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Is Emotional intelligence or Adaptability More Important for Physicians?

February 7, 2018

physician-emotional-intelligence-adaptability.jpgIn a January 29, 2018 Fast Times piece on the Future of Work, “Screw Emotional Intelligence -Here’s the Key to the Future of Work,” Natalie Fratto paints the picture of the year 2045 when the SAT is replaced as a college admissions test by a standardized test of aptitude and projected performance called the AEI. The AEI measures: Adaptability Quotient (AQ), Emotional Quotient (EQ), and Intellectual Quotient (IQ), and places the greatest weight on AQ.

She also includes the vision of high school students popping NeuroStim pills – prescription neuroplasticity stimulators that “accelerate [their] brain’s ability to create new synaptic pathways, helping [to] quickly learn new behaviors and spot new connections when exposed to rapidly changing stimuli.” That sounds pretty cool. As a fan of the Matrix movies, I’ve always said (only half joking) that there will be a day when these sorts of tools become a reality. Neo, when plugged into the Matrix via a port at the base of his skull, not only entered the matrix but could upload new information and skills. When will there be a day when our advancing knowledge of how the brain functions will allow us to use things like Fratto’s NeuroStim pills? (OK, enough of my sci-fi tangent – but seriously, do you really doubt that similar technologies will come to pass, eventually?!)

Emotional Intelligence vs. Adaptability

We’ve seen the emotional intelligence boom over the past few decades. It’s widely recognized that there is something beyond IQ that matters in performance no matter the role. We know it’s true in healthcare, too. Research continues to show that behavioral competencies like empathy, social and self-awareness, and communication (all sub-constructs of the concept of emotional intelligence) influence physician and nursing effectiveness. Clinical skills, technical skills, and knowledge will always be the baseline – but how these skills are applied and how professionals handle all of the components of their job that aren’t strictly determined by clinical and technical knowledge are the performance differentiators. Consider:

But Fratto proposes that adaptability, not EQ,- might be the primary predictor of success in the future. As technology evolves at an exponential rate, humans are forced to learn faster than at any time in our history. She says, “Behaviors we’ve honed for decades will become obsolete in a few short years.” As a result, our ability to adapt may become our most important attribute and most predictive of success or failure.

She postulates that AQ can be improved – that people have an innate level of adaptability (and we’ve all seen this), but that people can improve their ability to adapt and there will be a growing industry providing tools and strategies to boost AQ (including pharmaceuticals, training, games, and media).

Adaptability and One Group of Physicians

We’ve been testing adaptability in healthcare professionals for some time. Clients often identify it as critical to performance success. Our research shows a general correlation between adaptability as a personality attribute and on the job performance. When I shared the Fratto article on LinkedIn, the first comment in response was from the President of a 100-provider multi-specialty group who pointed out that adaptability as an attribute is not something that’s been emphasized or talked about historically among physicians – but it’s definitely an issue.

Well, we should start talking about it. One of our health system partners has a 400-provider group. They use a short, physician-specific behavioral assessment during the hiring process. The goal is to better understand the physician candidate’s strengths, weaknesses, and interests. This allows the group to focus the interview on potential challenge areas, and then to position the physician for success when they come on board.

We’ve tested 200 physicians at this point, and adaptability is NOT a strength. No surprise here. Physicians are not chosen for medical school and do not succeed in medical school because they are adaptable. They are chosen and succeed because they are intelligent, good students, and thrive in a rigorous, intellectually challenging, and structured environment. But once out as a practicing physician, they are faced with a steep technology adaption curve from EHR systems to robotic surgery and artificial intelligence-driven diagnostic tools along with rapidly changing:

  • Care delivery models

  • Policies and procedures

  • Roles and responsibilities of the care team and other professionals

  • Organizational dynamics

  • Expectations of what it means to be a successful physician or physician leader

As you can imagine, adaptability might be important to their success. This is a short assessment tool (because it’s used in the hiring process, it needs to be highly candidate friendly), but it yields consistent, valuable results. It measures Accountability, Adaptability, Drive, Collaboration, Valuing and Respecting Others, Service Orientation, and Leadership potential.

The two areas where the group scores highest? Collaboration and Valuing and Respecting Others (certainly, important traits).

Two of the areas where this group scores the lowest? Accountability and Adaptability. Physicians feel accountable to their patients. That is not what we are measuring. We are looking here at more work-style related attributes like feeling accountable to the organization. But more relevant to our discussion today, the group scores low in what we define as “adjusting behavior and attitudes to accommodate changing circumstances and continuing to function effectively during times of change” – Adaptability. If Fratto is correct (and I think she is), physicians as a group need to start thinking about adaptability. We may not be evaluating it on admission to medical school. We may not be talking about it during their training. But we are, most certainly, expecting it from them once they are part of their team.

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Bryan Warren Bryan Warren was the former Director of Healthcare Solutions at PSI. He was responsible for developing and promoting tools and services designed specifically for the unique challenges faced by healthcare organizations.