Internationally known author and psychologist Daniel Goleman discusses why emotional intelligence matters in business and how it is changing talent management.

Before you ever heard the term "emotional intelligence," you probably knew instinctively what it was—and who had it. Now, we not only can have smart conversations about what it is, but also know how to cultivate and even measure it. This is largely thanks to Daniel Goleman, whose book Emotional Intelligence brought the concept into the popular consciousness in 1995. The book was a global success, remaining on the New York Times international bestseller list for 18 months.

Goleman, a psychologist who wrote on brain and behavioral science for the New York Times for many years, was initially surprised at the intense interest the concept was generating in business circles. But a closer look at data from multiple companies produced a revelation: Emotionally intelligent leaders drive better business performance.

Goleman has since published groundbreaking research on the impact of emotional intelligence on business success. His recent book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, shows how the ability to focus is the foundation of emotional intelligence, and ultimately what differentiates star performers from others. An adaptation of the chapter "The Focused Leader" won the Harvard Business Review's 2013 McKinsey Award for Best Article of the Year, and was included in a collection of Goleman's most significant writing on leadership, What Makes a Leader: Why Emotional Intelligence Matters.

I spoke with Goleman about his latest insights into emotional intelligence, and how organizations can harness this traditionally "soft" concept to yield hard results.

How has your thinking in this area evolved since you wrote Emotional Intelligence?

There are three major changes in the evolution of my thinking. In Emotional Intelligence, I wrote about five domains of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-management, motivation, empathy, and social skills. In my later work, particularly with Richard Boyatzis, we found that motivation is a form of self-management. So, I folded motivation into self-management. That's evolution number one.

Evolution number two happened when I wrote the follow-up book, Working With Emotional Intelligence. I went back to research that had been done by my professor at Harvard, David McClelland, on competence modeling. When I looked at competency models for leadership, I realized that a majority of the competencies that delineated the difference between the top 10 percent of performers and the median or average performers was in the emotional intelligence column. They didn't have to do with cognitive abilities such as technical skills. So, the second evolution was the insight into the impact of emotional intelligence on leadership.

And the third came while writing my new book Focus, when I realized that attention is the necessary platform for emotional intelligence. Self-awareness is a form of active attention, as is focusing on others and empathizing. So, now I see attention as fundamental to emotional intelligence.

In light of the finding that emotional intelligence drives business performance, do companies need to rethink their talent management strategies?

Yes. If an organization is ignoring emotional intelligence in a candidate for a leadership position, it is making an enormous mistake.

Often, when people who are brilliant individual performers get promoted to a leadership position, they're found to be lacking in this domain. The organization has to look at emotional intelligence—it has to be a part of its competency model, along with technical skills and abilities.

Can emotional intelligence be determined in an interview?

We should question the interview as the best measure of emotional intelligence. When a person is being interviewed, they're putting their best face forward, but that doesn't tell the hiring manager how they'll be in their day-to-day interactions. It's a very artificial slice of behavior the employer is getting.

I know, for example, employers who give their new hires a three- or six-month trial period, and they consider that the best way to assess how a person will add to or detract from the chemistry of the work group. That's the real measure of emotional intelligence.

That said, not everyone can do that. And you do want to use the interview as well as you can to gauge emotional intelligence. So, there are a few classic questions that have been asked: What was your greatest success? What did you learn from it? What was your greatest failure? What did you learn from it?

On the other hand, if this advice I'm giving you now is showing up on the web and someone who's preparing for a job interview reads it and says, "Oh, I have to remember when they ask that question, to mention such-and-such," then that almost defeats the purpose. I wouldn't use the interview as the definitive assessment of a person's emotional intelligence. The ideal assessment, I believe, is to observe how that person interacts with everyone else on the job over the course of some months.

Should companies consider using tools that measure emotional intelligence as a way to screen candidates?

I'm slightly skeptical of using shortcuts like that. The Emotional Social Competency Inventory (ESCI) and the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT) are self-reports, so in this sense they present the same problem as the interview—they allow candidates to put their best faces on.

Claudio Fernández-Aráoz [a senior adviser at the global executive search firm Egon Zehnder] has done some great research in this area. He recommends doing confidential interviews with people who worked with the candidate in the past—or with others whom the hiring manager can trust to be frank. I can understand the desire to want to shortcut the process and still make a smart guess, but I am a little dubious about screening for emotional intelligence in a standardized test.

How can organizations promote productive conversations around the emotional impact of their leaders?

It's a courageous act to promote this conversation at all because the emotional impact of the leader, which is so crucial to the productivity of everyone, has been sort of swept under the rug. People's gossip around the water cooler and in the lunchroom is all about that. But HR and the leadership team have very often not been a part of this conversation. So, I think that surfacing it in an explicit way, saying "Yes, this matters," letting people give anonymous feedback, and getting 360 data around emotional intelligence and the emotional climate, is very important.

Organizations need a metric for the emotional climate that a leader creates. They need to tap into that conversation, give it a channel for proper expression, and use the data.

How can training impart emotional intelligence?

You can deconstruct emotional intelligence into a "learn the competencies" approach, and cover competencies such as initiative, self-confidence, or understanding another person's perspective. The emotional intelligence competencies that matter in the workplace can each be operationalized into behaviors that a person can cultivate through a personal learning plan or through coaching.

For example, say a person is aware that he is a terrible listener. Well, now every time someone comes into that person's office, he has made a promise to himself to pay full attention, understand what the other is saying, and then respond to that. Over time, he will de-automatize his habit of interrupting people, and this new habit of listening carefully will take its place. That's a learning plan.

I don't buy into just dumping 360 feedback and saying, "Well, now you have some self-awareness. Get better." I think it's much smarter to help people through certain parts of the learning process that we know empirically will work, and then let them work on other things by themselves. It's helpful at the beginning to motivate people to want to change their behaviors. But they're not going to make the change in a day.

Is leadership training generally as aligned with emotional intelligence as it should be?

If an organization is wondering if its leadership training promotes emotional intelligence, one place to go is the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. They have best practices for training in emotional intelligence.

What are some simple, homegrown ways to promote emotional intelligence in employees at all levels?

You want to let employees know that it matters. You want to give them experiences, such as seminars, that help them understand what emotional intelligence is, what it looks like, why it matters, what the business case is for it, and what the underlying neuroscience is. I often talk about that last one when I present to companies because emotional intelligence can be dismissed by people who don't know much about it. But once you start explaining the neuroscience underlying it, people take it more seriously.

Promoting emotional intelligence has a lot to do with raising awareness. That was one reason I wrote What Makes a Leader: Why Emotional Intelligence Matters. The book pulls together my Harvard Business Review articles and others that present supporting evidence from neuroscience and make the business case for emotional intelligence at the same time. I think that's a message the organization should impart.

You've successfully made the business case for emotional intelligence. What's your next area of interest?

In Focus, I write about the role of attention, which has always been implicit. I'm making it more explicit. I'm very interested in helping children improve these abilities that they need for their personal lives and for their future careers, and in what we can do in schools to help kids become more self-aware and better at self-management and empathy.

I'm getting very interested in the role of mindfulness and attention training in schools, as well as enhancing children's natural ability for caring and concern—how to promote compassion through education. And I think that what any talent development professional does is really graduate-level training on the same thing. We don't stop learning through life, and much of that learning now is brought to us through this function at work.