Understanding emotional intelligence for project management practitioners


The growing use of project management has created increasing importance for developing project management competencies. The need for project success is placing a renewed emphasis on one very unique role — the project manager. Over the years, numerous studies have determined that projects tend to fail as a result of poor leadership. Leaders are recognizing interpersonal skills as the new benchmark when measuring a leader's effectiveness. One aspect of the interpersonal skills is emotional intelligence (EI). EI is the ability to sense, understand, manage, and apply information toward leadership, motivation, and influence. Research is emerging on the value and applicability of EI and the skills and competencies that are beneficial in the project manager role. Based on a four-year research study, the findings from this paper can contribute to existing EI theory, EI model development, the training and development of project managers, and the interpersonal competencies of those who manage projects.


Economic figures indicate a significant and growing need for innovation in today's global economy. In order to achieve a sustainable competitive advantage, an organization's chosen strategy must be reinforced. A common approach is the use of process improvement and project management techniques to execute strategic initiatives. These two important domains can integrate and align vital business strategy to help achieve organizational goals.

The growing use of organizational change initiatives in the pursuit of excellence has created an increased importance for developing effective leadership competencies. The need for success is placing a renewed emphasis on one very unique role — the project manager responsible for successfully leading these strategic change initiatives. These organizational leaders, who perform well due to their technical skills, are promoted to act as the organizational change agents and often lack development in the critical interpersonal skills, which include leadership, communication, conflict management, and problem solving.

Recent research contends that interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, which constitute emotional intelligence (EI) play a more important role than cognitive intelligence, particularly in determining personal success and engagement of people in the workplace (Rabicoff, 2010). Personal competencies of confidence, emotional control, and interpersonal skills form a basis for predicting a person's potential (Mayer, Salovey, & Caruso, 2004).

This paper presents an overview and the findings of a four-year research effort. Additionally, the topics of skills and competencies, overview of emotional intelligence, EI self-assessment, and an overview of the Mayer Salovey Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT) ability-based model are discussed.

Skills and Competencies of the Project Management Practitioner

Over the years, numerous studies have determined that organizational change initiatives tend to fail as a result of poor leadership and have identified interpersonal skills as the critical component when measuring a leader's effectiveness. One emerging aspect of the interpersonal skills is emotional intelligence (EI). Emotions are key drivers in making sound decisions. Our logical thinking is often only rational justifications for our emotional decisions. EI is the ability to sense, understand, manage, and apply emotional data that can aid in leading, motivating, and influencing critical stakeholders.

New research is emerging on the value and applicability of EI and the skills and competencies that require a culture of quality and a work environment in which innovation is embraced and allowed to flourish. Over a decade of research has consistently demonstrated that those with higher EI abilities are more likely to perform at a higher level than their less emotionally intelligent coworkers. Leading management textbooks now include substantial coverage of the latest research on EI. EI is recognized as another tool that organizational leaders can use in their efforts to understand and to predict behavior.

The Accidental Project Manager

Project management practitioners, who perform well due to their technical skills, are often promoted to project managers and lack development in the interpersonal skills, including communication, leadership, problem solving, and conflict management. For example, a software developer may perform well in developing program code and then be assigned to lead a team of people on a subsequent project. Pinto, Thoms, Trailer, Palmer, and Govekar (1998) stated: “Project teams are frequently headed by people who are chosen for their technical expertise rather than for their leadership abilities” (p. 55). Wong (2007) stated: “Future project leaders will require greater knowledge and skills in managing human factors” (p. 323). Exhibit 1 demonstrates the accidental project manager relying mostly on his or her domain knowledge (see dotted line).

Accidental versus Competent Project Manager

Exhibit 1 – Accidental versus Competent Project Manager

The Competent Project Manager

Practitioners need to be well balanced in the technical skills and human skills to manage projects. The technical skills of project management include planning, scheduling, budgeting, and monitoring and controlling. The human skills of project management include communicating, developing and leading teams, and interacting with project stakeholders. Project management is balancing the technical skills along with the people skills. This requires a high level of project competency in combination with personal competencies that are needed to interact with the people throughout the project.

Project management practitioners must use other associated areas of expertise and knowledge, to ensure successful projects, including domain knowledge, project management knowledge (hard skills), project management knowledge (soft skills), and general business knowledge (Exhibit 1, see solid blue line). Domain area knowledge is derived from technical, management, and industry practices, such as construction, software development, manufacturing, and so forth. Project management knowledge (hard skills) is unique to the project management profession, such as, schedule development, cost estimating, and risk management. Project management knowledge (soft skills) includes interpersonal skills, such as communication, influence, conflict management, and problem solving. General management knowledge encompasses understanding how the projects align with the corporate strategic objectives.

The project manager must be able to interact with the project sponsor, team members, and stakeholders affected by the project. Ineffective project leadership results in misunderstanding of project objectives, lack of acceptance from project team members, and poor decision making (Leban, 2003). Therefore, project managers need to have strong human skills (Wong, 2007). One aspect of human skills is EI (Salovey & Mayer, 1990). The project manager must be aware of his or her emotions and others' emotions on the project.

An emerging concept of managing human skills uses EI (Salovey & Mayer, 1990). There is a growing body of research, published in respected, peer-reviewed journals, suggesting that EI does play an important role in work-related processes (Cherniss, 2010). Prior to determining which EI abilities to develop, practitioners need to know what their current EI abilities are. Once practitioners know their EI abilities, they can determine which EI abilities to develop, and then improve their human skills in areas such as problem solving, decision making, and leading.

Overview of Emotional Intelligence

Researchers have long debated the skills and competencies that are beneficial in the role as an organizational change leader. Researchers have also debated the value and applicability of emotional intelligence in organizations and the value of the various assessment tools available. In the past decade, several research studies have emerged that have investigated the relationship between organizational leaders, emotional intelligence, and the interpersonal skills required to lead and direct these strategic initiatives. In one recent study, across 15 nations and 21 industries, 83% of chief executive officers reported an increasing gap between their expectations for executing organizational change and their organizations' ability to execute organizational change. New research on EI and the interpersonal competencies of organizational leaders is relevant because both may offer avenues that can fuel the effectiveness of organizational adaptability.

The Definition of EI

Salovey and Mayer (1990) acknowledged Thorndike's definition of social intelligence as “the ability to perceive one's own and others' internal states, motives, and behaviors, and to act toward them optimally on the basis of that information” (p. 187) as foundation to the construct of EI. Salovey and Mayer (1990) established the first formal definition of EI in their seminal article, Emotional Intelligence, as “the subset of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one's own and others' feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one's thinking and actions” (p. 189). Salovey and Mayer (1990) postulated that, as a subset of social intelligence, EI monitors, discriminates, and uses the feelings and emotions for thinking and actions. According to Mayer and Salovey (1997), EI is a multi-dimensional construct that relates emotion and cognition with the improvement of human interactions.

Since the original definition of EI by Salovey and Mayer, there have been numerous proliferations of EI definitions from various researchers. Bar-On's (2007a) definition of EI emphasizes a cross-section of interrelated emotional and social skills, such as optimism, independence, and reality testing. Goleman's (1995) model views EI as emotional and social competencies that contribute to workplace performance and includes competencies such as adaptability, organization awareness, and conflict management. Abraham (1999) described EI as accurately appraising and expressing emotions in oneself and in others. George (2000) defined EI as “the ability to understand and manage moods and emotions in the self and others including the appraisal and expression of emotion, the use of emotion to enhance cognitive processes and decision-making, knowledge about emotions, and management of emotions” (p. 1027).

The History of EI

The years ranging from 1900 through 1969 was an era of research into separate areas of intelligence and emotion (Ciarrochi, Forgas, & Mayer, 2006). There were debates among psychologists about whether emotions held universal meaning, or whether they were culturally determined. Ciarrochi et al. (2006) stated, “Darwin had argued that emotions evolved across animal species; this was met with skepticism by social psychologists who believed that emotions were manifested differently in different cultures” (p.6).

From 1970 to 1989, intelligence and emotion were integrated into the new field of cognition and affect (Ciarrochi et al., 2006). Understanding of what emotions meant and when they arose were explored. Darwin's theory that emotions evolved across animal species and emotions were universal expressions was validated by Paul Ekman in studies from Papua New Guniea, the United States, Japan, Brazil, Argentina, Indonesia, and the former Soviet Union (Ekman, 2003). The term emotional intelligence was occasionally used, but was not defined (Ciarrochi et al., 2006). Howard Gardner (1983) proposed a theory of intrapersonal intelligence. Gardner's (1983) theory was part of a general self and social intelligence and not considered EI.

From 1990 to 1997, John Mayer and Peter Salovey published the first formal definitions of EI (Salovey & Mayer, 1990; Mayer & Salovey, 1997). Mayer and Salovey introduced the first EI ability scale based on their four-branch model to measure EI (Mayer & Salovey, 1997). The development of a formal theory of EI provided the starting point for the study of EI (Salovey & Mayer, 1990).

From 1995 to 1996, EI was popularized in a bestselling book by Daniel Goleman (1995). Goleman (1998) defined the theory of EI as the emotional and social competencies in which EI drives outstanding performance within the workplace and claimed that EI could possibly be the best predictor of success in life. Goleman went beyond Mayer and Salovey's definition of EI and included competencies such as achievement orientation, teamwork, and organizational awareness (Daus & Ashkanasy, 2005).

In 1997, Bar-On (2007b) described EI as interrelated emotional and social competencies and skills that impact intelligent behavior and includes subscales such as assertiveness, stress tolerance, and flexibility. Bar-On developed an EI model in 1997 that contains five subscales: (1) intrapersonal; (2) interpersonal; (3) stress management; (4) adaptability; and (5) general mood (Bar-On, 2007c). Ciarrochi et al. (2006) stated, “…Bar-On described the general mood factor as a facilitation of EI rather than a part of it” (p. 40).

Based on the history of intelligence, scholars measured intelligence to a single number and named it intelligence quotient (Christensen, Horn, & Johnson, 2008). Research from academic psychologists indicates that intelligence is much broader than this (Christensen et al., 2008; Gardner, 2008). There is now a proliferation of definitions and models of intelligence. Many researchers have proposed different types of intelligence and among them is EI (Salovey & Mayer, 1990). The appeal of EI is that it offers a different perspective of what it means to be intelligent (Bienn & Caruso, 2004).

The Encyclopedia of Applied Psychology stated there are three major models of EI: the Mayer-Salovery-Caruso EI Test (MSCEIT), Goleman, and Bar-On behavior (Bar-On, 2007b) models. The MSCEIT model defines EI as the ability to perceive emotions, use emotions to facilitate thought, understand emotions, and manage emotions (Bar-On, 2007b). The Goleman model views EI as emotional and social competencies that contribute to workplace performance (Bar-On, 2007b). The Bar-On model describes EI as interrelated emotional and social competencies and skills that impact intelligent behavior (Bar-On, 2007b).

This study used the Mayer Salovey Caruso Test (MSCEIT) (1999), which is designed to measure a person's discrete EI abilities (perceive/identify emotions, use emotions to facilitate thought, understand emotions, and manage emotions). The ability scales measure something directly, which has a correct answer (Mayer, Salovey, & Caruso, 2002). The Goleman, Boyatzis, and Hay Group Emotional Competency Inventory (ECI) and Emotional and Social Competency Inventory model, and the Bar-On Emotional Quotient Inventory (EQ-i) are self-report tests and measure self-concept and can be influenced by response bias. Therefore, the ECI and EQ-i were not used in this study.

Why is EI Important?

Organizational leaders who excel with the use of emotional intelligence may be more capable of responding to risk or opportunities. With annual spending on organizational change initiatives in the billions and expecting to grow, it is difficult to overlook the increasing demand for achieving and sustaining success, which creates a growing importance for developing effective leadership competencies.

Most organizations seem to appreciate that EI has some relationship to performance, but the understanding of how, where, and why is unclear. The concepts and tools of EI are used in organizations, but the validity and application remain major concerns. There is much confusion on what exactly EI is and how it can be accurately measured. The concept of EI remains unclear. This lack of clarity is reflected in contemporary business, where human resource professionals feel incompetent on the subject, despite claims of massive applicability in organizations.

When leading and managing a project, project teams will encounter problems, which will need to be resolved. A few issues that can fuel confrontation within projects include constrained budgets, scope creep, personality clashes, and organizational politics (Hollingsworth, 2010). Resolving these types of conflict requires a project manager with EI to directly confront the issues involved (Mersino, 2007). Clark (2010) stated, “…emotional intelligence and empathy are likely to be key strengths in helping project managers to successfully manage conflict” (p. 6).

Solving problems, throughout a project, requires decision making. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (Project Management Institute, 2008) identifies decision making as an interpersonal skill to resolve problems among stakeholders. From a project management perspective, a key challenge is how to make the right decisions when there is a high degree of uncertainty and make correct judgments to prevent cost overruns and schedule delays (Johansson, Hicks, Larson, & Bertori, 2011).

Emotional intelligence is the latest development in understanding the relation between reason and emotion, which can aid in effective decision making (Ciarrochi et al., 2006). Emotions assist people in thinking and decision making (Caruso & Salovey, 2004). Emotions play a key role in good decision making within an organization (Bienn & Caruso, 2004). Individuals differ in their ability to use their own emotions to solve problems (Salovey & Mayer, 1990). Psychologists acknowledge that EI theories recognize the important four basic components of perceive, understand, use, and manage emotions (Bienn & Caruso, 2004). Bienn and Caruso stated, “These are key EI leverage areas — the aspects of decision making and strategic thinking that conventional IQ can readily exclude” (p. 5).

EI Self-assessment (Audience Survey)

An EI self-assessment will be presented to the participants of the Understanding Emotional Intelligence for Project Management Practitioners session. The self-assessment contains three questions in each EI ability: identifying emotions, using emotions, understanding emotions, and managing emotions. Participants will self-rate for each EI ability. The EI self-assessment provides the participants information to become more aware of their emotional intelligence skills. Participants will use their EI self-assessment to identify one EI ability to improve.

Overview of the Ability-based Model of Emotional Intelligence

Based on their work in the psychology of emotions, personality theory, and mental abilities, Mayer, Salovey, and Caruso (2004) sought to develop a new, distinct type of intelligence. They consider their MSCEIT model to be a mental ability (an information-processing approach), and the measures based on the MSCEIT tend to correlate more highly with cognitive ability tests than with personality tests (Van Rooy & Viswesvaran, 2004).

In 1997, Mayer and Salovey developed the Four-Branch Model of EI, which included (a) branch 1 – perceiving emotions, (b) branch 2 – facilitating thought, (c) branch 3 – understanding emotions, and (d) branch 4 – managing emotions (Mayer et al., 2002). In 1996, due to David Caruso's experience in assessment instruments, he participated with Mayer and Salovey to construct the Multibranch Emotional Intelligence Scale (MEIS) for empirical testing (Mayer et al., 2002). The MEIS performed well, but consisted of 402 items and was too long for administration (Mayer et al., 2002). Therefore, the Mayer Salovey Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT) was developed and consists of 141 items (Mayer et al., 2002). The MSCEIT was designed to attain one overall EI score, two area scores, four branch (abilities) scores, including (a) perceiving emotions, (b) using emotions to facilitate thought, (c) understanding emotions, and (d) managing emotions, and eight task scores (Mayer et al., 2002).

The MSCEIT is an ability-based test that measures problem solving with and about emotions, rather than asking people to assess their own emotions (Mayer et al., 2002; Mayer, Salovey, Caruso, & Sitarenios, 2004). The MSCEIT asks test takers to (a) identify the emotions expressed by a face or in designs, (b) generate a mood and solve problems with that mood, (c) define the causes of different emotions and understand the progression of emotions, and (d) determine how best to include emotion in our thinking in situations that involve ourselves or other people (EI Skills Group, 2011).

The validity and reliability of a researcher's instrument directly impact the learning value gained about the specific phenomenon the researcher is attempting to study (Leedy & Ormrod, 2005). The MSCEIT has a full-scale reliability of 0.91 (Mayer et al., 2002). With fifteen years of research, the MSCEIT has been proven statistically stable, reliable, and valid (Mayer et al., 2002). Instrument reliability is measured most often by the consistency of the results obtained through repeated application of the same instrument (Creswell, 2009). The authors of the MSCEIT repeated measurements of the instrument across a variety of samples (Mayer et al., 2002). They found that the test-retest reliability of the total MSCEIT was sufficient with a score of 0.86 (Mayer et al., 2002).

The MSCEIT is an ability-based test designed to measure four EI abilities by evaluating actual performance on a range of tasks. An ability-based test measures something that has a correct or wrong answer (Mayer et al., 2002).

The researcher selected the MSCEIT for two reasons: (1) because it measures a person's emotional intelligence, including the four abilities, and (2), it is an ability-based test that removes the subjective and bias opinions of the participant. Thus, the MSCEIT provided a measure of the levels of practitioners' EI abilities.

Identifying (Perceiving) Emotions

Identifying emotions is the ability of being aware of emotional signals, accurately identifying what they mean, and then applying them to a given situation (Caruso & Salovey, 2004). When identifying emotions, people should ask the question “Did you see it?” The perception of emotion starts with being aware of emotional cues, and then, accurately identifying what the cues mean. Identifying emotions involves paying attention to and being aware of our own and others' emotions.

The better the emotional read you have on a situation, the more appropriately you can respond to it. It is difficult to recover from faulty emotional data. Basing actions on incorrect information is a recipe for disaster. People need to be aware of their own and others' feelings and emotions in order to have accurate data and information about the world around them. Being aware of others' emotions is critical to building a successful workplace environment and quality personal relationships.

Using Emotions

Using emotions is the ability to use or generate emotions to know which moods are best for different situations, and getting in the right mood (Caruso & Salovey, 2004). When using emotions, people should ask the question “How do you feel about that?” How we feel influences how we think. This ability allows people to employ their feelings to enhance thinking for more effective problem-solving, reasoning, decision making, and creative endeavors. If a person is sad, he or she may view the world in one way; whereas, if he or she is feeling happy, he or she will interpret the same events differently.

This mood-generating ability plays a role in empathy — feeling what other people feel. Feeling for other people or having emotional empathy may be based in part on our ability to generate the same feeling that another person is experiencing. When we experience what others feel, it changes our viewpoint to the perspectives of others.

People who are good at using emotions to facilitate thinking can be better at motivating others. Feeling for others, establishing rapport, and building trust are tasks with which every leader is confronted. Leaders who lead through words as well as emotions draw on qualities of the heart and the head. This is the essence of leadership.

Understanding Emotions

The ability of understanding emotions involves the capacity to analyze emotions, their causes, and to predict how people will feel and react in different situations (Caruso & Salovey, 2004). When understanding emotions, people should ask the question “What do you think about that?” Emotions contain data. Our ability to understand this information and think about it plays an important role in our day to day life. The first step in understanding emotions includes knowledge of the simple and complex emotional terms and their meanings. Also critical in understanding emotions are the ways in which emotions can: (a) combine (anger and disgust for contempt), (b) progress (annoyance to anger to rage), and (c) transition to one another (trust and anger).

Understanding ourselves and others requires emotional knowledge. There is a vocabulary of emotions that needs to be understood in order to engage in sophisticated reasoning about emotions. How many emotion words do we need? There exist a wide variety of emotion words. Emotion researchers have documented 346 words that convey a negative emotion, whereas there are only 212 words that express a positive emotion.

Managing Emotions

The managing of emotion is the ability: (a) to regulate moods and emotions in oneself and in other people and (b) to integrate reasoning and emotional information to make strategic decisions (Caruso & Salovey, 2004). When managing emotions, people should ask the question, “What are you going to do?” This ability means that people integrate emotions into their decision-making process to influence their behavior and outcomes.

Managing emotions effectively means people feel their feelings, and then use them in a judicious way, rather than acting on them impulsively. To manage emotions in self and others, a person must be able to monitor, discriminate, and accurately label the feelings of everyone involved. If emotions contain information, then ignoring this information may result in making a poor decision.

Managing emotions is the ability to improve or otherwise modify feelings. At times, people need to stay open to their feelings, learn from them, and use them to take appropriate action. Other times, it is better to disengage from an emotion and return to it later.

If people can manage their emotions, blend emotion and logic, they increase the changes that their decisions will be more effective. Choosing the best strategy to manage one's emotions and help other people manage their emotional state is crucial to one's mental health and to building healthy relationships.

Overview of the Research Study

The primary goal of the research was to examine the four abilities of EI, based on the MSCEIT, of project management practitioners and determine which of the four EI abilities are the most important to the practitioner. These emotional intelligence (EI) abilities include (a) perceiving emotions, (b) using emotions to facilitate thought, (c) understanding emotions, and (d) managing emotions (Mayer et al., 2004). The four EI abilities can aid in leadership, motivation, conflict management, and problem solving. Additionally, this research provides discussion on the connection between the emotional intelligence and effective leadership competencies of those who manage projects. Based on a four-year research study, the authors have contributed to existing EI theory, EI model development, and the training and development of organizational leaders who seek to improve their interpersonal skills to successfully manage organizational change initiatives.

Research Design

This study was descriptive and used a quantitative research approach. “Descriptive research examines a situation as it is. It does not involve changing or modifying the situation under investigation, nor is it intended to determine cause-and-effect relationship” (Leedy & Ormrod, 2005, p. 179). Descriptive research observes the phenomenon of the EI levels of abilities of practitioners and observes which EI ability is the most important to the practitioner.

The quantitative research approach included two surveys. An online QuestionPro questionnaire and the online MSCEIT were used for data collection. A sequential data collection procedure was used by first administering the QuestionPro questionnaire and then immediately administering the online MSCEIT. Each respondent logged into QuestionPro and answered the questionnaire and then received instructions to complete the MSCEIT assessment. The quantitative surveys provided statistical evidence of the current levels of practitioners' EI abilities and determined which EI ability is the most important to practitioners.

This descriptive study used a purposive sampling of 230 project management practitioners obtained from Enterprise Consulting (www.ecitpm.com), an Indiana, USA-based consulting and training organization. Purposive sampling was used to ensure that only project practitioners participate in the study. The participants consisted of individuals who are involved in project management and who have taken project management training from Enterprise Consulting from September 2010 through January 2012. The participants' knowledge and experience in project management were relevant to the study; therefore, the population from the Enterprise Consulting database was a strategic decision.

The participants included in the study were people who had not had any type of emotional intelligence training. Therefore, the 230 participants were asked if they had any type of emotional intelligence training. The participants who had emotional intelligence training were not included in the study. Eliminating participants who had received emotional intelligence training reduced contamination of the study; eight of the 230 participants had over 7 hours of emotional intelligence training and were not included in the study. Additionally, eight of the participants returned a non-deliverable message indicating that the email address was no longer valid. Therefore, the total number of participants who were valid, to participate in the study, was 214 (230–16). Data collection began on 11 June 2012, and ended on 29 June 2012. Eighty-six participants completed the MSCEIT, providing a response rate of 40.19% (86/214).

Research Findings

The sample (n = 86) is composed of 41 females (47.7%) and 45 males (52.3%). All statistical data analyses were conducted using SPSS, Version 20. For each variable, statistics for the number of valid observations, minimum and maximum scores, the mean, standard error, standard deviation, and the upper and lower bounds for the 95% confidence interval were calculated (Exhibit 2).

Descriptive Statistics for EI Levels of Abilities

Exhibit 2 – Descriptive Statistics for EI Levels of Abilities

Results obtained from this sample were largely consistent with the MSCEIT norms. Mean scores for the sample ranged from 97.89 to 103.86 (Exhibit 2). The Normative population mean of 100 was contained within the confidence interval for all scales, except Understanding Emotions, which had a lower bound of 101.00 (Exhibit 3).

The conclusion based on this sample is that project management practitioners are very close to the general population averages in their level of Emotional Intelligence as measured by the MSCEIT and slightly better than average on Understanding Emotions.

The highest EI Ability was calculated for each respondent. This variable was the highest of the four MSCEIT scores for that individual. Managing Emotions was most often the highest EI ability; it was the highest score for nearly half (48.8%) of the respondents. This was followed by Understanding Emotions (23.3%), Using Emotions (16.3%) and Perceiving Emotions (11.6%) (Exhibit 4).

Confidence Intervals for MSCEIT Scales

Exhibit 3 – Confidence Intervals for MSCEIT Scales

Highest EI Ability

Exhibit 4 – Highest EI Ability

The most important EI Ability was calculated for each respondent. Understanding Emotions was most frequently identified as the most important EI ability (38.8%), followed by Managing Emotions (32.9%), Perceiving Emotions (21.2%) and Using Emotions (7.1%). One participant failed to answer this question (Exhibit 5).

Most Important EI Ability

Exhibit 5 – Most Important EI Ability

The study found that the highest EI ability, managing emotions, which was the highest score for nearly half (48.8%) of the respondents, was different than the most frequently identified as the most important EI ability (38.8%), which was understanding emotions. Additionally, a grouped t-test was conducted for each of the four MSCEIT scales and the total MSCEIT score. For every scale, females scored higher than males. This difference was statistically significant for three of the five scales, including using emotions, managing emotions, and the total MSCEIT score. The MSCEIT scale scores were compared with EI score ranges (Exhibit 6). This comparison provided insight to the problem statement of this study and shows whether the respondents' results indicate if skill development is needed.

Percentage of Respondents in Each MSCEIT Skill Category

Exhibit 6 – Percentage of Respondents in Each MSCEIT Skill Category

The great news about emotional intelligence is that it can be improved. Respondents scoring in the improve, consider development, and competent categories have the opportunity to improve their emotional abilities, which will enhance their interpersonal skills (human skills).

For the perceiving ability, if improvement is needed, participants may be unsure of how stakeholders feel, or they may miss nonverbal cues (such as facial expressions), or they may resist responding to overly negative or positive emotions in people (Caruso & Salovey, 2004). For example, a team member may display a facial expression of surprise regarding his or her project responsibilities and the project manager misses the facial expression because he or she is reviewing a project report; therefore, the concerns of the team member are not addressed. Participants desiring to improve how they perceive emotions should begin to monitor their awareness of emotions of themselves and stakeholders. When a person becomes aware of his or her emotions and the emotions of others, he or she can recognize emotions and begin to communicate openly and develop relationships.

For the using ability, if improvement is needed, participants may sometimes feel what other people feel, but may lack flexibility and may block out certain feelings (Caruso & Salovey, 2004). For example, if a team member is feeling angry about meeting a demanding schedule, the project manager may ignore or block out the anger emotion because he or she knows the team must meet the schedule dates. Participants desiring to improve how they use emotions should assess whether they can motivate themselves and others and consider paying attention to others. At times he or she may feel uncomfortable with addressing and feeling what other people feel, but should make a concentrated effort to feel emotions of self and others. Using emotions employs his or her feelings to enhance cognitive system (thinking) and can be used for more effective problem-solving and decision making.

For the understanding ability, if improvement is needed, participants may not be able to find the right words to describe how they feel, may be surprised by others' reactions, and may not value emotions (Caruso & Salovey, 2004). For example, when a team lead is disgusted with a team member, as the project manager, one is surprised at the team lead's reaction because he or she expects the team lead to deal with the team member. Participants desiring to improve how they understand emotions should develop knowledge of emotional vocabulary to better describe how they feel and understand what causes emotions and how they can change. Understanding the emotions of team members will enhance the project manager's ability to sense how they are feeling about the project and therefore provide team building to provide a common sense of purpose.

For the managing ability, if improvement is needed, participants may be too logical at times and do not trust their feelings, may not consider underlying emotion-based causes, or may close themselves off to certain feelings (such as anger) (Caruso & Salovey, 2004). For example, a project manager may make a decision based on logic from data and not consider the feelings (anger) of the subject matter expert. Participants desiring to improve how they manage emotions should develop how they integrate reasoning and emotional information to make strategic decisions. Project managers with a strong ability to recognize how others are feeling are skilled in managing emotions and are able to help others regulate their moods.

Improving EI abilities allows practitioners to recognize the connection between emotional intelligence and effective leadership competencies. Leadership competencies include interpersonal skills of leadership (being able to meet the project objectives), team building (bonding team members toward a common sense of purpose), motivation (creating a project environment to meet the objectives), communication (developing open communications and trust between team members), and decision making (effectively problem solving and making optimal decisions).


This paper presented an overview and the findings of a four-year research effort. Additionally, the topics of skills and competencies, an overview of emotional intelligence, the EI self-assessment, and an overview of the MSCEIT ability-based model were discussed. Leban (2003) posited, “…26.5% of variation in actual project performance is attributable to project manager overall emotional intelligence” (p. 184). Therefore, overall EI ability can be used as a predictor of performance when selecting a project manager. Further research is needed on emotional intelligence and project management, particularly identifying the connection between EI and effective leadership competencies.


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© 2012, Diana S. Burgan and Stephen C. Burgan
Originally published as part of the 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Vancouver, BC, Canada



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