journalist at the New York Times and my beat was brain and behavioural science, and one of the things I did was to scour the scientific literature looking for important new findings and concepts, and I thought that was an extremely important concept. I went on to write the book about it.

Meanwhile, companies had been doing internal studies, quite independent of the notion of emotional intelligence, looking at what distinguished star performers in a given field – say the head of a division or a sales team. Comparing them to people at the mean who were just average performers, trying to distinguish and distil the specific abilities that you found consistently in stars that you didn’t see in others and then trying to hire people or promote people, or develop people for those abilities. And when I wrote the book Working with Emotional Intelligence and then my most recent book The New Leaders [Published in 2002 by Little Brown in the UK, and titled Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence, in the US, co-authored with & Richard E. Boyatzis and Annie McKee, pub Harvard Business School Press] I was able to harvest hundreds of studies like that that had been done individually and independently for different organisations or looking at different roles within organizations – most of which were proprietary.

When I aggregated that data what I found was that abilities like, for example, being able to manage your disturbing emotions – keeping them from disabling your ability to function, or empathy – being able to perceive how people were feeling and seeing things from their perspective – or the ability to co-operate well on a team – which are based on emotional intelligence – were the preponderance of the abilities that distinguished the best from the worst. And so there was this independent database which showed that emotional intelligence was extremely important in this context.

How do you score on your own EI measures? Are you emotionally intelligent?

Everyone has a profile of strengths and weaknesses. My own profile is, like anyone else’s, rather uneven. But to get the most accurate, honest answer you’d have to ask the people who have worked with me — and my wife.

Is there a pattern: do women tend to score higher for example?

When you look at gender differences you’re looking at basically overlapping bell curves – there’s more similarities than differences between the genders. But the differences that do emerge are that women tend to score better than men on average at empathy and some relationship abilities. Men tend to score better than women on emotional self-management and self-confidence. So I think each gender has its own strengths.

How much of EI is already determined before adulthood?

The roots of each of these abilities start early in life. Every competence that distinguishes an outstanding leader in business has a developmental history, and if you ask people – and studies have been done – how did you become such a good team leader, for example, it will always start with a story, typically in middle school years at around 11, 12 or 13. This is a real story. A woman who is a fantastic team leader was asked when did this first start and she said I moved to a new school and I didn’t know anyone so I thought I could meet people by joining the field hockey team. And it turned out I wasn’t such a good player but I was very good at teaching the new kids learn the game. So I became a sort of de facto assistant coach. Then it turned out in her first job after university that she was in sales and no one showed her the ropes, so when she learned them she spontaneously started teaching new people on the sales team. And she was so good at it that the company made a video about her and that led to the fast track that resulted in her finally becoming senior VP for sales. So each one of these abilities is learned and learned over the course of life, and articulated, refined and sharpened as you go up the ladder. That’s an important point.

Are business leaders more emotionally intelligent today than in the past? How does EI relate to what others perceive as charisma?

It’s about as uneven as it ever was, frankly. One reason is that although there’s clear data that these abilities matter, it doesn’t mean that companies always use that to make decisions about who should be promoted. When it comes to who should be a leader we are still prone to the Peter Principle – people being promoted to their level of incompetence. The most common error isn’t that you’re promoted because of the old boy network, which is the old story. The new story is that people tend to be promoted to leadership today because of technical expertise. You’re a very good individual performer and the automatic but mistaken assumption is made that of course you’ll then be very good at leading a team of people like yourself. But the fallacy there is that is that what made you a good individual performer, your technical expertise, actually has nothing to do with what distinguishes people who are good team leaders. And the business world is rife with that. At the New York Times I saw it all the time. Journalists who were outstanding as journalists would become heads of desks or editors, which they were often terrible at.

What’s the relationship between emotional intelligence and charisma? Presumable charisma is partly in the eye of the beholder, and partly to do with certain skills that people project?

Charisma in terms of this model has to do with the ability of persuasion and communication. Bill Clinton is a beautiful example both of someone who is fantastic at empathy and persuasion, which builds on empathy. If you meet Bill Clinton or are with him you feel like you’re the most important person in the world to him at that moment. He really tunes in. And he uses what he perceives in order to translate that into the language that will communicate most powerfully with you. Charismatic leaders do that with groups as a whole and he certainly did. But you can also use him to illustrate that everyone has a profile of strengths and weaknesses in this domain. Because when it came to impulse control, he really flunked.

The other side of that is that as people become more emotionally competent, isn’t there a danger that they become more Machiavellian?

Only in rare cases because Machiavellian behaviour – which is where one takes your self-interest over and above every other goal, so basically you’ll do anything to get ahead – is a lapse in several emotional intelligence competencies, one of which is integrity. Another has to do with being able to co-operate well in a group. People who are Machiavellian, in other words who get a short term gain, do it at a cost to other people. They leave a legacy of resentment, ill-feeling, anger, which very often catches up with them later in their career.

We’re seeing some of that now in the upper echelons of corporate America?

Jeffrey Skilling at Enron was a very good example of that.

One aspect of narcissistic people is that they often lack empathy, and yet we still seem to want these people as leaders. Or perhaps we need it to get on?

I don’t know that we do anymore. The most compelling data on that has to do with leadership style, the emotional climate the leader creates and how that in turn translates into the motivation and ability of people to work at their best. The data looks like this: the people who are, for example, visionary, who can articulate a shared mission in a way that motivates and inspires people create a very positive emotional climate, so do leaders who are very good listeners who take a true interest in individuals who work for them and try to understand what they want for their career and how they can help them along. And so do leaders who know that having a good time together builds emotional capital for when the pressure is on. All of those styles create the kind of climate where people can work at their best.

However the leader who is the distant narcissist, the kind of command-and-control, do it because I say so leader actually creates a very negative emotional climate. Especially if they become the kind of narcissistic leader who feels not only am I right, do it because I’m the boss, but who then blows up at people, gets extremely impatient, hyper critical and so on, which is a danger of that style. And that poisons the climate and alienates people. You lose talent and people end up spending more time thinking about the boss and complaining about him than doing their work.

I’m not sure the data today supports the kind of mandate and power that we’ve given bosses like that in the past.

A particular area of interest to us is the genesis of big business ideas. Where did your ideas about EI come from?

The biggest influence on my thinking was my mentor at Harvard the late David McClelland, [1917-1998] who in the early 1970s when I was a graduate student there working with him wrote an article that at the time was a very radical proposal. He wrote it in the American Psychologist , the main psychology journal in the US. He said if you want to hire the best person for a job don’t look at their academic grades, don’t look at their test scores, don’t look at their IQ, don’t look at some personality profile, don’t look at their connections, their social class, and certainly don’t look at their letters of recommendation. He said what you should first do is look at the people within your own organization who have held that post in the past and been outstanding at it and systematically compare them with the people who have held the post and done poorly or average. And then determine what made the best so good and hire people with those capabilities. That is the basis for the methodology now called competence modelling, which was the data I harvested when I wrote The New Leaders working and Working with Emotional Intelligence.

So he’s had certainly the most direct influence both in showing me a method for having an informed answer to the question what makes someone a truly good leader; and also in making it possible 20 or 30 years later for me to harvest information from literally hundreds of organisations around the world.

What about Howard Gardner’s work?

Howard Gardner who was a grad student with me at Harvard in those days, and a personal friend also opened a door for me when he proposed the model of multiple intelligences, which says that in different domains there are different kinds of abilities that can be called an intelligence. Over and above the standard IQ model which dates from the early Twentieth Century, and around the 1900s, it’s a narrow achievement model, just verbal and maths abilities, and a few spatial abilities. He argued that in every domain where there are competencies created and valued there is a specific kind of intelligence. So, for example, there is a musical intelligence, there’s a kinaesthetic intelligence in the domain of sports, ballet and so on. And he also said there are personal intelligences and its that domain of the personal intelligence that I’ve unpacked in explaining emotional intelligence.

Are IQ tests obsolete now?

No. IQ tests are very broad indicators of the fields that a person can qualify for, where a person can enter and hold a job in. The problem with IQ tests is they don’t go the next step. So, let’s say you’re managing a pool of engineers in your corporation, or R&D scientists or accountants, lawyers, or whatever, IQ tests do not predict who among that pool of people now in the field itself will distinguish themselves over time as the most successful, the most effective, the most productive – whatever your measure of success is. It’s interesting, even in the sciences IQ does not predict who over the course of a career will emerge as the most eminent scientist. Other abilities do and they turn out to be the emotional intelligence abilities. So in other words, IQ is a threshold ability for a field but it is not a distinguishing ability, and I’m most interested in the distinguishing abilities. IQ is a very good indicator, however, of what field you could enter.

Thomas Stewart is another journalist who became a guru, by taking obscure academic ideas and translating them so that the business world can understand their message. How much do you think your journalistic skills have helped you?

I think they were invaluable because I was trained as a psychologist and frankly when I entered journalism I was the slow kid on the block. My first job in journalism I had a very kindly managing editor and after I’d write an article in typical journalese – I don’t mean journalism I mean typical academic journal style, which is latinate, passive voice, absolutely flat prose – he would go through it literally line by line and word by word and show me how to change it to make it lively and engaging, and make every word count and to eliminate 80 per cent of the words I had chosen. And he transformed my writing style. And I think my time at a daily newspaper at the New York Times just gave me more and more practice at a style that was engaging. Meanwhile, I was able to use my expertise in psychology to go into the academic literature and search for ideas that really did have impact and should have a wider audience. Those two things in combination gave me the abilities to write the book emotional intelligence.

You say that emotional intelligence can be developed. So what practical things can managers do to develop those abilities?

Yes. First of all, organisations can set up a format and make accessible a mode of learning that is appropriate to the emotional intelligence domain. What I mean by that is you don’t improve these abilities in the same way that you learn technical expertise like how to do a certain computer programme, nor in the mode that you learned when you went to school. It’s a different part of the brain that’s involved. And it doesn’t learn as quickly as the neo cortex. The model actually is skill acquisition. If there’s something you’re not as good at as you’d like to be you can improve, that’s the good news, but you need to do it in a way that brings along this part of the brain. Firstly, you have to care. It has to be something you are motivated about. It has to be something that really matters to you because if you don’t you won’t make the necessary effort and its going to take some months. Now, it doesn’t take any extra time because you use your day-to-day encounters as the opportunities to practise and hone the improved mode.

So, for example, to take a common problem, you don’t listen well. Someone walks into your office and you start telling them what you think, rather than first hearing what they have to say and making sure you understand it. Well, that’s a choice point that you can choose to make an effort to change and instead of just jumping in and giving your opinion you can make sure that you really have heard and understood. If you do that at every opportunity what will happen is that slowly you’re going to be building a new neural network, you are strengthening connections between brain cells so that your former default setting at the neural level which was to jump in now has an alternate path. You’re strengthening the circuitry there. And there will come a day when you automatically sit back and listen to understand before you give your opinion – which means that that alternate circuit has become the new default option, it’s now the stronger pathway in the brain.

That kind of learning has been used successfully by my co-author on The New Leaders, a man called Richard Boyatzis at Case Western University School of Management. He’s been doing it with his executive MBAs for 10 or 15 years. He’s done follow ups with them where they work where he asks other people to evaluate them on the behaviour they have tried to improve back in their MBA programme and he’s found that if you use this mode of learning you can see the improvements 7 years later now – that’s as long as he’s done it. That’s quite remarkable. Most business seminars or weekend seminars, or even a week off site – if that’s all you do it won’t be enough to make the requisite change. You really do need the sustained learning opportunity. The map for this is in The New Leaders.

How does your message go down in India or China?

Interestingly, I’m travelling to India again tomorrow. India is hugely taken with emotional intelligence. I must get several emails daily – well weekly if not daily – from India, from people who have read the book and want to apply it either in their graduate work or in the management of their companies.

China is a little different story. The last talk I gave in China was arranged by the government of Shanghai talking to business leaders in the Shanghai community. Because of their entry into the WTO, Chinese leaders are realizing that they need to update their management abilities and skills to a world class standard. So, even though one of the things I’m talking about is shifting from a rather totalitarian control style which was the pervasive style through China, to a more democratic style where leaders motivate, listen and so on, they’ve been extremely receptive because they realize that to compete in the world market with multinationals that are already using these styles of leadership they are going to have to make the shift themselves. So China to my surprise is actually quite receptive.

Interestingly, Chinese business has always valued relationships and networks. Companies in the US and the UK have spent recent decades trying to squeeze all emotion out of the workplace.

That was a rather foolish endeavour because we don’t ever leave our emotions at home when we go to work. They were always there they were just squelched or ignored — sometimes at disastrous cost. Most Asian cultures are quite relationship oriented and business has always been based on relationships as you say, which means many of these skills are natural in the culture. On the other hand, India perhaps because it was a British colony had very strong command and control structures among the business class. But most businesses, even large corporations, are family-owned businesses even today. And the culture was similar to that in China but for different historical reasons. So they both need to make the shift. On the other hand, the way you do business – as opposed to the structure of the company – but how people especially entrepreneurs do business is very relationship oriented so a number of these skills come quite naturally.

Tell me about your relationship with the Hay Group?

David McLennen, along with being a professor, started a consulting firm called McBerr and that became part of the Hay Group. So when I was working with emotional intelligence in the business setting I was looking for a business partner because I knew there would be demand created and I wanted to be able to recommend someone in good conscience where people could get these practices I was talking about. I did that in two ways. One was to form a business alliance with the Hay Group. The second was to co-found a consortium based at Rutgers University which has a website eiconsortium.com/ net?, which supports the best practices in the field so they could be widely disseminated.

And that relationship with Hay allows you to harvest the financial benefits of being the leader in the field? It’s a financial relationship?

It’s a financial relationship with Hay mainly around the 360 degree I co-designed with Richard Boyartzis. They distribute it and we collect royalties on it. That’s the main business relationship at this point. On the other hand, the Hay Group is doing a good job of bringing these methods on. But I would also say there are other groups worldwide if they are following the best practice standards you see on that website that are offering the same services.

If there is one message from the New Leaders book that is different to your other books, what would it be?

That businesses need to pay attention to the role of emotional intelligence in outstanding leaders, and to build it into their culture and systems. Not just to pay lip service to it and certainly not to ignore it. But to actually make it a part of their standard operating procedure, and to make it clear that they are hiring for these abilities, and promoting people for them and they are serious about helping people develop further strengths in this area.

Does emotional intelligence in leaders provide any protection against the sorts of excesses we have seen in the corporate world of late, Enron etc..?

One of the fundamental capabilities that distinguishes emotionally intelligent leaders from others is integrity. Business needs to make a pendulum swing from a culture where whatever is legal and whatever accounting would approve was done – that is a culture where it is very hard to raise ethical concerns to one where ethics becomes a business advantage. That requires leaders who are ethical and that has always been a part of the emotional intelligence model.

You wrote the introduction to the Bloomsbury book Business: The Ultimate Resource. In it you talk about business intelligence – is that a bringing together of different strands like emotional intelligence and others?

In the introduction to the Bloomsbury book Business: The Ultimate Resource , I consider the question of whether there might be a business intelligence that is broader than emotional intelligence, which includes not just the competencies I’ve been talking about but also goes through to those of technical expertise and cognitive abilities as the widest definition of what is it that makes someone good at business no matter what part of business they may be dealing with.

One thing that this Bloomsbury book has done is to level the playing field in a quite interesting manner. For years, Robert Kelley at Carnegie-Mellon University has been asking people who work in a wide variety of companies the same question: What percentage of the knowledge you need to do your job is stored in your own mind? Back in the mid-1980s, the answer was typically around 75 percent; but by the turn of the millennium that percentage had slid to as low as 15 percent. This change reflects the sheer rate of growth in the amount of information available. More knowledge has been generated in the past century, it is said, than in all history before – and the rate of increase is accelerating. And another piece of data, the star performers in business it turns out are four times faster than people who are average at gaining access to new expertise. Business: The Ultimate Resource puts this all at your fingertips.

It’s quite extraordinary. For that meeting Monday morning when you need to know about team management or turning leads into sales, something that you have just not had experience of, you have a way now of quickly studying up without having to rummage through a business library to find a text about it and in that sense it levels the playing field.

How does it go down in a tractor plant in Nebraska where people aren’t used to hearing about the more touchy feely stuff?

It’s not touchy-feely, that’s a misconception. This is being intelligent about emotions, not being emotional. I’m not saying that people should necessarily express emotions openly and fluently. I’m saying that you should be able to manage your distressing emotions so that they don’t get in the way of the work you have to do. And you need to do that because there is a relationship between the emotional centres of the brain which pump out your distressing emotions and the neo-cortex, pre-frontal brain, which needs to take in information and understand it clearly and respond flexibly. The more you are under the sway of the emotional centres the less nimble and the more paralysed your thinking brain becomes. So its because of that reciprocal relationship that you need to be able to manage emotions. And you need to be able to manage relationships effectively, too. That goes down just fine in Nebraska. If you say let’s be touchy feely then you are not talking about what I’m talking about. I wouldn’t even mention it in Nebraska.

Where can your ideas make the biggest impact? Is it at the sales interface or in the boardroom?

At every level where leadership is operating. So it could be at the team level, among the team members – in fact there is team emotional intelligence. A woman named Vanessa Druskat [assistant professor of organisational behaviour at the Weatherhead School of Management, Harvard Business Review March 2001] has shown that these same abilities operate at the collective level in a team and distinguish high performance teams from low performance teams. It’s distributed. So anywhere that people need to work together in order to achieve a collective goal, it is required.

Share this article:

Subscribe to our newsletter to keep up to date with the latest and greatest ideas in business, management, and thought leadership.

*mandatory field

Thinkers50 will use the information you provide on this form to be in touch with you and to provide news, updates, and marketing. Please confirm that you agree to have us contact you by clicking below:

You can change your mind at any time by clicking the unsubscribe link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or by contacting us at . We will treat your information with respect. For more information about our privacy practices please visit our website. By clicking below, you agree that we may process your information in accordance with these terms.

We use Mailchimp as our marketing platform. By clicking below to subscribe, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing. Learn more about Mailchimp's privacy practices here.

Privacy Policy Update

Thinkers50 Limited has updated its Privacy Policy on 28 March 2024 with several amendments and additions to the previous version, to fully incorporate to the text information required by current applicable date protection regulation. Processing of the personal data of Thinkers50’s customers, potential customers and other stakeholders has not been changed essentially, but the texts have been clarified and amended to give more detailed information of the processing activities.

Thinkers50 Awards Gala 2023

Join us in celebration of the best in business and management thinking.