Emotional intelligence can either be used for good and bad.
Recently, I had the pleasure of reading “The Political Repression of Emotional Intelligence”, a long article by Merve Emre (author and professor), which appeared in The New Yorker.
It is always interesting for me to see reviews about emotional intelligence as a student. This helps me see the world through others’ eyes. This helps me to understand these ideas better and improve my communication skills.
Emre’s article primarily critiques the popular psychology book Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, a former columnist for The New York Times. Goleman’s 1995 bestseller, which has sold millions of copies, introduced the concept of emotional intelligence to the masses. It is the belief that an individual can recognize, understand, and manage their emotions.
Emre starts by saying that the bestseller helped transform a scientific theory into an effective business management tool. This argument is supported by a quick Google search, which reveals a large number of companies that offer emotional intelligence training, assessments, and toolkits for emotional intelligence development.
Emre is right to point out that these tools can be poorly designed and sometimes use people’s names or measure their worth as workers.
There are certain tools that are more effective than others for a particular task. It has taken years to perfect the tools that have been most useful, but they have not yet become perfect.
Emre misses something by not focusing on the bad apples and concentrating on the imperfections of the tools.
Many of these tools have the underlying goal of improving office behavior: to replace passive aggressiveness with honest and sincere discussions; to resolve conflicts in a way that doesn’t force feelings to surface again later; to help managers and teams learn how to create psychologically safe environments, and not workplaces where people fear going.
Employers who invest in emotional intelligence tools and discussion can signal to their employees that they want to improve.
Emre also asserts that Goleman’s view on emotional intelligence is lacking in nuance, that it lacks the historical and social details that can give it depth and complexity. This may be true. However, I believe it was intentional.
Goleman didn’t set out to make comments on social media. It was to explain how the brain processes emotions and how readers can prepare for daily challenges.
People have explored the nature of emotions over centuries. Goleman’s book provided a platform for deeper analysis. His book introduced (or at the very least popularized) new terms such as “emotional hijacking”. This refers to when emotions override rational thought and lead us to make mistakes that later prove costly.
He also used research to explain how this happens. He simplified complex neuroscience to make it understandable for everyone. He explained the role of amygdala (the small, almond-shaped brain part that activates when we feel threatened). The amygdala calms down after enough time passes, so you can return to rational thinking with other parts of the brain.
Emre is right to say that Goleman’s stories are not complete. There were complex environmental, political and social factors that influenced how these stories developed. But, all that detail would have distracted Goleman from his goal of teaching how emotional intelligence can be used to help regardless of the circumstances.
However, the key word is “can”.
Emotional intelligence is a tool that can assist, but not always. Emre says that emotional intelligence isn’t inherently evil, but it isn’t necessarily virtuous.
Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to use emotions to guide and inform behavior, often to reach a goal. However, goals can vary greatly from one person to the next.
For example, in the corporate world, I often praise the benefits of giving employees specific and sincere praise. What happens when a person praises other people to gain power or support a suspect cause? How can you manipulate others by using your ability to communicate (or hide) emotions? A person who is in a position to influence others could use intimidation and fear as a way of intimidating them.
There are many examples of the dark side to emotional intelligence that can be seen in business and politics as well as in personal life.
Although Goleman didn’t address this aspect in his early works, he did help us to discover it. It can be distressing to find examples of such things in your life. However, it is important to recognize them so that you can protect yourself. This is part of emotional intelligence.
Emre’s criticism is a great opportunity for us to continue our conversation. It’s a conversation that, even if it wasn’t started by Goleman was definitely benefited.