FYI: Emotional intelligence is not arse licking…

So, anyone who’s spent any time working for a large organisation will have come across the “latest management fad” – the supposed panacea that will make everything better. From Myers-Briggs* to Hartman’s Colour Codes^ management fads run the full gamut of pseudoscientific nonsense, wasting time and money by forcing people to go on pointless training programs that make no difference whatsoever.

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Wow, did that sound bitter?

Well, maybe, but only because I’m a big fan of science done right. Selling snake oil to make people feel better about themselves is the complete opposite of scientific practice, and goes against everything I stand for in my profession. So the emotional intelligence fad also gets me a tad warm under the collar. Especially when it’s really easy for management to confuse real emotional intelligence (assuming there is such a thing) with arse licking.

Let’s start with what emotional intelligence (EI) is supposed to be. EI is a sort of emotional equivalent of a theory of mind, that is, the ability to recognise our own and others’ emotions, to be able to distinguish between different emotional states, and to use this information to guide thinking (as opposed to having thinking guided by emotions – read here). Supposedly, those with a high ‘EQ’ (the so-called emotional quotient) are good at understanding emotional states in themselves and others. EI encompasses empathy (the ability to feel another person’s feelings from their perspective), but also an understanding of what the emotion might mean, and therefore what behaviour might be appropriate in that context. Thus, those with high levels of EI are better able, according to Salovey and Mayer (the progenitors of EI)  to “navigate the social environment”. I should point out at this stage that there is a lot of criticism over the validity of the EI construct, including issues with its theoretical foundation and its measurement. If you’re feeling it, you can read a good summary of the various criticisms of both the concept and its measurement here.

So, individuals with high EI are supposedly better able at, for example, telling whether someone is pissed off, and moderating his or her behaviour to compensate. Likewise, he or she would be better able than the average person to tell if you or I were sad, and to (potentially) offer support. That’s relatively handy – it makes social interactions smoother, allows for more empathic behaviour (again potentially) and, in the workplace, having a good level of EI would probably help avoid conflict or miscommunication, and could be considered a good leadership trait. That said, EI is not Jesus juice – high EI levels don’t mean that a person will be super-compassionate, a brilliant leader, or even particularly likable. Because all of those things also require other abilities, like genuine intelligence, the ability to think strategically, and the desire to act in a way that takes other people’s interests into account. Let me be clear: measuring EI and sending people on unvalidated EI booster courses is at best a waste of time, and at worst an exercise in managerial self-delusion.

Why self-delusion? Because people with sociopathic tendencies (read about sociopathy here) are very good at simulating emotional intelligence. Yup, from the top down, it’s very easy to confuse genuine EI (again, assuming such a thing is a meaningful, measurable construct) with arse licking. Those with sociopathic tendencies (a construct with a fair bit more scientific validity than EI) are particularly good at several things. First, they are good at making their superiors think that they are more competent than they are, through a combination of charm and manipulation. Second, they tend to treat those below them with contempt, and are good at using the achievements of others to boost their own career (especially claiming the good work of others for themselves and making sure that their superiors agree). Last, they are extremely good at reading the emotional states of others in order to manipulate them but, unlike those with supposed high EI, this is done without any empathy – so sociopaths can tell you’re upset (and use this information to manipulate you) but not feel your pain. So, from a managerial perspective, it’s very easy to see a rising sociopath as someone who is extremely empathic, high in EI, and the sort of person that should be emulated. Of course, from below, everyone else can tell that that person is sociopathic, but that’s not going to matter come promotion time (unless the organisation invests heavily in proper 360-degree feedback).

Like any other fad, EI in business has the potential to be a time-wasting nonsense pile that just distracts people (and, more importantly, management) from real organisational issues. I’ve talked about confusing Type I and Type II thinking before (read here) but, basically, it’s common for organisations to confuse doing something (or anything) with doing something meaningful (which requires deep thought, thorough understanding of a complex issue, and relevant, sustained action to address the problem). Hence the managerial proclivity for the belief in magic beans, and the dangerous outcomes these beans can provide (like encouraging a culture where arse-licking is rewarded because, from above, it looks a lot like emotional intelligence).

How then, can organisations do something worthwhile, something that lasts, something that makes a genuine difference to the wellbeing of its employees whilst also improving productivity? How can they reduce confusion between a real effect and made up bullshit? Well, a great start is to make sure that the people making the decisions about these sorts of things actually know what they’re talking about (and aren’t, themselves, sociopaths). It’s not enough to base change on personal experience or other types of anecdotal data, nor is it appropriate to cherry-pick the literature for supporting evidence to a feeling, be hoodwinked by the marketing department of a training company, or make yourself feel better by convincing yourself you’ve fixed a problem by sending people on a course. And when I say “know what they’re talking about” I mean both a depth and diversity of properly qualified people (including people capable of really understanding the science), addressing a complex problem, and committing to a reasonable course of action. Which, in turn, requires proper time be dedicated to the problem along with adequate resources. In other words, organisations can’t fix institutionalised bullying by having HR send people on EI training courses, and then claiming that the problem is fixed when sociopaths are promoted based on their exemplary EI test scores.

The idea behind emotional intelligence is pretty cool: that individuals who are better able to moderate their behaviour, based on an ability to understand their own feelings and to intuit another person’s emotional state, are better people (and, consequently, better employees). It’s a nice concept, and in the work I do as a psychologist, helping people to understand their own and others’ emotions better, is a reasonable part of what I do. That ability, however, isn’t the be all and end all. To make a difference, it needs to be paired with increased self-awareness, better acceptance of discomfort, increased attentional focus, and enhanced ability to take meaningful action in the presence of uncomfortable distractions. As such, a fixation on emotional intelligence as an organisational panacea just won’t help, and might end up doing a lot more harm than you think.

So, if you’re a manager, please remember that, no matter how good that tongueing might feel, it might not be what you think it is.


* Hopefully I won’t be sued by the manufacturers of this travesty – but seriously, it’s a bunch of unmitigated, unreliable, invalid crap. Would make good colourful toilet paper, if it didn’t end up scratching your arse…

^ Yes, that’s the one that codes you as a colour – that’s right, according to this steaming pile, you can reliably classify a quarter of the population into a colour and then predict his or her behaviour by the supposed characteristics of that colour. You can tell who’s been on one of these colour training workshops recently by such moronic utterances as “oh, I can see you’re a ‘Red’, I’m a ‘Blue'”…

2 Replies to “FYI: Emotional intelligence is not arse licking…”

  1. Dear E. Moose…you are to be congratulated – this is one of your best, and really should be published in a credible paper such as the Financial Times, or Economist! Well done!!!

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