A whole field of study and training has sprung up around the concept of emotional intelligence (EI) since it started becoming popular 20 years ago. However, debate continues, with recently renewed vigour, as to whether EI is a management enabler or disabler.
In case you’ve somehow missed the buzz, EI is defined as the ability to monitor and discriminate between your own and other people’s emotions, and use that awareness in guiding your thinking and behaviour. One expert sums it up as “the ability to recognise, understand and manage emotions”. Short courses, costing from a few hundred to thousands of dollars, train managers and workers to tap into their emotional knowledge to enhance reasoning, teamwork, management and decision-making.
While coaches all over the world are paid big dollars to help business leaders nurture their EI quotient (EQ), there are credible commentators who say organisations shouldn’t put too much stock in EI. Some even see it as having a sinister dark side.
“New evidence shows that when people hone their emotional skills, they become better at manipulating others,” says Adam Grant, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school. “When you’re good at controlling your emotions, you can disguise your true feelings. When you know what others are feeling, you can tug at their heartstrings and motivate them to act against their own best interests.”
At best, says Grant, EI is “a set of skills that can be beneficial in situations where emotional information is rich or vital”. At worst, unbridled enthusiasm for it could damage organisations that make the mistake of basing hiring or promotion decisions on it. Left unchecked, such enthusiasm can manifest in “Machiavellian” employees protecting their back, said Grant in ‘The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence’, an article he wrote for The Atlantic magazine’s January 2014 issue.
Real world application
In the other corner, there’s Daniel Goleman, the person responsible for popularising EI through his 1995 bestseller Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. Goleman says Grant’s arguments miss the mark by being overly academic rather than focusing on the real “rubber-hits-the-road world of the workplace”.
Anyone whose daily job makes them think about great performance will tell you EI matters, he writes.
“EI is not just one single ability that we are good at or not – we can have strengths in one part of EI – like excellent self-management, the key to self-discipline, achieving goals, and “grit” – while lacking in other parts, such as empathy or social skills. In fact that very pattern is common in the workplace, marking those who are outstanding individual performers (at programming, say) but who are not able to work well as part of a team or as a leader,” says Goleman.
While there are plenty of EI courses available, there is disagreement about whether it can really be taught.
Schools are increasingly adopting EI training to encourage children to talk about their emotions and recognise the feelings of others. The Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence has developed a program for schools called RULER (an acronym for Recognising emotions, Understanding the causes, Labelling emotions accurately, Expressing appropriately and Regulating emotions effectively).
The Yale centre’s director, Marc Brackett, says the centre’s overall goal is to create a more healthy, effective and compassionate world. “We believe that everyone, from preschoolers to CEOs, should learn about EI so they can thrive personally and professionally throughout their lives,” he says.
Menges says that, while he’s waiting to see the long-term evidence, entrenching such programs in schools could well help turn out adults with higher EI because they are exposed to the approach over a long period of time.
“It’s probable that EI can’t be taught within a weekend, or even within a year of an MBA program. It takes extended effort,” he says. “We should caution those who think that, as managers, they can attend a seminar and improve their skills as emotion managers.”
This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the March 2015 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘Get along or get ahead’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here.
AHRI’s Ignition Training has a course on emotionally intelligent leadership. Find out more.