Keep your emotions out of it thank you

Keep your emotions out of it thank you

Anthony Schulzetenberg

Joe Colihan


Generations of workers have thought it natural to relegate emotions to the home and personal contexts of their lives.  More recent research in I-O Psychology in the past two decades have served to bring emotions and the workplace together more consciously.  Perhaps it was understood that keeping your cool at work was a matter of regulation and not merely relegation.  Nevertheless, those in the boomer generation and earlier simply kept a lid on it.

Research, as a reflection of society, also kept a lid on it.  While workers did not typically discuss emotions with co-workers, and certainly not with their boss, researchers focused on human behavior in the workplace also tended to ignore emotions.  At the turn of the millennium, researchers were starting to realize the central role of emotions in the workplace.  In fact, emotions are so central to our well-being, attitudes, intentions, and behavior that it was folly to think that relegation was even an option. 

As described by Kanfer and Klimoski (2002), emotions were the forgotten stepchildren relative to much more important issues of cognitive skill (g) and motivation in the prediction of workplace success.  When researchers began to focus on emotions in the workplace, they found that “affective states, traits, moods, and emotions play a central role in the employee perceptions of the workplace, beliefs about work and the organization, decisions made in the workplace, and behaviors displayed at work” (pp 473-474).  The role of emotions has had major effects on our understanding of client service (Schneider & Bowen, 1995), organizational commitment and citizenship, leadership, justice, and workplace violence (Muchinsky & Culbertson, 2016). 

It can be fun to imagine human emotions as its portrayed in the Pixar movie, Inside Out released in 2015.  The lead character is a young girl moving from Minnesota to California, with five personified emotions coordinating her feelings from a control center inside her head, shaping her consciousness, memories, and outer portrayals to others.  Cleverly, the creators of the story consulted multiple psychologists to maintain fidelity to research on emotions. 

This fictional depiction of how we experience and behave in our environment provides examples of emotional expression, regulation, and the utility of emotions in motivation, planning, and navigating complex situations.  It is these functions and awareness of emotions that have come to be labeled in as “emotional intelligence,” (EI) a psychological construct that has gained momentum in employee hiring, development, and teambuilding.  A 2018 search for the term “emotional intelligence” in the title produced 2,154 articles in the SIOP Research Access database (  Clearly, interest in the idea of understanding and managing emotions in the workplace is high.

Some claim that those high in emotional intelligence are more productive, successful, less stressed, and have better workplace relationships (Serrat, 2017).  Two of the forefathers of EI, Salovey and Mayer (1990), suggest that EI is associated with adaptive problem solving, improved mental health, and increased motivation. 

These claims do not come without criticism.  For instances, because emotional intelligence has not been found to be related to other cognitive abilities, or more broadly g (Scott and Reynolds, 2010), it casts doubts on its status as an “intelligence.”  Coronating any construct as an intelligence carries enormous weight, and while it may be just a name, the implications for such an association often involve making parallelisms with one’s general cognitive ability.

Another valid criticism to EI is its lack of discriminant validly from other personality traits such as consciousness/extroversion/agreeableness/openness and neuroticism.  In a meta-analysis of over 36,000 data sources, Van der Linden et al. (2017) found trait EI to have a correlation of .85 with the general factor of personality, indicating a large overlap between one’s enduring EI and their over-arching personality, where others reported smaller yet meaningful correlations to the Big Five personality factors (Siegling, Furnham, & Petrides, 2015; Van Rooy & Viswesvaran, 2004).  The idea that two almost identical ideas (or things) are distinct because they have different names is not uncommon in psychology research.  In fact, it happens so often, there is a name for it:  the jangle fallacy.

Assuming EI is a unique and valid psychological construct, one might ask of its utility, especially through the lens of the current environment focused on social equality in the workplace.  There is converging evidence that women score higher in EI measures than do men (e.g., Mandell & Pherwani, 2003; Petrides & Furnham, 2000).  One might posit this is a function of adaptation, suggesting it requires more social and emotional skills to navigate a male-dominated world.  This hypothesis is further supported by research that reports higher EI scores among ethnic minorities (Van Rooy, Alonso, & Viswesvaran, 2005).  If EI is related to job performance and does not adversely impact racial minorities in the way cognitive tests do (see Cottrell, Newman, & Roisman, 2015), should employers favor EI scores when making hiring decisions?

At worst, EI is a mashup of concepts familiar to I-O psychologists like conscientiousness and neuroticism, along with self-insight and empathy.  At best, it is a way of thinking about the effects of something very complicated, yet at the core of our behavior.  Dana and Newman (2010) outlined and tested a mechanism from perception of our emotions through understanding through conscious regulation and performance.  They found positive relationships to performance on jobs with high emotional labor (where managing your feelings and keeping a client-service orientation is paramount), but negative relationships to performance on jobs with low emotional labor. 

Sadness, the character in Inside Out, displays emotional awareness or “intelligence” when she sees someone is hurting and experiencing grief.  Instead of trying to cheer them up or avoid the uncomfortableness of such feelings, Sadness empathizes and validates the blue emotions.  It is behaviors such as these that might make the workplace a little more welcoming and motiving to employees.  If employers want to influence employee well-being—a major ingredient for retention and work performance—they might want to start by encouraging the expression, acceptance, and awareness of emotions in the workplace.  


Cottrell, J. M., Newman, D. A., & Roisman, G. I.  (2015).  Explaining the black–white gap in cognitive test scores: Toward a theory of adverse impact.  Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(6), 1713–1736.

Dana, J., & Newman, D. A.  (2010).  Emotional Intelligence: An Integrative Meta-Analysis and Cascading Model.  Journal of Applied Psychology, 95, pp. 54-78. 

Inside Out.  (2015).  See:

Kanfer, R., & Klimoski, R. J.  (2002).  Affect and work:  Looking back to the future.  In Lord, Klimoski, & Kanfer (eds.) Emotions in the workplace:  Understanding the structure and role of emotions in organizational behavior.  San Francisco, California, Jossey-Bass.

Mandell, B., & Pherwani, S.  (2003).  Relationship Between Emotional Intelligence and Transformational Leadership Style: A Gender Comparison.  Journal of Business and Psychology, 17(3), 387–404.

Muchinsky, P. M., & Culbertson, S. S.  (2016).  Affect, attitudes, and behavior at work.  In Psychology Applied to Work, 11th ed.  Summerfield, North Carolina, Hypergraphic Press.

Petrides, K. V., & Furnham, A.  (2000).  Gender Differences in Measured and Self-Estimated Trait Emotional Intelligence. Sex Roles, 42(5/6), 449–461.

Salovey, P., & Mayer, J. D.  (1990).  Emotional Intelligence.  Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 9(3), 185–211.

Schneider, B. & Bowen, D. E.  (1995).  Winning the service game.  Boston, Massachusetts, Havard Business School Press. 

Scott, J., & Reynolds, D. (Eds.).  (2010).  Handbook of workplace assessment.  San Francisco, California, Jossey-Bass).

Serrat, O.  (2017).  Understanding and Developing Emotional Intelligence.  In Knowledge Solutions (pp. 329–339). Singapore: Springer Singapore.

Siegling, A. B., Furnham, A., & Petrides, K. V. (2015). Trait Emotional Intelligence and Personality: Gender-Invariant Linkages Across Different Measures of the Big Five.  Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment, 33(1), 57–67.

Van der Linden, D., Pekaar, K. A., Bakker, A. B., Schermer, J. A., Vernon, P. A., Dunkel, C. S., & Petrides, K. V. (2017). Overlap between the general factor of personality and emotional intelligence: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 143(1), 36–52.

Van Rooy, D. L., & Viswesvaran, C. (2004).  Emotional intelligence: A meta-analytic investigation of predictive validity and nomological net.  Journal of Vocational Behavior, 65(1), 71–95.

Van Rooy, D. L., Alonso, A., & Viswesvaran, C.  (2005).  Group differences in emotional intelligence scores: theoretical and practical implications.  Personality and Individual Differences, 38(3), 689–700.