Could emotional intelligence be holding you back?

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Sir Alex Ferguson

Emotional intelligence and its importance in leadership and management has quickly become one of the predominant sacred cows of modern business thinking. Its importance in managing teams, leading organisations, and in career progression is frequently highlighted.

Is its significance, though, overstated? And can it really be taught in the way that business coaches and authors appear to believe?

 

EQ and IQ

The idea of emotional intelligence has been around since the 1960s, but really took off as a concept after the eponymous 1995 book by Daniel Goleman. Goleman, in a subsequent 1998 article, stated that his research at 200 global companies had found that effective leaders were distinguished by their high levels of emotional intelligence, a phenomenon that has become paraphrased as “EQ rather than IQ”.That research has been followed by dozens of other studies that seem to corroborate Goleman.

There has, though, been some backlash by those poring over the statistics and the science. In particular, the measurement criteria, techniques, and subjective nature of the judgements have been criticised by psychologists:

The test answers are not true or false, but have to be be based either on expert judgement or on a broad consensus. In other words answers are judged right or wrong either by a panel of experts, or by focus groups. Such judgements are rarely unanimous (and we need to know of the disputes). This means that high scorers are conformists who give the usual answer, with brilliant non-conformists getting no credit.

The basic principles of emotional intelligence, that being able to understand other people’s feelings allows you to manage them better, and to be aware that your negative emotions have a negative impact on those around you, are sound almost as a matter of common sense. Attributing scientific measurement to it, or describing it as a form of ‘intelligence’, might be pushing it.

 

Emotional intelligence in perspective

If you take much of the literature around emotional intelligence at face value – and many do – then the impression is that your emotions and personal feelings are holding you back. The best thing you can do is learn to control them to the point where you can selectively use them in any given situation.

But does that theory stack up? Is it even desirable?

One interesting perspective, rarely looked at, is in an industry where a person’s emotions and success are constantly under scrutiny, by his inferiors, superiors, and the public. Football managers cannot hide.

There are, undoubtedly, some football managers who have understood emotional intelligence and sought to use it to motivate their teams. Jose Mourinho, until fairly recently, was held up as someone who was very self-aware and incredibly emotionally intelligent. What’s more, he was able to use it to solicit undying loyalty from his players. Testaments from his players at Porto, Chelsea and Inter are evidence enough of that. His powers, by popular account, have begun to fade since his ‘dark side’ came to the fore when at Real Madrid.

Further, a lack of emotional intelligence has been the funeral pyre upon which many a promising managerial career has been lain waste. The likes of Graeme Souness and Glenn Hoddle have been pilloried by ex-players for their poor management abilities.

Yet, there are plenty of football managers who, in fact, used their natural emotions to their advantage. Brian Clough, the ‘greatest manager England never had’, was famously irascible, moody and tumultuous. There have been some theories that this was a motivational tactic, but even the man himself said after his retirement that he wished he could have been more “mellow” at times.

A similar thought has come from Sir Alex Ferguson. Ferguson was, in many ways, very emotionally intelligent. It would defy common sense to say that a man who kept a dressing room happy for more than two decades was unable to read, understand and quell many of the emotions of those under his charge.

Yet, Ferguson himself would likely rubbish much of the emotional intelligence dogma being circulated. Although he, like Clough, has said post-retirement that he wished he could have been calmer on occasion, he has also said, much more often, that it was his personality and emotions that drove him to succeed and allowed him to motivate others. “You are what you are” is a line he frequently utters in interviews. He has criticised many failed younger managers for straying too far away from their identities. He has also said that his famous eruptions in temper were often more for his benefit than anyone else’s, a way of getting the rage off his chest so that it would not bleed in to his decision-making and interactions over the rest of the week. This is in complete contradiction to what many peddlers of self-awareness and emotional intelligence would argue. The success, however, speaks for itself.

Further, it seems in football that emotional control is often a hindrance as much as a help. Managers who don’t display much emotion on the touchline or in the dressing room, such as Arsene Wenger and Manuel Pellegrini, are often attacked for their stoic nature once results turn against them, whilst the more flamboyant Roberto Mancini, Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte were/are loved by their respective fans for ‘kicking every ball’. This isn’t just about popularity, though. It may have a real impact on the ability to motivate a team. Gareth Southgate famously said that the reserved Sven Goran Eriksson failed to inspire the England dressing home against Brazil in the 2002 World Cup, when they “needed Churchill but got Iain Duncan Smith”.

 

Just how important is emotional intelligence?

It is possible, then, that those seeking to an emotionally intelligent nirvana should check themselves. There is a danger that, in seeking to detach yourself from your emotions, you lose something of who you are and become too dispassionate. The importance now, as it ever has been, is balance, part of which is not being afraid to let our true feeling and emotions come across every now and then. This may not just be the best way to succeed, but the best way to have emotional awareness whilst retaining your sanity and your soul.