Is emotional intelligence really a thing?

According to the gents who coined the term in 1990, emotional intelligence is:

“A form 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 action.”

– Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer

As I spend part of my time each week under fluoro lights, my last-month reading of Clementine Ford’s recent release raised to mind a business-related niggle that revisits me every so often: is the concept of emotional intelligence real or imagined? Or is it an invention to justify certain management and leadership styles?

My first experience of emotional intelligence theory was through Dan Goleman’s eponymous book, which heralded a mega training industry. I still recall the buzz back in the day, the push for everyone in the office to do this training and find their personal emotional quotient (or EQ). My experience of the training was that it told you how you should feel about certain issues, along with a process for dealing with other people, rather than owning your own emotions and truly feeling for others.

Maybe I just didn’t have a very good facilitator.

But is it necessary to quiet our emotions to demonstrate that we have control of them? I don’t think so. Clementine’s enraged and rational approach to the last chapters of Fight Like a Girl demonstrates that.

For me, a key question around emotional intelligence is: are we talking about real emotions, or are we just coating the abilities to charm and manipulate in a different skin? I can’t help but lean towards the latter.

To have balanced emotions, you have to feel them in the first place. Then, after feeling emotions, you express them. It’s what humans do. A calm and controlled exterior can act as a mask, indicating suppression or absence of emotion in the first place. Authentic expression allows us to connect with others, which satisfies one of our greatest needs: affiliation. Isolation can literally kill you.

Being able to feel, we should be able to extend this to others, to show empathy. People and tools all around us help build our empathy — like spending time with family and friends, challenging beliefs, considering others’ perspectives, watching documentaries, and reading literature. Empathy takes humility, compassion, openness, and imagination.

If you don’t feel, or are able to override your emotions, your capacity for empathy is limited to rote-learned reactions, charm, and manipulation. And there is a word for that: psychopathy (but apparently even psychopaths can choose empathy).

Although they make up only 1% of the general population, psychopaths have an unusually high representation (3-4%) in corporate management positions, roles that should arguably exhibit the highest EQs. Shockingly, 21% of the senior leaders in a 2016 study were shown to be psychopaths* [link to study outcomes here], comparable to the rate of psychopathy found amongst prison inmates.

Does our society reward psychopathic behaviour? Is psychopathy more prevalent amongst high achievers? Does the non-feeling/risk-taking/charming/manipulative nature of psychopaths make them more ideal leaders?

More than that, has our acceptance and naturalised understanding of emotional intelligence become psychopathised — or have we, perhaps, legitimised psychopathy in the corporate world by embracing emotional intelligence theory?

While I don’t have the answers to these questions, I do feel ripples of the formulaic treatment of emotions in our everyday lives. We are fed repetitive news, predictable movies, weather- and sports-based conversations, and processed foods in a culture where we routinely numb our feelings with alcohol and other drugs. We do an incredible amount to not feel, to remove ourselves from feeling strongly (because isn’t that, like, a bit extreme?) and to suppress or ignore those who do.

So I have to wonder: is real, live emotion dying? Is this why achievement-oriented psychopaths are rewarded in society? And could the reason riven lives are depicted in so many works of literary fiction be because they offer a vicarious experience, a kind of haven, for those of us who simply must feel? Because it seems to me that polite society can not tolerate (admissions of) deep and unpretty feelings — at least not until we have broken through them.

What do you think?


*It would be interesting to see just how many CEOs demonstrate Machiavellianism (selfish pursuit of interests for personal gain), as 2015 research associated this “dark” trait with leadership position and career satisfaction.


[Feature image by Brandon Nickerson from Pexels.]

3 Replies to “Is emotional intelligence really a thing?”

  1. Here’s what I know. I teach EI to managers as a tool to assist their workers and themselves. To support and mentor in a manner that leaves the worker happy, comfortable and empowering. Creating a more valued and successful team. Sounds like your lecturer doesn’t quite understand the concept of managing and assisting all workers in operating successfully in supporting each other’s emotional intelligence. I could go on forever xxxx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading and responding, Rae.

      I am sure there are people who benefit from EI training, and that their learnings benefit others. But I wonder if EI training and literature enables others still to learn EI language and behaviours for malevolent influence…

      Maybe EI is a corporate superpower — one that can be used as a power for good, or as a power for evil.

      Liked by 1 person

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