Is emotional intelligence more than just a fad?
Author: Kate Whitehead
Everyone who’s worked in a large organisation will have a horror story about a senior individual whose academic prowess is outdone only by their inability to communicate with their peers. We often write off such employees as simply not being a “people person”. But according to its adherents, what they’re really suffering from is a lack of emotional intelligence (EQ).
Psychologists Howard Gardner, Peter Salovey and John Mayer developed the EQ theory in the 1970s and 1980s, but it wasn’t until Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book Emotional Intelligence that the idea entered the public consciousness. Today, EQ is part of the workplace lexicon among many HR directors and entrepreneurs in the US and Europe, but while the need to relate to and communicate more effectively with colleagues and customers is understood everywhere, EQ itself is not scientifically accepted in the same way as IQ, and the term has no single definition.
Broadly speaking, the EQ concept argues that IQ – conventional intelligence – is too narrow and that there are wider areas of intelligence that determine how successful we are. In GCC countries, people tend to be sensitive to the emotions of others and pick up on subtleties of emotional messaging that would less visible to outsiders. But this sensitivity doesn’t necessarily translate into high EQ, particularly when people from other cultures are involved.
“As a collective culture where relationships are a primary focus, people native to the Middle East have a much greater sensitivity to other people’s feelings and emotions and a much greater ability to work with emotions. But if someone from a different culture acts differently or responds strangely, that could cause problems,” says Professor William Scott-Jackson, chairman of Oxford Strategic Consulting.
Scott-Jackson gives the example of a Westerner criticising someone in public. No matter how subtle the criticism, it would be quickly – and wrongly – understood by those from the Middle East as reflecting a serious issue with significant ramifications. And the misunderstandings run both ways. “An Arab saying, ‘let’s decide later’, might be interpreted as a possible ‘yes’ whereas it’s actually an emotionally sensitive ‘no’,” says Scott-Jackson.
Sharoq Ibrahim Al Malki, chief human capital officer at Commercial Bank in Qatar, recalls a time early on in her career when she mistakenly interpreted a comment from her line manager as a criticism. This upset her and she worked with a life coach to better understand what had happened. Only then did she realise her error, and after talking to her manager resolved the matter. The incident made her a big fan of emotional intelligence. “I started reading about EQ, and coaching people on it. It’s the one element, besides decision-making, that we lack in the Middle East,” says Al Malki.
Al Malki is a firm believer that people with high EQ make for more successful leaders. Scott-Jackson agrees. He and his team have conducted a number of studies on leadership in the Middle East – as well as in the UK and elsewhere – and they show that those with high EQ work well in a team.
“EQ has been shown to bring more effective leadership as it reflects the ability to work with other people’s emotions and is crucial for persuasion, buy-in and charisma. It’s more important in teams where effort is discretionary and ambiguous,” he says.
Scott-Jackson and his team have advised both local companies and multinationals including HSBC and Standard Chartered. Most recently, he has been working with Commercial Bank to prepare a training package for employees. The pilot studies have been completed and the programme will be rolled out in September: Al Malki says that once bank employees have benefited from the training, the plan is to offer the programme externally.
“It’s called ‘Bridging the Cultural Gap Between Qataris and Expats’ and is mainly EQ training. No one inside Qatar is offering something similar. I expect other banks, as well as oil and gas companies will be most interested, because they face similar challenges,” says Al Malki.
Most of the challenges she describes involve cultural misunderstandings, or a failure to offer a solution that reflect the cultural environment. This is critical in a relatively small community where networking is paramount: of Qatar’s 1.9 million population, only around 300,000 are Qatari nationals and of those, only 130,000 are in the workforce. Right across the Gulf, it is not uncommon for a company of 500 employees to include people from 100 nationalities.
Scott-Jackson hopes that, eventually, those working in GCC countries will develop better “cultural intelligence” – a trait linked to EQ but more closely aligned to differences in background. This is especially pertinent given the region’s social mix. “It is the ability to not so much understand specific cultures, but be intelligent about how cultures work in general, and how you spot if someone is feeling uncomfortable,” he says.
The fact that expats and nationals generally don’t socialise together means opportunities to bridge such cultural gaps are often missed. For example, says Scott-Jackson: “Westerners are often perceived as being a bit cold, a bit impolite. But they can get into the ‘in group’ if they adapt a bit and become a bit more culturally sensitive.”
Understanding the importance of greeting, tone and gesture all help towards building strong relationships between people of different backgrounds. It is a subject Scott-Jackson says he has been discussing constantly since he first came to the region.
“We started talking about relationships, which has a lot to do with emotional intelligence, before the phrase became popular. The subject of emotional intelligence has been around forever, it’s the discussion of it and the labelling of it that is fairly recent,” he says. While some may be sceptical, it seems being in touch with your feelings (or, more importantly, the feelings of those around you) may soon become a non-negotiable.