Why is Emotional Intelligence Hard to Measure?

Updated: Sep 22

When having to work with others, emotional intelligence (EI) can separate good leaders from great leaders. Unlike IQ, emotional intelligence presents more complications when trying to measure.


But why is emotional intelligence hard to measure? The biggest reason that emotional intelligence is difficult to measure is that it relies upon a person’s ability to self-assess their abilities or for others to assess their abilities accurately. These tests are unable to determine skill level, instead, asking about the individual’s perception of their skills, which can be inaccurate. 

“Self-analysis requires reconsideration of who we think we are. Self-awareness requires us to reassess where we came from and where we are going.” ― Kilroy J. Oldster, Dead Toad Scrolls

In addition to this, there are other reasons that make measuring emotional intelligence (EI) difficult. Below I will go through some of the challenges, currently, in trying to quantify a person’s EI.

It is a Relatively New Field of Study


Emotion Intelligence received its formal designation as a type of intelligence in the 1990s. Compare that to the first intelligence test, the Binet-Simon Scale which was published in 1905 and you can see that EI is a much newer concept than IQ.


Due to this, there is still a large amount of research being done on the most effective way of determining what a person’s EI level is, how to best quantify it, and how this information can most accurately be used. At the time of writing this, some large organizations find the current tests available as accurate at determining effectiveness in a workplace as a personality test. This lack of confidence in the current testing methods by these skeptics is driving researchers to find a better way to test the most relevant areas of EI and how to apply these to job performance and potential.


At the same time, there are corporations that are in full support of not only testing their teams but also educating them on the importance of improving EI.

If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far. -Daniel Goleman


It is a Hybrid of Personality and Ability


Emotional Intelligence is grouped into five dimensions including;

  1. Self–awareness – The ability to self-identify feelings in the moment and use these to guide what reactions and decisions are best in the current moment or situation. Those with self-awareness have a realistic view of their current abilities and a grounded sense of self-confidence.

  2. Self-regulation- The basis of self-regulation is being able to use emotions to improve vs derail the situation or task that is occurring. By having the ability to tailor the emotional response, ensuring it is the correct emotion, at the right level, and directed in the best way to the appropriate person, emotions can be used to move us towards our goals. When this does not happen, the emotion can hinder the desired outcome, causing further issues or damage to our goal.  In addition, those with self-regulation are able to manage their emotional responses allowing them to better recover after a period of emotional distress.

  3. Motivation: This requires the individual to use their emotions and reactions to assist them in guiding and moving towards their individual desires and goals. They utilize their emotional responses to help push them forward in the face of adversity, overcoming setbacks and frustrations, while taking initiative to actively pursue goals.

  4. Empathy: Those with empathy are able to experience another person’s emotions and feel what the other person is feeling.

  5. Relationship management: When done correctly a person who is strong at managing relationships is able to handle their and others’ emotions effectively, accurately read the social situation and interact appropriately. They use these skills to navigate conflicts, build their teams and network, and foster strong relationships with others.


How a person acts or reacts is a part of their personality. Separating their skills out from their personality can become difficult and often causes confusion between what is part of their personality and what is their intelligence level.


Ultimately EI is how well an individual is able to understand and communicate their own emotions and how well they understand and manage the emotions of others. Having the knowledge, and understanding of our own and other people’s emotions, and what to do, does not always mean we have the skill set to do what we think we should. Although we may know that a friend needs a shoulder to cry on or to talk through an issue, we may not feel equipped to handle the situation and as such appear to be distant when we are protecting ourselves from what may trigger us by being a part of the situation.  This issue will bring us to our next difficulty in measurement;

75 percent of careers are derailed for reasons related to emotional competencies, including an inability to handle interpersonal problems; unsatisfactory team leadership during times of difficulty or conflict; or inability to adapt to change or elicit trust.  -Center for Creative Leadership


Challenges within Current Testing Methods


Current testing methods separated EI testing into three distinct categories. These include;

  1. Trait EI

  2. Ability EI

  3. Mixed EI

Trait EI is defined by the process of using self-reported answers in order to determine a person’s EI. As Trait EI measures look at typical behavior exhibited by the individual they are quite predictive of how a person would react in a variety of situations. 


The issue comes in when a person does not have an accurate view of themselves. We oftentimes think that we are better than we actually are. This is not always a bad thing as it can push us to strive beyond our current capacities. However, it can distort how we rate ourselves and our abilities based upon an ideal version of how we view ourselves.


Often, these answers do not have a clear right or wrong answer, requiring highly skilled individuals to rate the answers.


Ability EI requires participants to solve emotion-related problems. These problems have predetermined answers that are determined to be correct or incorrect. This form of testing gives a much better indication of the individuals’ ability to understand emotions and how they work. In contrast to trait EI, these questions are rated based upon a perfect reaction vs inappropriate reaction, resulting in inaccurate predictions of how they may act when faced with this situation in real life.


Mixed EI testing is a combination of questionnaires that are typically self-reported and measure traits, social skills, and competencies. These tests can also use 360-degree assessment where individuals will be required to use self-reporting in addition to peer reports from people interacting at different levels of authority. These people may include their manager or supervisor, co-workers, and employees or direct reports.

Anyone can be angry–that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way–that is not easy.  -Aristotle


Challenges Creating Emotion-Focused Questions with Objective Criteria


When taking the trait EI test the first challenge becomes ensuring that there is objective criteria used to measure emotion-focused questions. Not all emotions are created equal and there is not always a right or wrong way of reacting to something or viewing how others should react when faced with a specific situation. Each person’s experience and present situation may change how they view their own emotions and reactions and those of others around them.

It is very important to understand that emotional intelligence is not the opposite of intelligence, it is not the triumph of heart over head–it is the unique intersection of both. -David Caruso


Cultural Differences


Cultural differences can also create a challenge when determining what is an appropriate or inappropriate reaction or interpretation of the emotions of others. Without changing the benchmark for each individual’s culture these results may be inaccurate and non-predictive of the efficiency that the individual is able to react as deemed appropriate within their cultural surroundings.


An issue starts occurring within this as corporations become international; those that would have been deemed emotionally intelligent in their own country do not appear that way to another culture. This is because certain norms, body language, and acceptable reactions vary between cultures. The level at which cultures experience emotions can also vary.

Experience is not what happens to you–it’s how you interpret what happens to you. -Aldous Huxley

As this area of study and competency continue to grow and evolve there will be new standards of measurement and more effective forms of analysis. Currently, we are in the early stages of using empirical evidence to determine the importance that EI has on our performance. What most do agree upon is how we react and interact with others, and how well we understand the emotions and reactions of others the better we are able to navigate relationships.

If we lack emotional intelligence, whenever stress rises the human brain switches to autopilot and has an inherent tendency to do more of the same, only harder.  Which, more often than not, is precisely the wrong approach in today’s world. -Robert K. Cooper

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