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Being Grumpy at Work, and the Emotional Intelligence Hype

A weekly post in which I share (some of) the thoughts provoked by great content I read this week(ish)

In the last 24 hours I’ve danced at an Albanian wedding and attended a tea party at a castle. The whole week has been a bit of happy, chaotic whirlwind, and there hasn’t been as much ‘musing’ as I’d like or need. But here goes:

Happiness at Work

Why Being Grumpy at Work is Good for You – Quartz, Meredith Bennet-Smith

The title sounds a trifle ‘clickbaity’, but this is well worth a read. For the same reason that deeming employee happiness a primary HR goal, corporate cultures that revere chirpy cheerfulness make me uncomfortable. It might be the years I spent in hospitality, smiling back at customers who thought that ordering a $12 martini meant I was supposed to laugh at their incredibly lame jokes, while I was busy mentally tallying up how close I was to making my rent that month.

“For several years, I bought into the idea that emotional honesty was a quality better left at home. But as my career progressed, and with it my self-confidence, I began to realize that holding in my true feelings was both exhausting and unnecessary. I’m not saying that people should be rude or mean to one another at work, of course. But I do feel that there is something sinister about the corporate cult of positivity.”

There’s a reason it feels sinister, or at least disingenuous. The trend of focusing on employee happiness didn’t begin with a vision of worker happiness as an end unto itself; it’s about the reputed correlation between happiness and a host of desirable metrics that many “thought leaders” have identified as the next big competitive advantage in an economy that is struggling to achieve productivity gains.

But as is often the case when we try to distill complex concepts like happiness into a corporate program we can “roll out” to achieve specific outcomes (ahem, culture, ahem), the results are not predictable.

Employers may think a room full of smiling employees is a sign of a productive, successful office. But research shows that forcing workers to appear more pleasant and more cheerful than they actually feel can lead to a whole host of negative consequences—from emotional exhaustion to withdrawal. And women in particular suffer from the expectation that they should constantly demonstrate happiness.

Telling people to be happy (whether directly, or through social cues and cultural norms), tells them that their basic humaness is unwelcome. And it imposes the need for employees to adopt a persona, perhaps not every day, but almost certainly on the days when it is most difficult for them to do so. The emotional dissonance that results, and the mental energy required to manage it, could otherwise be spent on actual work…

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence: The Hype, the Hope, the Evidence – Emotion Researcher, John Antonakis

This is a really great primer on the research currently available related to emotional intelligence, and a huge reminder that just because constructs like EI (and many others) are widely held, does not make them necessarily accurate in the way we assume.

“…emotional intelligence (EI), defined as the “ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions”

Antonakis details three key problems with the construct of emotional intelligence:

  1. There is significant disagreement about whether EI is an ability (and thus can be objectively measured like IQ), or a trait (and thus should be self-assessed like personality)
  2. There are very poor testing standards for EI, and given its overlap with elements of both IQ and personality, it’s difficult to establish that it has any stand-alone predictive value apart from these other factors
  3. Exaggerated claims exist about the ability of EI to predict performance in a variety of areas. Antonakis notes: “These claims are highly problematic because many well-meaning human resources directors or other professionals use EI tests in selection or for clinical purposes; doing so is neither ethical nor economical.”

What follows is a very readable analysis of these issues, as well as a counter-argument to the assumption underlying EI (that having a highly attuned emotional radar is necessarily a benefit to performance). I highly recommend reading the full article, if for no other reason than to be reminded that a great number of concepts that we take for granted in HR are only theories, and often not particularly robust ones.

It can be easy to forget that concepts like EI are really just proposed models of complex phenomena, and as the saying goes: all models are wrong, but some are useful. We should be constantly aware of the models we rely on to interpret what we see in our organizations, and note that these are assumptions that may not be entirely accurate or universal. We need to ask ourselves whether the utility these models provide in a given situation outweighs the risk of our reliance on that one model.

If we go through life with only a few models, every once in a while our limited repertoire will fit with the scenario we are faced with, like a lock in a key. But more often, a meager tool box will fall short, and we may find ourselves puzzled about why we did not get at the heart of a particular challenge, or achieve the results we may have in past situations in which our model(s) worked.

Antonakis closes:

To conclude, debate in science is healthy and is needed. And, there comes a time when we have to rethink theories or measurement strategies and then “move on.” This time is nigh for those doing research in emotional intelligence. My message to them is: “Drop the hype, keep the hope, but pay attention to all the evidence. Not only is it the moral thing to do; it is also the economical thing to do.”

Chaos and Control

Female Supreme Court Justices are Interrupted More by Make Justices and Advocates – Harvard Business Review, Tonja Jacobi and Dylan Schweers

I was not going to include this article in my weekly musings, but the universe conspired to have me musing about it all week. Twice this week, at two (non-work) events, I suffered through that painful hardship we have taken to jovially calling “mansplaining”.

The details are unimportant, and frankly it’s not remarkable whatsoever, except that I spent the week working through my own Immunity to Change map as a LeadWise Academy assignment, contemplating chaos and control in my own interactions. That is, I got uncomfortable questioning the assumptions that drive me to take control of certain  interactions, so that I might adopt another approach.

So, when I found myself in two situations that were dominated by class A interruptasauruses (by class A, I mean the variety that isn’t merely interjecting strenuously, but is performing a full-fledged monologue that vigorously rejects other participants), I found myself struggling to let it go.

Surely, I thought, I was just being overly sensitive given all the focus I was placing on this kind of dynamic. These men are accomplished professionals, not drunk frat boys. That’s when this article came across my feed…

Our new empirical study shows that the male justices interrupt the female justices approximately three times as often as they interrupt each other during oral arguments. And the conservative justices interrupt the liberal justices more than twice as often as vice versa.

We examined the transcripts of 15 years of Supreme Court oral arguments, finding that women do not have an equal opportunity to be heard on the highest court in the land. In fact, as more women join the court, the reaction of the male justices has been to increase their interruptions of the female justices. Many male justices are now interrupting female justices at double-digit rates per term, but the reverse is almost never true.

It’s an interesting analysis and is either A.) comforting that even Supreme Court Justices put up with this shit, or B.) depressing that even Supreme Court Justices put up with this shit.

I don’t have any grand insights or take-aways to share. Maybe I’m just complaining, and if so this is admittedly a really passive aggressive way to do that. Yet, this is what I’m musing about right now: letting things unfold is not the same as being passive, but it can have the same outcome. If that outcome closes off discussions and alternate view points without offering value to anyone but the interruptasaurus speaker, then when is controlling the discussion a valid strategy? Is that even the right question? Am I contemplating something that facilitators think about all the time?

Okay, I ate a ton of sugar today and am probably off the logic rails, so I’m going to end there. Are you mad about the emotional intelligence thing? (If so, congratulations on your ability to monitor your own emotions and distinguish between them). Do you have strategies to cope with interruptions or extreme verbosity from others? Any thoughts on happiness in the workplace?? Comment at me!

Image credit: Morgan Sessions via unsplash


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