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The Keating Phenomenon
One of the more popular business buzz-phrases today is “Emotional Intelligence,” or EI, whose popularity has grown thanks to the same-titled book by Daniel Goleman. Without attempting to analyze at length this latest in a long line of business management hoo-haw, the concept refers to using non-cognitive (non-intellective) skills to succeed in business.
Among such “skills” are Empathy, Managing Relationships, Self-Awareness (of one’s emotions), and several others.
As with many “cover” philosophies, or sets of beliefs that use valid facts, phenomena, or concerns as cover to put over a hidden agenda of questionable views (such as Environmentalism), EI is one more in a long line of management “philosophies” whose putative purpose is to elucidate the proper code of goals and behavior for those working in large businesses.
Well, what’s so wrong with self-awareness, empathy, etc.? On the face of it, nothing.
But EI advocates don’t stop there. Even a cursory review of the literature shows one thing very clearly — these attributes are considered far more important than the ‘traditional’ intellectual qualities, such as high IQ, abstract reasoning ability, creative insight, deep knowledge of subject matter, etc.
In other words, according to EI theorists, the skills enabling one to more easily ‘get along’ with others are much more important to achieving “success” than those which enable one to innovate or produce.
Observe the insidious underlying assumption here. “Self-improvement” consists predominately in re-shaping one’s character and behavior to increase one’s approval by others; much more so than in increasing one’s ability in, say, induction or skill in mathematics or non-fiction writing.
Apart from this being an obvious false alternative, is it even true? Are “affective” (resulting from emotion) considerations more important than “intellectual” ones?
In a society strongly influenced by notions of egalitarianism, collectivism, political correctness, et al., it’s not surprising that the chief focus of management pundits would be on something the Japanese call “wa.” Roughly translated, wa refers to the highly valued goal of harmonious relations with others — achieved, if necessary, by self-sacrifice, minimization of considerations of justice, etc.
And in most modern corporations, where the predominant goal of managers is the pragmatic accumulation of authority and influence, it is hardly surprising that this sort of behavior and culture is warmly embraced.
But in a society where the emphasis is much more on production via self-reliance and ingenuity, such as those of late 18th century Scotland or late 19th century America, EI would be much less welcomed. (If indeed it could be understood at all.)
So the truth, or at any rate the importance, of EI, is not universal, but relative to the dominant cultural values of the society.
Thus, it isn’t so much that EI concepts are invalid — the question is one of focus. Are you concerned with maximizing smooth relations with others, or are you focused on getting the job done? And more to the point, how do you intend to go about doing either one?
Where men in a large business (or any social) setting are honest and fair dealing, the question of ‘getting along’ rarely even arises, and is easily resolved when it does. Good people get miffed, get over it, and move ahead.
The EI assumption, among others, may be that everyone is well meaning but ultimately not too bright about how to behave. And the higher one’s IQ, the dumber one tends to be in this area, so the theory suggests. The facts say otherwise.
The Situation On The Ground
But, like it or not, this sort of thing is widely accepted and practiced in business today. Anyone who works in a large corporation (or reads anything about them) has heard countless times how important it is to have “good people skills.” By contrast, you rarely hear a manager or senior executive recommend attending a seminar in advanced calculus or inductive logic to the highly sociable among us.
Similarly, anyone who has attempted to rise in a large company today has seen how many times people skills are valued far above technical skills; as if the pleasant manipulation of people is much more important than being the most knowledgeable in a group of skilled workers. The whole enterprise sounds far too much like the average American high school.
What’s even more surprising is that this view is even more strongly held in IT departments and software development companies than in businesses and departments with less ‘technical’ functions. Presumably, this is based on the widespread but mistaken belief that geeks have a hard time getting along with people in general. (Quite the opposite is often the case — ‘artistic’ or ‘humanities’ types are often more anti-social than your average programmer.)
What To Do
In any case, the important question is not which popular collectivist, egalitarian management philosophy should be heeded this week or next. Rather, the important question is: What should a decent person do in the real world in which he finds himself?
Since the answers are dependent heavily on the specific type of person who asks, generalities are risky. But here are some options:
Get out. — Statistically, most employment is offered by small businesses (though large corporations may have enormous social influence). Or, these days you can start a business with minimal capital.
Get sneaky. — To the sort of people who run most large businesses, one owes no honesty. But unless you are extraordinarily clever and consistent, they can smell who is or isn’t one of their own. The question is: Will you feel good inside your own skin at the end of the day? Odds are, you won’t.
Get active. — There’s always the (admittedly slim) possibility that corporations can be reformed from within. The struggle is similar to an activist political movement, but the rewards are in many ways greater (and more likely). Seek out the like-minded wherever you can find them — and speak out when they are attacked. “Evil flourishes when good men stand idly by.”
Get lucky. — There are a few (reportedly; in thirty years, I’ve never personally seen one) large companies that still value ingenuity above charm. Or, there may be select departments within otherwise odious companies that do so.
Get over it. — You may be the sort of person who is already so highly evolved, or motivated, that none of this affects you. If so, write soon. We’d all like to study you.
For everyone else, the best plan is to stay extremely focused on your goals. Improve your skills along any dimension that satisfies you. Ignore the carping as much as possible. (It isn’t going away anytime soon.) You may not become Senior Vice President, but you will be much more satisfied with what you achieve.
Remember that the people who want to drag you down, or (at minimum) pressure you into melding with the group, get satisfaction from your suffering. Living well actually is the best revenge.
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