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Op-Ed: Emotional intelligence is back — Yawn, curse,… but?

The return of emotional intelligence may not sound like the trumpets of joy for those who’ve seen it before.

Checking a laptop for messages.
Image by Tim Sandle, of a computer being used in a workplace.
Image by Tim Sandle, of a computer being used in a workplace.

The return of emotional intelligence may not sound like the trumpets of joy for those who’ve seen it before.  The sudden plague of fizzy headlines about emotional intelligence will definitely NOT inspire much more than a dismissive sneer. Last time around the block, it was hardly a triumph.

I first encountered emotional intelligence about a decade ago. It was exactly the sort of useless abstract subject you could introduce into a management workshop. You could do two days on it and achieve precisely nothing.

At the time, and just prior, I’d been working in the US and UK employment sectors. “Unimpressed” barely describes my reaction to the original form of emotional intelligence.

I was dealing with people who were working in extremely hostile environments. These environments and the reactions to them were so gruesome it was astonishing. The idea of emotional awareness, let alone intelligence, needed a lot of proof, and I wasn’t seeing it.

Some of these people were in environments I’d call psychotic, based on the vast numbers of bare-bones stories of “this insane thing happened and then that insane thing happened”. You could have bred generations of lawyers on just what I was looking at on a daily basis.

Also, directly to the point – I’d simultaneously had my own experiences of total lack of emotional intelligence as a freelancer. I bumped into some of the least communicative people I’d ever met (that’s not at all easy) on that bumpy ride.

I met one content manager who refused to even describe what specific jobs required. I met plenty who thought their vision of a job translated into a few vague sentences in an email with no specifics. Add to this the pedants and their ability to see a comma and turn it into a CSI episode… While simultaneously missing the entire point of any actual text…

Let’s put it this way – I’m hardly the guy to start rhapsodizing about emotional intelligence. I’ve seen so very little of it.

Enter emotional intelligence V2

Having seen an article on ABC Australia touting the importance of emotional intelligence and how it’s now a must-have skill, it naturally got my very cynical attention. I was wondering if it was just another recycling exercise from the business trainers, reinventing a third wheel.

Apparently, it’s not. Emotional intelligence really is back and getting plugged heavily. So, emotional bucket and spade and healthy levels of scatology in hand, I did some research.

I did an emotional intelligence test, and did it honestly. I got a high score for emotional intelligence… Ah, sure…right… It was a very simple test, and I thought the answers were obvious.

Then there were the inevitable, impeccable “X number of ways to” articles. The numerical header is always a warning – You’re reading a writer who’s formatted, to start with. Even so, I found one article with some objectivity about achieving goals with emotional intelligence.

The takeaway wasn’t obvious: This article was one of the few I’ve seen trying to show any practical value for emotional intelligence beyond lip service.

The fact is that people behave the way they behave in the workplace for their own reasons.

Goals are the broad definition of those reasons. Situation-handling is another. So this approach is quite a lot more plausible. What use is emotional intelligence if you can’t apply it, after all?

Finally, some level of investment! This is where some actual depth gets into the picture. Never mind the “feelgood” workplace psychology which is basically window dressing. There’s a LOT of psychology, most of it highly irritating, in HR and management.

This psychology is usually a type of self-serving superficiality in the traditional workplace. “We emphasize high morale” typically means “We have a few slogans, guidelines, token employees, and two of our 100 staff probably haven’t attempted suicide in the last 5 minutes”. That sort of thing.

There’s nothing wrong with the theory of emotional intelligence. It’s fitting it in to an environment of colliding personalities, underachievers, and those grim beasts in office politics that’s the problem.

 “Achieving goals” makes far more sense than a simple ritual singalong with whatever tonnage of garbage employment psychology is spruiking at any time. So the new version of emotional intelligence is at least trying to be practical? That’s definitely a plus.

Emotional intelligence in a very different workplace

Things have changed a lot since the original version of emotional intelligence. Remote work is here to stay. Multi-role, multi-job environments are definitely a thing. You may be dealing with multiple people in different roles.

Careerism has also diverged. It’s no longer an obsession with clear paths. People don’t just assume they will have a career these days. They can’t. The employment market is so fluid. So the “workplace” is actually a spectrum of jobs and roles. This is exactly where people-handling is very much required.

There’s another issue – Millennials and Gen Z aren’t naïve. You can’t just hit them over the head with “gung ho” and expect any level of interest at all. They’re hype and propaganda-proof to a degree. Remember, these guys grew up in an environment of solid spam and disinformation. They’re quite rightly prepared to disbelieve anything.

Tell them they need emotional intelligence, and anything you say will have to be in real-world values.

So maybe you need:

  • Core negotiation skills, matching goals to interactions.
  • Mediation skills, common ground finding.
  • Proper context for emotional intelligence in specific situations.
  • Empathy isn’t an easy skill to learn or operate; how about practice and examples?
  • Defusing training in tenser environments.
  • How about some female or whatever gender-specific “navigation-based” emotional intelligence for the endless little minefields?
  • Cultural bridging? That’s a target nobody usually hits.

It’s too simple to just pack a lunchbox of emotional intelligence skills and assume someone’s being fed what they need. Practical examples and working methods don’t just happen.

To be fair, and despite my own utter distrust of the previous version of emotional intelligence, something does have to change, drastically. Something must be in place to manage the complexities of the modern workplace. These may be the early cave paintings of the better options.


The opinions expressed in this Op-Ed are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Digital Journal or its members.

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Editor-at-Large based in Sydney, Australia.

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