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Emotional Intelligence - a dated approach to people development?

Is it me, or is Emotional Intelligence starting to feel a little dated? An approach to people development that seems to be getting close to the end of its shelf-life?

I know that this isn’t going to be a popular suggestion, there are a lot of educationalists and HR people heavily invested in EI as a core structure in how they approach assessment and development, but it seems to me (and this is an entirely personal opinion) that a lot of the value of EI has now dissipated. I’m not saying that there isn’t still value there, it’s just that we’re going to have to work a lot harder at realising that value if we’re going to continue to expect so much from EI as an approach.

My own history with EI goes back a long way. Working for a US tech corporation in the early 90’s I was part of a design and delivery team that were asked to evaluate the benefits of adopting EI for a senior level development initiative. We went through our own assessments, talked through the results and implications and considered if and how it should be adopted. I clearly remember the way that we seemed to confuse the EI practitioners by coming to the process already very aware and open about our emotional states. EI gave us some insights and a new vocabulary to talk about emotion and interpersonal relations, but they weren’t really any better than the ones we were already using. I guess that the confusion that our mutual openness caused should have given me something of an insight into where I now perceive EI to be.

It strikes me now that the work that Daniel Goleman did to bring the work of Solovey and Mayer to widespread public attention was completed before social media became so ubiquitous. It’s only 25 years or so but the way that social media now shapes our lives has, I think, created a very different emotional environment, and this is so much more the case for the generations who have grown up not knowing the disconnected world. At the end of the last century we were still working hard to get corporate groups to engage with their own emotional landscapes, and consider the idea that others might not share their viewpoint. EI offered a way to introduce those landscapes and their impact in and beyond the workplace. As such it was a valuable access point, not least for the vocabulary and assessment rigour that it introduced.

But it seems to me that the value that I have derived from EI as an approach is in its ability to address a set of development challenges that have substantially changed over the past couple of decades, to the extent that I’m now considering EI as the wrong tool, or possibly the right tool but used wrongly?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the emotional intelligence of the average person has improved to the extent that we no longer need to pay it any attention. What I’m suggesting is that the emotional landscape that most people inhabit has been radically changed by exposure to mainstream and social media. We live in a world of people for whom an overt emotional reaction customarily comes first, long before a considered response - people have a high degree of consciousness of their own emotional climate, but at a very superficial level, and are very aware of other peoples’ surface emotions, without any great insight into what that persons underlying emotional state might be. In this situation EI is a tool that has some value, but it needs to be used very differently from its initial application.

What I perceive to be needed right now is an approach that coaches people through a process whereby clients are encouraged to internally acknowledge their initial emotional reaction to a challenging interpersonal situation, then to translate this reaction into something that has a more constructive shape, then to share this with relevant others in a way that allows the positivity to be explored and realised. Now a lot of EI practitioners will say that that is exactly what EI offers, what I’m saying is that the emphasis needs to shift to that initial stage, rather than the considering/sharing piece. It’s a bit like the transition that communication training went through - a few decades ago it was very much about how to speak to people in a way that got your message across, today the emphasis is much more on the active listening aspects. We no longer have to work hard to open up a discussion that has a strong emotional component, what we need are tools that show the potential dangers of the fast, unconsidered emotional reaction, and help people to formulate and utilise more considered emotional responses.

I also think that experiential learning environments are the only way to effectively develop these patterns of considered response. These environments allow interpersonal dynamics to be examined as a key variable in task performance, and where the emotional landscape is running counter to positive interpersonal dynamics this can be illustrated and addressed as part of the shared experience.

Geoff Cox

Design Director

RSVP Design Ltd.

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