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When emotional intelligence turns into the manipulation of others.

When emotional intelligence turns into the manipulation of others

Noticing, understanding and managing one's own and others' emotions in order to get better results for the individual, team and organization as a whole - what is not to like about emotional intelligence?

In the April 2011 issue of Management Today, Alexander explains that emotional intelligence has changed, over the last 15 years, 'from a snappy title for a business book into an essential management attribute for anyone who wants to shin up the greasy pole faster than the also-rans'.

But anyone who has seen the hit film An Education will have no doubt that there can be a more sinister side to emotional intelligence. The film depicts how older man David Goldman uses empathy, charm and every other tool in the emotional-intelligence handbook to get his way with inexperienced 16-year-old schoolgirl Jenny Mellor and her lower-middle-class parents, so keen for her to get an Oxford education.

David, of course, turns out to be a con-man who proposes to Jenny despite already being married, then drops out of sight when he is discovered. Only the compassion and understanding of a former teacher prevents a disastrous ending for Jenny.

Alexander reports on research Professor Martin Kilduff and Dr Jochen (yocken) Menges, of Cambridge University's Judge Business School, and assistant professor Dan Chiaburu, at the Mays Business School in Texas, which highlights how emotional intelligence can be used 'to manipulate, spin, intimidate and generally bend others to one's will'.

The academics reveal that each of the four core skills of emotional intelligence has a 'shadowy tactic' that matches it closely. For example:

• the positive characteristic of perceiving the emotions of oneself and others can become scrutinising colleagues for clues about their emotional state and using the information gleaned for one's own advantage;
• using emotional intelligence positively in one's thinking and decision making can spill over into disguising and expressing emotions for personal gain;
• understanding and describing emotions (positive) can morph into using misattribution to stir and shape emotion (negative); and
• managing one's own and others' emotions can become controlling the flow of emotion-laden communication.

Walter, Cole & Humphrey similarly see both strengths and weaknesses in emotional intelligence in the February 2011 issue of Academy of Management Perspectives. They accept that it helps us to understand why certain people emerge as leaders and are effective in their jobs. But they caution that the concept of emotional intelligence 'is but one of various factors (including personality, cognitive ability and functional skills) that influence leadership outcomes'.

While Walter et al. definitely see a place for emotional intelligence in leadership education, training and development, they believe that it should be incorporated 'on strictly evidence-based grounds, and not at the expense of other equally or even more important leadership antecedents'.

They urge: 'Although leadership courses and programmes can benefit from incorporating discussions of the emotional-intelligence concept, we believe that teachers, trainers, and professionals must carefully consider the current state of research (and associated pitfalls) when doing so.'

Alexander has a more blunt conclusion. 'It's not emotional intelligence per se that is the issue, but what you do with it," she explains. 'Both employers and employees need to be aware of the potential for skulduggery.'