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.

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