Old Advice in a New Psychobabble Wrap
Old Advice in a New Psychobabble Wrap

Old Advice in a New Psychobabble Wrap

September 1 st 1999

The hyper-speed, globally-connected, highly competitive, technology-dependant work world of today seems to have developed the ability not only to throw out new products but also to market new business fads. The penchant and push for change has everyone looking over their shoulder making sure they don't get left behind by not taking advantage of latest "insight" into how to be the best you can be, work as a team, knock down the barriers.

The latest trendy insight is the purported need to hone your emotional intelligence. As Neil Seeman reports in recent article in the National Post: "Emotional Intelligence (EI) has become the hottest rage in the business world, and has spawned a burgeoning cottage industry of consultants and manuals and video tapes. Prestigious companies such as British Airways, Lucent Technologies, and Credit Suisse have become reverent devotees of the 'soft skills' that EI celebrates."

Four components of EI

Seeman summarizes the five main components of EI, originally developed by U.S. professors Peter Sanlovey and John Mayer, as: "1) the ability to accurately perceive, appraise and express emotion; 2) the ability to access feelings that facilitate thought; 3) the ability to understand emotional knowledge; 4) the ability to regulate emotions to promote emotional and intellectual growth." These abilities see expression in three main areas: self awareness, self discipline, and empathy for others.

At first glance, this all sounds well and good. EI does provide, in a way, an antidote to our modern fascination with hard, scientific numbers, cold technological solutions, and an overemphasis on pure intellect and reason.

We all know highly intellectual people who fail at life because they can't get along with others. Maybe we've had a boss who knew his stuff alright but sure didn't know how to deal with people. The EI mantra asserts that all these otherwise deficient folk need to overcome their shortcomings is to develop their emotional skills.

The cover jacket of the book Emotional Intelligence at Work promises that "the development of EI means having employees who are more creative, more enthusiastic; its promotion throughout an organization can improve productivity, speed adaptation to change, improve retention and generally bolster that organizations competitive stance."

It shouldn't surprise us that increasingly the business self help books are dealing with "soft" issues such as emotional intelligence. The workplace is, after all, a work community made up of people who, through different roles, need to relate to each other to get their jobs done.

Few of us work as stand alone islands. Accordingly, and quite obviously, we need to consider what it takes to be nice to others, to gain respect, to gain favour, to do what is right. EI properly reminds us that not only are these things relevant, but controlling our feelings impact our success in these areas.

Great new insight?

Is this, though, some great new insight into the human experience that will assist us in our everyday work lives? Or is it simply a rehash of basic truths and virtues that have been taught throughout history, repackaged in modern psychobabble, posturing as new scientific evidence?

Unfortunately, it is more the latter, despite what EI's proponents and hawkers may say. They are doing very well on the corporate conference, speaking, book-selling circuit, thank you.

The challenge to control our emotions and use them in positive ways is not a new discovery. The book of Proverbs says "a fool gives full vent to his fury." Aristotle wrote, "Anyone can become angry—that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not easy."

The EI material is not able to answer this question satisfactorily. It suggests, on the one hand, that our emotions are an innate component of how we are hard-wired, due to evolutionary history. On the other hand, it holds out that we can improve our EI by modifying our thought patterns, understanding our emotions, and overcoming basic impulses.

Of course there is no acknowledgment of the outdated notion of sin, of self-awareness in relationship to a higher being. The Bible has much to say about how we deal with one another. God knows we wouldn't be very good in this area because of the mess we get ourselves into vis-a-vis our relationship to Him. God created us with emotions so that we could feel joy and sadness, love and anger and with the ability to share and receive these emotions from others.

Yes, emotions are a part of us. But the new EI fad understands emotions' role and purpose in the context of the dubious new field of psychological evolution. This theory suggests that we are still influenced by emotions which evolved in our predecessors as they tried to survive on the savannah plains. Our emotions are mere evolutionary leftovers that need to be managed through modern technique.

Redefining emotions

Emotions represent an important aspect of our created reality. But those who have "rediscovered" them have also given emotions jurisdiction in areas where they do not belong. Everything considered "soft" and good is now assumed to fall under the rubric emotional intelligence.

Daniel Goleman, who popularized EI theories with his 1995 best seller Emotional Intelligence, is quoted in a Fortune magazine interview saying, "We found that two out of three of the abilities considered vital for success were emotional competencies like trustworthiness, adaptability, and a talent for collaboration."

Trustworthiness, adaptability, and collaboration are now emotional competencies? There may be an emotional aspect to them, but surely their essence is not emotional.

Some of the writing sounds profound, but it is pretty basic advice wrapped up in nice-sounding terminology. Consider the following tool kit we are encouraged to use if we suffer setback and are feeling down:

  • Tune into your feelings and interpretations.
  • Use strong motivational self statements and constructive internal dialogues.
  • Keep your sense of humour.
  • Practice relaxation.
  • Engage in physical activity.
  • Use problem solving techniques.
  • Draw from your support team.
  • Reassess your goals and set new ones.

Forget the packaging

At its core, the literature on EI painfully reminds us that we live in a society and culture that has almost completely severed itself from its Judeo-Christian heritage. It has so little knowledge of traditional teachings, including ancient Greek and other religious traditions, that an idea which "rediscovers" aspects of this historical knowledge and repackages it as new scientific insight becomes an overnight bestseller.

Lacking a basic knowledge in principled and religious matters, it quickly accepts modern "knowledge," outside, of course, any reference to the Almighty. In the end, we have some interesting facts, some basic advice, presented in a new wrap. But a wrap with a serious evolutionary, humanist twist.

What does this mean for the workplace? Forget the psychobabble packaging of EI and get back to the basics of developing the necessary people skills that for centuries have been valued as important. Know that emotions are a gift from the Creator for a purpose. Do not work against them. At the same time don't let them control you.

Perhaps emotions have not been given their proper due in our technologically driven society. Let's not, however, fall off the other side of the horse and give emotional intelligence more prominence than it deserves.

Proper self awareness, self discipline, and empathy for others are important. A balanced, humble, approach to developing the various aspects for strong interpersonal skills are helpful. No one likes an uncaring teacher, a tyrant for a boss, or a manipulative colleague.

No, our workplaces would benefit greatly if they where injected with a major dose of compassion, justice, peace, truthfulness, self control, respect, humility, and generosity. These virtues have been sought after for millennia.

The emotional intelligence material, however, only scratches the surface. For deeper insight and more solid advice, look to older sources.

Would that every Canadian CEO knew the book of Proverbs by heart. That would surely increase the level of corporate intelligence. Who knows, the notion of wisdom might even gain circulation again.

Ed Pypker
Ed Pypker

Ed Pypker is a former editor of Comment. He currently serves as Director of HR at ATS (Automation Tooling Systems), and as chair of the board of the Paideia Centre for Public Theology.


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