5 Reasons Why Emotional Intelligence Workshops Fail

by  Lyn Boyer  |  Workplace Issues

In the 1990’s, Daniel Goleman and other authors introduced and popularized the concept of Emotional Intelligence (EI). Goleman, in particular, suggested that EI includes self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management (Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2002).

Researchers studied and successfully promoted the notion that EI is critical to personal and professional success. For example, Goleman cited research indicating that when intelligence test scores (IQ) “are correlated with how well people perform in their careers, the highest estimate of how much difference IQ accounts for is about 25 percent. This means that IQ alone at best leaves 75 percent of job success unexplained (Goleman D. , 2005).”

It is easy to see that the salesperson who is unable to connect with potential clients or the manager who strikes fear and anger in the hearts of her employees will not be as successful as the person who is able to manage his own emotions and create an emotionally satisfying climate.

Since publication of these EI books and articles, business leaders and workshop presenters have spent countless hours and millions of dollars trying to enhance emotional intelligence in the workplace.  Typically, employees spend one to three days learning about the importance of EI and how to be more emotionally intelligent. They may participate in role-play situations and discuss times when they were or were not successful at recognizing or managing their own or other peoples’ emotions.

However, Cherniss, Goleman and other researchers  (1998) went on to study in depth what is required to bring EI to the workplace. They maintain that “it is possible to help people of any age to become more emotionally intelligent at work.” However, they assert that businesses spend millions of dollars each year in non-productive efforts to help employees to be more emotionally intelligent.

This information has not been as widely circulated, and it is important for leaders and human resource professionals to understand. Their report suggests at least five reasons why EI workshops are likely to fail. Even though it was reported in 1998, the findings are still pertinent. These findings include:

  • Emotional learning is very different from learning physics. The part of the brain that controls emotions (the amygdala) is very different in structure and function than the part of the brain that deals with reasoning and intellect (the neocortex). One learns emotions through repeated social encounters and interaction with other people. One also “picks up” the emotions of other people.
  • Emotional reactions and habits are very strong and build over time. One must first unlearn old habits before she can learn new ones. On the other hand, intellectual learning often includes new information, which usually does not require unlearning.
  • Emotions are tied to self-image. Being told that we need to learn a new technology is very different from being told we need to learn empathy. Successful EI training must be particularly sensitive to the emotional needs of participants. That includes building a desire to change and having choices in what and how to learn.
  • Successful change in the realm of EI requires understanding and setting the stage for new learning and new behavior in the work environment. Preparation for EI learning is essential. It is also frequently overlooked.
  • Successful EI change requires coaching or focused follow-up. Participants must have the opportunity to practice effective and emotionally intelligent behavior with others, and they need the opportunity to reflect on new behaviors.

In my next post, we’ll move around to the the positive perspective and I’ll share a 4-step process for building an emotionally satisfying and productive workplace.  But in the meantime, please share your thoughts on these reasons for failure.  Can you think of any others?


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What People Are Saying

Peter Watson  |  16 Feb 2012  |  Reply

Learning EI is not an intellectual exercise. Changing the way we feel, express and experience emotional states requires that, in a safe and secure environment, we first access the emotions that challenge us and mindfully monitor the experience. The key here is the ‘safe and secure environment’. Most working situations are not suited to providing a place that feels comfortable enough for employees to delve deeply into feelings of anger, shame, grief, resentment, etc. Learning about emotions necessarily involves actually having them and receiving guidance from a skilled facilitator. This type of work needs to be done in situations separate from the work place where privacy and anonymity is guaranteed. Of course, it would be helpful if companies could be persuaded that it is in their interest to fund such training.

Lyn Boyer  |  17 Feb 2012  |  Reply

Peter, You have introduced another component that affects why it is difficult to enhance EI in the workplace. Without a safe and affirming environment people are unwilling or unable to consider topics associated with emotions. They are definitely unable to risk making changes. When they are primarily concerned about protecting themselves, they cannot be open to changing how they interact with other people.
You are correct in saying that it would be helpful for companies to see that it is in their interest to fund EI projects that meet the needs of their employees. Thank you for taking the time to respond.

Louise Altman @ The Intentional Workplace  |  16 Feb 2012  |  Reply

Lyn, thanks for this important post.

Because EI learning programs and coaching are such a large part of our portfolio – and because I am deeply committed to advancing greater emotional awareness and competency in the workplace, I was compelled to comment.

I began to integrate EI into my work soon after Goleman’s first book was published. Talking about emotions in corporate settings was “pioneer” work in ’96 – and in some ways, it still is. There are many reasons why EI is still a “hard sell” and perhaps why some programs haven’t been as successful as they could be.

One major factor is that the organizational, business mindset still doesn’t understand emotions – certainly not within the workplace. The prize of high performance is still unrelated to emotions in this mindset. Since the introduction of EI in the late ’90s, neuroscience has added a whole new dimension to our understanding of emotions.

There is no such thing as a seperation between feelings and behavior. Unfortunately, and perhaps another important factor that contributes to a lack of success in EI programs, is that many senior leaders and HR professionals don’t really understand what EI is and how emotions function. Only recently, we’ve had two senior leaders tell us they want the EI programs without the psychology!

You’re right, to do EI correctly, there needs to be a much greater investment of time and money. Behavioral changes are difficult and need repeated practice and reinforcement. Often we see companies spend more time and money implementing technology than developing people. Follow up and coaching is essential for people to “install” new thinking and consequently new behavior. It’s still surprising to me how many professionals still believe you change behavior first.

Another important aspect is that many workplace cultures don’t support emotional balance. Many cultures discourage honesty, needlessly trigger stress and place unhealthy demands on their employees. Culture does eat strategy for breakfast…..and it takes a very enlightened employee with a strong emotional foundation to excel in many of today’s workplaces.

Daniel Goleman’s work was a valuable contribution and provided an impetus for this important work to flourish. Now’s it’s time to take it to the next level.

Looking forward to Part 2!
Best, Louise

Lyn Boyer  |  17 Feb 2012  |  Reply

Louise, I can add little to your thoughtful and insightful comments. You and Peter introduce the resistance many leaders feel toward initiatives they consider “fluff.” For those, like you, who see the importance of understanding and practicing Emotional Intelligence, this is very frustrating. Far too many employees suffer and companies are less productive than they could be because they do not make use of the valuable information we now have regarding the significance of emotions to behavior and decision-making.
Thank you.

Chris Golis  |  19 Feb 2012  |  Reply

I think your blog and the comments are on the wrong track and this is why the take-up of EQ is slow. While Goleman defined EQ and why it is important, he did not describe how to lift EQ in his seminal book. The main reason is that he did not have a theory of core emotions. He has since gone down the competency route which is another wrong track.

I think the major problem stems from a confusion between transient emotions (driven by the amygdala) and temperament (which is our genetic predisposition to how we emotionally react.) To really understand emotional intelligence you need a theory of temperament and I have blogged on what I think is the most practical for managers and salespeople. http://www.emotionalintelligencecourse.com/eq-blog/temperament-is-more-important-than-transient-emotions.html

Lyn Boyer  |  19 Feb 2012  | 

Chris, I looked at your article and I think you have made some very valid points. There is a difference between transient emotions and temperament. It may be in the same vein as the nature vs. nurture discussion. As I see it, temperament affects transient emotions. One person is more likely to experience a particular emotion in a given situation based on inherited temperament. Emotions are also learned, however. I may learn to think people are manipulative, or I may learn that people are cooperative. That preconception determines my emotional response. I have explained that idea my fully in my recent book, Connect: Affective Leadership for Effective Results.
People have little control over some emotions (a startle/fear response, for example.) However, they have control over how they respond to those emotions, and that is why EI comes into workplace discourse. If people do not understand the nature of emotions and make no effort to improve their behaviors toward co-workers, clients and others in an organization, they are less productive than they can be. I think for leaders who want to improve the climate of an organization, it is important to consider how to change certain emotion-laden behaviors regardless of cause. My next blog will deal with recommendations Goleman and others made based on research they did. Maybe you will want to read that as well.
Thank you for adding a different view. Lyn

Jon Mertz  |  16 Feb 2012  |  Reply

Interesting post, Lyn. I have not read the EI books or attended an EI workshop. It seems that it would be a challenging workshop to facilitate as people may try to hold back or participate fully. It will be interesting to read your next post to learn about the 4 steps. Thanks for a thoughtful article. Jon

Lyn Boyer  |  17 Feb 2012  |  Reply

Jon, I hope you have an opportunity to attend EI workshops, and I would like to think that they would be more than a one-day session. If you would like to learn more, I strongly recommend Daniel Goleman’s work, particularly Primal Leadership, his discussion of the importance of EI to leaders. Yes, it can be challenging to facilitate sessions in which people hold back, which they can do if they do not trust the facilitator or the environment. However, when everything is working, it is great fun to see people learn how and why emotions work as they do.

Jon Mertz  |  17 Feb 2012  | 

Thanks, Lyn. I will check that out. Appreciate it. Jon

Karl Jones  |  17 Feb 2012  |  Reply

I couldn’t agree more with your article. One of the biggest challenges I see in clients trying to modify their behavior is the requirement to get outside their comfort zone repeatedly and deal with the anxiety. Classroom settings which provide information and the opportunity to practice in a ‘safe’ setting are a start in the behavior modification journey. One of the difficulties in continuing the process in the work setting is the lack of a support system to help cope with the anxiety. A coach provides the support, feedback and encouragement to help overcome this personal challenge.

Lyn Boyer  |  17 Feb 2012  |  Reply

Karl, Thank you and thanks for your comments.
Yes, as a coach, I fully agree, of course. I also think in the area of emotional intelligence a coach is particularly important. However, as you and others point out, the need for trust and a sense of security are paramount.

Mike Lehr  |  23 Feb 2012  |  Reply

Great post, Lyn! Thank you for shedding light on the shallowness of EI.

Much of the problem, Lyn, is in EI itself. Just because I understand that someone is happy doesn’t mean that I feel that person’s happiness. As originally defined, EI is just that – an understanding of emotions, being intelligent about them. It’s not empathy. It’s not about feeling them, just understanding them. That’s why psychopaths can often be very personable and friendly, demonstrating relatively high EI, when they need something from someone.

Furthermore, EI isn’t intuition either. EI is more social; it doesn’t help a solitary person solve non-relational problems. EI also doesn’t deal much with the unconscious and the emotional drivers living therein. It doesn’t give a construct for understanding them and their relationship to our conscious self, our ego. As a result, EI is oversold and under performs because problems are addressed superficially and mainly for communal and social settings. This is all right for simpler problems but not deeper, more complex ones – which most emotional ones tend to be.

I enjoyed your post. I’m looking forward to more on this topic.


Lyn Boyer  |  23 Feb 2012  |  Reply

Mike, Thank you for your comments and for including a very important insight about EI and empathy. I was involved in a discussion recently in which a person told me about a conversation in which he used information he knew about another person’s emotions to manipulate that person to do what he wanted him to do. He felt remorse and wanted to prevent that in the future, but you are right. Understanding emotions is not the same as feeling them. For one to have true EI, he or she must also have empathy, and Goleman includes empathy as part of his definition of EI.
For leaders and people in organizations, it is important to consider the emotional climate and work to improve it. I believe it is very important to continue to address EI in organizations in a way that goes beyond the superficial components and changes behavior so that individuals can thrive. I do not believe it is feasible to try to deal with pathological elements of EI in most work settings, but people must recognize how emotions affect them and their actions and how they affect other people. While I do no believe we can teach empathy, I believe we can instill in groups and organizations the understanding that emotions drive behavior and success for the group and individuals in it.
I look forward to reading more comments from you.

Mike Lehr  |  24 Feb 2012  | 

Thank you for the story, Lyn. It’s good he felt remorse. It’s a good example of where rational decisions diverge from our emotions. It’s also significant that he felt he could not easily control the urge to manipulate even though he was aware of it. It’s good that he was able to realize that he needed your help.

Yes, you’re right that Goleman includes “empathy” in his definition of EI; however, drilling down on his definition of empathy we find it’s the “Ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people” and “skill in treating people according to their emotional reactions.” Here is my reference link from an article he wrote: http://hbr.org/2004/01/what-makes-a-leader/ar/1

If you take his definition and contrast it with jut a couple from common dictionaries and not even consider the more involved definitions for it from psychology, we find:

Thus, we find his definition is narrower and seems to purposely focus on empathy as a rational and conscious quality. Of course, this fits with the idea of “Emotional Intelligence” or being intelligent about emotions. Intelligence is a cognitive attribute, not an emotional, intuitive or unconscious one. For example, he didn’t call his methodology Intelligent Emotions.

Still, the point is this: the foundation of EI is a rational one, not an emotional one. Therefore, as EI is defined it’s more about “understanding” and “reacting” (a conscious observation) not about things such as “feeling” and “intuiting.” Moreover, as this definition shows, EI focuses on “conscious” understanding and reactions. EI’s definition is silent on the unconscious aspects of ourselves. Yet, we pick up much on an unconscious level about a person that flows upward as feelings for which we don’t have any conscious awareness. EI’s definition is silent with regard to deeper psychological influences such as our unconscious thoughts and feelings and how they translate into how we interpret others (i.e projections in psychology). Therefore, it’s very possible for someone to have an high EI and be able to “understand” someone’s happiness and be able to “skillfully deal with his reactions to happiness” but not be able to “feel” that person’s happiness. This is the indirect conclusion we can draw from the silence of Goleman’s definition of EI on these other attributes of empathy as found in even common dictionaries.

I welcome your thoughts on this perspective.

Thank you,

Lyn Boyer  |  25 Feb 2012  | 

Mike, It is clear that you have thought about this a great deal, and I agree with what you are saying. I wonder if it is ever possible to make someone feel the emotions of another. That would be an ideal result of EI training. If that is not possible, my goal as a leader would be to create an environment in which people feel safe to interact with others and to take professional (and maybe personal) risks. I believe that by helping people understand how emotions affect actions and interactions, they can consider their behavior in the context of the work environment. I cannot coerce feeling. I hope by supporting understanding of emotions, I can encourage productive action. Thanks again for your very thoughtful comments. I appreciate this perspective.

Byron Stock  |  08 Mar 2012  |  Reply

Concerning the five reasons why EI workshops are likely to fail…

1. I agree that emotions are learned through social encounters and interactions. But to me that just means that there are many opportunities to become aware of one’s emotions, to identify those situations that trigger negative emotions, and to practice learned EI techniques to get better.

2. The second reason cited, that one must first unlearn old habits before he can learn new ones, I disagree. My experience in teaching EI skills for 17 years is that by practicing new approaches and positive emotional states you can begin rewiring your brain to respond in positive ways to things that used to trigger negative emotions. Besides, I don’t know how to “unlearn” something I know. How do you teach someone not to do something.

3. Rather than telling people they need to develop or improve their EI skills, the approach that seems to attract people in our EI programs is to have participants focus on what they can improve if they enhance their EI skills and to allow them to seek the specific benefits they want rather than to tell them they have a deficit. This is an important part of preparation that is cited as the 4th reason EI workshops fail.

5. I absolutely agree that coaching is an important aspect in developing EI skills, whether it is one-to-one coaching by the instructor or peer coaching.

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