The dangers of "emotional intelligence"

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, August 23, 2022, 12:45 PM | comments: 0

I've been trying to figure out how to write this post for a long time. I am deeply interested in psychology, because it's so core to understanding myself and others. Apply 10x since my ASD and ADHD diagnoses.

The term "emotional intelligence" first appeared in the 60's, then became more common with a book of the same name by Daniel Goleman, a guy who got his PhD at Harvard and wrote for The New York Times. He's written a lot of books about the subject. But here's the rub... I've been seeing therapists now since college, almost 30 years, and the subject has never come up, even once. However, it has come up in various forms of corporate leadership training at least four times in the last ten years. Weird, right?

There are two reasons it smelled bad to me, and I have more specific thoughts about it now. There are really two angles to it. The first is in the broader field of psychology, but the more icky part is its appearance in corporate culture.

First, the academics. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM, is the standard that psychologists use in defining what the title implies. Absent from this text is any mention of "emotional intelligence." If this were a thing that was broadly identified as legitimate in psychology circles, especially if people were deficient in it, wouldn't it be defined there? But the most important distinction to me is Goleman's suggestion that it's a type of "intelligence" at all. We can't choose to be more intelligent, but we can choose to practice behaviors. To that end:

"[Goleman] exemplifies more clearly than most the fundamental absurdity of the tendency to class almost any type of behavior as an 'intelligence...' If these five 'abilities' define 'emotional intelligence,' we would expect some evidence that they are highly correlated; Goleman admits that they might be quite uncorrelated, and in any case, if we cannot measure them, how do we know they are related? So the whole theory is built on quicksand: there is no sound scientific basis."

Yikes. But what's worse, there are no agreed upon diagnostics to measure "EI" and by extension no way to correlate that the presence or absence of it is indicative of success or failure as a member of society. But what really grabbed me was an essay by Adam Grant (whom I respect greatly) about a year or two after I first heard the term. I don't like that he seems to legitimize the term, but regardless, he said:

New evidence shows that when people hone their emotional skills, they become better at manipulating others. When you’re good at controlling your own emotions, you can disguise your true feelings. When you know what others are feeling, you can tug at their heartstrings and motivate them to act against their own best interests.

That's super gross. And in practice, what Grant describes is what I've seen in corporate environments first hand. It's not even intentional, necessarily, but it always has unintended consequences.

The worst part about it from an academic stance is that there is no agreed upon diagnostic to measure "EI." Every time I'm "tested" for it, the exercise amounts to a 20-question online quiz, which I often "pass." To measure my IQ and likely autism and ADHD qualities, I had to go through hundreds of questions and be profiled for hours by a bona fide psychologist. Now you want to measure my ability with a Facebook quiz?

Before I get into why this pisses me off, let me at least throw some folks a bone. Business leaders buy-in to this in part because of books on leadership and hoards of consultants who sell this stuff as the key to building better leadership teams. The intent is right, but the outcomes are toxic. What everyone really wants out of their leaders is empathy. That's a lot more straightforward. Understand how others might feel, and how your behavior and words may affect others, always in the context of the work you have to do. It is wholly uncomplicated, and it's what we want of our leaders, and frankly everyone we interact with. But "emotional intelligence" wants to be something more. It wants to be something measurable and quantifiable, and a benchmark with which you can hold people accountable. And that's where it turns into bullshit based on pseudoscience.

It is important to understand the people around you, what their intentions are and how they'll react to you. But Grant's position is only half of it. Not only can you use this acknowledgment of empathy (what it really is), but you can weaponize it in one of two ways. On one end, yes, you can manipulate people to buy-in to self-serving and toxic outcomes. On the other end, you can let the feelings of others trump important decisions that you have to make for the success of the business because you put their feelings above bigger outcomes. Some folks might argue that emotional intelligence is in fact understanding how to balance the two, but I would argue that in practice, leaders are not measured that way. They're measured in the ability to work at either end of that spectrum, usually the business-benefitting outcomes, and that's the problem.

In my time as a middle-management leader, I've often found that the interests of senior leaders are often opposed with those of the workers. The leaders consistently want you not to find the balance, to, you know, manage the people, but instead cave to their entitlement or manipulate them into seeing things their way. You can't win that way. But they'll still write a check to consultants and executive coaches to sell the skill of empathy wrapped up as EI. EI is like a cheap brand for naked emperors.

And just as the study that Grant referenced showed, whatever arbitrary measures of "success" and "emotional intelligence" (really empathy) were, the results were inversely proportional relative to the type of work. Of course a real estate agent has to manage emotions to achieve success. But engineers and scientists? Not so much, because you want emotion removed from the process. But again, it's used as a blunt object to beat leaders over the head that this is the key to everything. And I can't be more blunt myself: Exercising empathy is really just a function of not being an asshole to others and being honest about what you need to achieve.

If you were wondering if there's an autism angle, yes, of course there is. If there's any myth that sucks the most about autism, it's the suggestion that autistic people lack empathy. That is utter nonsense. The more research there is, the more we understand that autistic people don't necessarily have more or less empathy compared to neurotypical people, they just have varying degrees of ability to express it or process it. Watch my kid meltdown into tears over movies, and know that I experience the same emotions even if I don't outwardly express them. We're empathetic as fuck, but we might not always feel it's appropriate to express that. The other dimension of that is the manipulators, the ones who can both regulate their emotions and instigate reactions that are not self-serving, may be frustrated that what they're doing doesn't work on an autistic person. That's because stimulating empathy doesn't mean it will be expressed outwardly. Now that person may be suboptimal in the eyes of the self-described "emotionally intelligent."

There's a serious liability problem on the horizon, too. If your organization routinely engages in this "emotional intelligence" stuff, and you penalize an autistic person for not measuring up to whatever it is, then you're potentially discriminating against them as far as the American with Disabilities Act goes. It's reasonable to dismiss someone who can't or won't do a job, but it's another to do so when they aren't wired to exhibit an arbitrary behavior that you're after. Don't make them jump through hoops, just describe the outcomes that you want in plain language. Manipulative carrots and sticks won't work.


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