Emotional intelligence: A real phenomenon or modern-day fad?

Jul 12 2017 14:08
Amanda Visser
 Thembi Hama is an independent life coach. (Pictur

Thembi Hama is an independent life coach. (Picture: Supplied)

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The concept of emotional intelligence and the notion that one needs to possess it in order to succeed in life seem rather ingrained in the modern world. Fierce proponents of emotional intelligence (EQ) believe scoring high in this field is critical to leading effectively.

They believe it is linked to self-control, perseverance, happiness, mindfulness and empathy.

Then there are others who are not that impressed by the hype about having emotional intelligence, claiming that successful leaders such as Steve Jobs showed a clear lack of some of the attributes necessary to be considered emotionally intelligent.

There are at least five pillars that people have to master to be able to score high on emotional intelligence. According to author Daniel Goleman these traits are as follows:

- Self-awareness: The ability to recognise and understand personal moods, emotions and drives, as well as their effect on others.

- Self-regulation: The ability to control or redirect disruptive impulses and moods, and to think before acting.

- Internal motivation: A passion to work for internal reasons that go beyond money and status, such as an inner vision of what is important in life, a joy in doing something, curiosity in learning, a flow that comes with being immersed in an activity.

- Empathy: The ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people. A skill that allows one to treat people according to their emotional reactions. One’s empathy can be leveraged to behave in a compassionate or cruel manner, says Goleman. Serial killers who marry and kill many partners in succession tend to be very empathetic.

- Social skills: The proficiency in managing relationships and building networks, and an ability to find common ground and build rapport.

However, not everyone is a believer.

Steve Tobak, author, management consultant and managing partner at Invisor Consulting, challenges this traditional way of thinking: “What if none of that were true?”

“If you buy into all the popular hype, emotional intelligence is linked to everything from leadership performance and business success, to reduced stress and personal happiness,” he writes in an article published by Entrepreneur magazine.

He looks at the concept from a slightly different perspective. “What if I said that emotional intelligence is the ability to recognise, understand and control emotions – not just our own but the emotions of others, as well?

What if I said it can be used to manipulate behaviour?”

Conjuring some negative connotations? Someone like Adolf Hitler must have scored high because of his ability to manipulate people to the extent that he did.

Tobak is also less than impressed with the way emotional intelligence is being tested. He says they are “self-tests on self-perception”.

While many of the tests ask the same question a number of different ways in an attempt to improve their accuracy, the great irony is that those capable of understanding and controlling their emotions are remarkably adept at telling people what they think they want to hear.

“In other words, the more delusional, narcissistic and sociopathic you are, the easier it is for you to game the test and the more likely you are to come out sounding like you are as self-aware and empathetic as a Zen master or a Buddhist monk,” says Tobak.

The truth is, EQ testing is by no means scientific, and the results are essentially meaningless, Tobak, the author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur states bluntly.

The whole concept that greater awareness leads to behavioural change is just part of the EQ “fad”.

 “Claims that CEOs, executives and business leaders with high emotional intelligence are more successful are simply ludicrous,” says Tobak.

Consider some of the most highly accomplished entrepreneurs of our time: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Andy Grove, Larry Ellison, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk.

“I would be surprised to find an ounce of emotional intelligence among them.”

Thembi Hama, independent life coach, agrees that emotionally intelligent people are not only those who can influence, but that they are also able to manipulate.

“There is a difference between influence and manipulation – being a positive and a negative connotation – but both stem from emotional intelligence.”

People who are considered emotionally intelligent are “masters of feelings”, they are socially savvy and have the ability to influence people – whether in a good or bad way.

She believes it all starts with self-awareness. “Emotionally intelligent people are also masters of social skills. They are able to observe people and to truly understand what it is they want or need.”

Hama also refers to serial killers who, in many instances, are highly emotionally intelligent. They have the ability to observe their prey and manipulate them into doing what they (the killer) want.

In the traditional sense emotionally intelligent people are good listeners, pro-active, focused and caring. This also does not mean that everyone is born this way.

“We learn each day. We have all been at a place where we held grudges, where we were not productive, where it felt we were not getting anywhere,” adds Hama. She says that everyone undergoes “character metamorphoses” – people evolve, change and learn on a daily basis.

Tobak, however, says that if it were really as simple as reading a book or going to a seminar, people would not need years of therapy, hard work and discipline to change their behaviour.

Simple awareness would enable all of us to stamp out our self-destructive tendencies and avoid all the pitfalls that make us less happy and less successful than we perhaps could be in a perfect world.

“Indeed, self-awareness is a very good thing in life, but it is all too easy to mistake what lies on the surface for the genuine feelings buried deep below. That is why the path to achieving meaningful behavioural change is a long, arduous and often painful one,” says Tobak.

Hama is convinced that the application of emotional intelligence principles brings about change – for the better.

“When I had acquired the ability to change myself I saw the environment rearrange itself around me. It may sound like a lot of nonsense, but when you change yourself and experience the change in the environment around you, that makes it real,” she says.

This article originally appeared in the 22 June edition of finweekBuy and download the magazine here.

empathy  |  leadership  |  social skills