An emotional view of the smart brain

Abstract: Emotional Intelligence – the key to a healthy business, or a ‘pop psychology’ fad?…

Dig around in the field of human resource management and training, and sooner or later you’ll come across the terms emotional intelligence or ‘EQ’. Claims presented by devotees of emotional intelligence (EI), especially in the business environment, are wide and encompassing: it can predict job performance, improve job performance, develop happier workers, produce better leaders, drive entrepreneurship, possibly even help companies beat the recession. Briefly: it holds the key to success in business.

That may be well in theory; but in the results-driven reality of business, investing in EI is dogged by uncertainty: what exactly is EI? And what is EQ? Is it truly a ‘new’ powerful HR tool, or is it just another pop psychology toy?

“Within psychology”, according to Dr Despina Learmonth, a lecturer in Health Psychology at the University of Cape Town, “EI has developed a character of its own, but, as a term, it’s almost always more within pop psychology than anything else”.

The US-based Institute for Health and Human Potential, describes emotional intelligence as an ability or capacity to perceive, assess, and manage the emotions of one’s self, and of others. A person’s EQ, or emotional quotient, is simply a measurement of that emotional intelligence.

That may sound like a clear, straightforward explanation, but the reality is far from it. Richard Boyatzis, a professor at Case Western Reserve University, a private research university in Cleveland, Ohio, is co-author of the bestselling book ‘Primal Leadership’, and has been studying emotional intelligence since 1970. He is strangely candid in his assessment of it, “Emotional intelligence is a field of study characterized by contradicting claims, models, and methods.”

Indeed there are many different tests supposedly designed to provide a measure of EQ but they invariably rely on self-report surveys, which are notorious for their susceptibility to social desirability bias. According to Professor Stewart I. Donaldson, a psychologist at Claremont State University in California, and a specialist in optimal human and organizational functioning, in general, self-report participants such as those involved in emotional intelligence measurement, “want to respond in a way that makes them look as good as possible; thus, they tend to under-report behaviours deemed inappropriate by researchers or other observers, and they tend to over-report behaviours viewed as appropriate”.

As an area of study in psychology, emotional intelligence it is difficult to pin it down into any single sub-discipline. According to Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Associate Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, and a specialist in personality and intelligence, emotional intelligence seems to pop up everywhere, “Occupational psychologists are interested in it because higher EQ is beneficial for working in teams, under pressure, and selling stuff to others; clinical psychologists care about it because lower EQ predicts the propensity to suffer from anxiety disorders and depression; and positive psychology cares about it because EQ correlates very highly with happiness”.

But it’s in the area of business, specifically human resources, that interest in emotional intelligence seems to have taken root; and that worries Dr Learmonth; “HR is one of the most expensive resources, and also one of the most powerful resources, yet one of the most complicated resources to manage”.

This seems to have provided a rallying cry for organisations offering HR solutions through emotional intelligence. Six Seconds is such an organisation. Jayne Morrison, regional director of Six Seconds’ Middle East and Africa EQ network, was in Durban recently to present their five-day emotional intelligence accreditation course, the first time in South Africa. The workshop claims to build capacity for transformation through emotional intelligence to enable clients and employees to increase personal, team and organisational performance, maximising the potential of human capital and developing core competence.

Jayne Morrison claims that more and more companies are turning to EQ to help them teach their managers and employees how to use these inner resources to make better business decisions and create a more open, trusting and creative work environment.

But how can emotional intelligence be the key to a more effective business environment? Morrison points to three primary emotional inhibitors most prevalent in a traditional, yet modern, working environment: lack of self-awareness amongst business leaders, and two ancient but enduring business philosophies: “emotions have no place at work”, and “emotions are a sign of weakness”.

Prof. Chamorro-Premuzic agrees, “If you teach people to control their impulses, manager their anger, cope with pressure, and be more considerate and empathic in their relationships with colleagues, bosses, and subordinates, they will be more successful in their careers.”

So surely a little training in emotional intelligence should unlock the hidden wealth within the human resources of any business organization? Prof. Chamorro-Premuzic smiles with that “there’s the catch” look in his eye, “It is not easy to develop people’s EQ, but you can make significant improvements if you pay attention to how your behaviour impacts on others”.

But that doesn’t stop organisations such as Six Seconds and the Institute for Health and Human Potential from offering consulting services to companies to build teamwork and leadership, all through developing EQ. More importantly, they also offer short training courses to accredit others to do the same.

It’s an area of concern for Dr Learmonth; after all, if you’re going to mess with people’s emotions, you had better be suitably qualified in the discipline of mental health. “The emotional intelligence development industry is very poorly standardised. Coaches can often set themselves up after doing a weekend’s course. There is no basic standard against which it is measured nationally, or internationally”.

Furthermore, whether or not so-called emotional intelligence trainers will develop their own business will depend on building a rapport in their training. People who do well in the emotional intelligence development industry will do so “because they’re brilliant sales people, whether or not they have the skills to do it”.

Dr Learmonth admits she’s biased, but says that working in the field of human behaviour and emotions is best left to qualified professionals, such as psychologists or similar mental health professionals; and that she hopes that anyone claiming to offer services to develop someone’s emotional intelligence has at least been through a coaching course recognized by the Health Professions Council of South Africa or similar overseas body such as the British Psychological Society, which registers all psychologists in the UK.

Dr Learmonth doesn’t deny the necessity for the understanding and management of emotions in the business environment; the question is however: are the people managing and manipulating the emotions of people in the business environment properly qualified to do so?

Unfortunately, she says, unless the emotional intelligence industry is properly regulated, it risks being just another fad in pop psychology, the bloated well of self-help philosophies.

Originally published on 13 June 2012 in Business Day Health News