The Ethics of Emotional Intelligence

Poker Face…  My, My Emotionally Intelligent Poker Face?

A recent article on the Management Today website has raised the concern that emotional intelligence can be abused to manipulate others in the workplace in order to achieve self-serving goals. Drawing from the research report of Prof. Martin Kilduff and Dr Jochen Menges (Cambridge’s Judge Business School) and Prof. Dan Chiaburu (Mays Business School, Texas) the article warns that EI can be used to “manipulate, spin, intimidate and generally bend others” to one’s own agenda.

The article uses a compelling analogy, stating that:

just as those on the dark side of EI will scrutinise the emotions of others, so they are adept at controlling their own emotional displays. Like a good poker player, they can disguise inner turmoil with a neutral face, or smile convincingly when dealt a hopeless hand.”

According to the EI report by Kilduff, Menges and Chiaburu there are four EI skills (based on Mayer and Salovey’s model of EI – i.e. MSCEIT) that can be abused for a self-serving and sinister purposes:

  • Perceiving the emotions of oneself and others can become strategic emotion detection
  • EI in thinking and decision-making can become disguising and expressing emotions for personal gain
  • Understanding and describing emotions can become using misattribution to stir and shape emotion
  • Managing one’s own and others’ emotions can also be used for controlling the flow of emotion-laden communication

However, one could argue that techniques such as disguising emotions, intentional misattribution, and strategic emotion detection are the antithesis of EI rather than a “dark side” expression of EI, as suggested by the Management Today article.

It also raises questions about what we might include in the category “EI skills”.

For example, empathy (one of the generally agreed upon core components of EI) is a relational orientation that promotes mutually respectful and considerate action, and is the very opposite of “detecting” or “controlling” emotions to serve selfish ambitions. Can these opposing orientations fall under the same umbrella?

Still, the article’s point about the abuse of emotional skills is definitely worth considering. It encourages a critical look at the way in which we develop, describe and understand EI, especially in the workplace. What should an EI definition and development intervention look like if it is to avoid becoming complicit in supporting the patterns that underpin the abuse of emotional skills in the workplace?

Ethical Emotional Intelligence

It has always been true that human intelligence (e.g. scientific innovation) can be placed in service of a variety of moral and ethical agendas. The very same scientific, engineering and creative skills that can create high-tech weapons of mass destruction can be used to design technology for harvesting wind energy. In a conceptual sense IQ (or mental intelligence) is a practical problem-solving tool devoid of moral, political and ethical agendas. But ironically on a practical level, IQ (and its outcomes) become integrally entwined with and a reflection of the values, ideals and ethics of the human beings that express that intelligence.

IQ is also an ethical tool.

The same is true of EI or EQ. It is possibly even truer of EQ which, because it relates to our emotions and interpersonal relationships, encompasses more directly our values, our ideals, our identities and our ethics. Maybe these ethical dimensions of emotional intelligence are at the root of the challenges facing researchers and coaches who are attempting to objectively define and empirically evaluate EQ as a set of problem-solving skills. Of course we need to be scientific and rigorous in our assessment and understanding of EI skills, but we may have to acknowledge that EI is more complex than a set of problem-solving abilities to be measured and scored.

The EI research report discussed above reveals that EI, when defined purely as a set of measurable emotional skills(devoid of ethical considerations), can very easily be placed in the service of very sinister and destructive goals.

So how do we acknowledge and use the ethical dimension of EI to create positive change in the workplace? And how do we ensure that our EI development interventions address and change the patterns and paradigms that encourage people to abuse emotional skills?

How are you using your Emotional Intelligence?

The etymological root of the word “ethics” is the Greek word ethos, which means habitual or customary conduct. Our ethics therefore refer to the way we habitually perceive and act in the world. Our ethics are also about what we believe is worth pursuing, what we believe is good, and what we focus on in the world. Our ethics are the habitual guidelines and beliefs we bring to our relationships about proper conduct.

Your ethics tell you what to place your emotional and intellectual skills in service of.

Will it be nuclear bombs or wind farms? Will it be promotion for yourself at the expense of others, or collaborating with your team to reach a collective goal? These are ethical questions, more than they are questions of ability.

Unfortunately many assessments measures (and definitions) for EI, such as that of the MSCEIT and EQi, do not provide individuals with any particular insight about their ethical world views. There is an assessment of emotional skill, but no particular revelation about what those emotional skills are placed in service of. These assessments could, for instance, tell a person that they have a superior ability in describing, understanding, managing and perceiving emotions, but provide no awareness (or challenge, if needed) of how and to what end those abilities are being used.

Hence, the concern about the abuse of emotional skills raised by the Management Today article and EI research report above.

To prevent EI development programs from becoming complicit in ignoring (and even encouraging) the misuse of emotional skills, some kind of further assessment and intervention is required. This assessment and intervention process must create a deep personal and interpersonal awareness, highlighting our world views, values, motivations, beliefs, and habitual patterns.

We need to be confronted with how and towards what end we are using our particular level emotional competency.

Personality Style as Ethical Paradigm for Emotional Intelligence

If we consider again that our ethics refer to the way we habitually perceive and act in the world, if we remember that our ethics are about what we believe is worth pursuing, what we believe is good, and what we focus on in the world, then these are the things a comprehensive EI assessment must identify.

Within the framework of personality style (and associated behavioural styles) we can begin to identify what we habitually focus on and pursue in our relationships. We can also understand what drives these habitual patterns. This encourages us to recognise our many competencies, but also to confront the personality-based pursuits and beliefs that create disconnection, conflict, disrespect and alienation between ourselves and others.

Although personality style is generally thought of as a set of traits and preferences, a deeper understanding of personality describes the beliefs, values, and ideals that drive those habitual traits and preferences – thereby making personality a paradigm for examining our ethics and developing true emotional intelligence.

So, rather than place a list of scores on emotional skills we need to identify how and why individuals tend to either undermine or promote mutually beneficial, considerate and productive relationships in the workplace. By locating EI at the level of personality and ethics an EI coaching process can confront and address the underlying destructive patterns that tend to lead to the abuse of emotional skills in the workplace.

Ultimately, a personality-based EI coaching process shows that an “emotionally intelligent poker face” is indeed an oxymoron.

When we “use emotional intelligence to manipulate others in the workplace” we are really not using emotional intelligence at all. We are, in fact, allowing unhelpful personality patterns to undermine the development of true emotional intelligence and positive change.

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