Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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The Importance of Feelings in Business

Published By: The Independent - 19 Jan 2010

If you want to make money – get emotional. It might sound like a contradiction in terms but new research shows clearly that increased emotional engagement in business brings greater financial returns. However the same research also shows that few business leaders are equipped to do this. Like the recently-fallen bankers, they tend to concentrate on figures at the expense of people, and as a result get only “half-brained” results.

So should business schools be consciously teaching tomorrow’s business leaders the elements of emotional intelligence? Absolutely, says Richard Brown, managing partner of the business strategy organisation Cognosis Consulting, whose research has highlighted the problem. It quizzed more than a thousand UK leaders and managers about business leadership and came to the depressing conclusion that most business leaders were under-functioning drastically because of their narrow range of skills and inability to build broad-based teams. They leaned hard towards a practical and rational approach to leadership, leaving aside the softer skills of creativity and collaboration, and in building their teams, were more likely to build them in their own image than look for a balance of approaches. As a result, a mere 14 per cent of leaders were rated strategically effective by respondents, and only 10 per cent of those respondents said their organisation supported good strategy building. “Leaders need to develop their listening skills, understand people’s motivation and be able to engage people in a shared sense of purpose, but current business practice is to drive the feelings out of things,” says Brown, who also teaches strategic thinking at Henley Business School. “People need to learn operational awareness, and also to develop good social, political and emotional instincts, so that they know what is driving and motivating both themselves and the people around them. If you can combine those rational skills with those other instincts you can get to those moments of truth which can be the basis for a whole new way of working. So, yes, teaching people more of this is definitely going to be helpful. “

Alas, we have known this for a long time, but done little about it. Fifteen years ago Daniel Goleman, a New York science journalist and psychologist, wrote the seminal book Emotional Intelligence, since when the term has passed into the language. But today’s business leaders are no more emotionally intelligent than yesterday’s, Goleman claimed in an interview last year. Yesterday’s leaders might have been promoted through the old boy network, he said, but many of today’s are promoted because of their technical expertise, which does not make them any better leaders than their predessesors.

So is emotional intelligence, with its fuzzy concepts and its hard-to-measure outcomes, something that can be taught?

Plenty of business schools claim they are already doing this, through modules on ethics and corporate social responsibility, but Goleman emphasises that it is not a question of skill acquisition, but of consistently practising new habits until your neural pathways change.

Malcolm Higgs, professor of organisational behaviour at Southampton University’s School of Management, and a long-standing writer on emotional intelligence, understands this well. “All our MBAs are introduced to the ideas of emotional intelligence. They go through an assessment, and learn what it’s about and how it can be developed, but it is not something that you can learn in two days in the classroom. You can’t just sit there and build your EI, you need to sustain the practice.”

“We teach it through personal development,” says Ken Starkey, professor of management and organisational learning at Nottingham University Business School. “This is a core course on our executive MBA, and one of the most popular. We cover what it means to be a manager and exercise leadership, and what it feels like to manage at the moment.”

However he points out that business schools have traditionally concentrated on the “heroic” model of leadership, using case studies that feature high-profile, individualist leaders. “And under that model you can end up with Fred Goodwin as an heroic leader! There’s been very little emphasis on empathy, or on understanding yourself.

“My view is that we need to have a whole new debate about leadership. If you look at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, for example, or at Harvard medical school or the US Military Academy at West Point, they all have complex models of leadership and are thinking hard about what sort of value they are trying to create. I personally hope that business schools will start of open themselves up more to new approaches.”

Mary-Louise Angoujard, chief executive of the training organisation Rapporta Limited, who teaches emotional intelligence to a range of companies from McDonalds to accountancy and law firms, says her experience shows that the workplace is crying out for more emotionally intelligent leaders. “The people we deal with often have no idea about the need for self-awareness, or the need to be able to regulate yourself, and motivate others -- but you can’t lead people if you can’t understand them.”

Among the skills she teaches are how to be clear about your own vision and beliefs, manage your own emotions, shed defensive behaviours, and develop good vocal impact and body language. And, she claims, these skills can be acquired within two months provided people focus on them. “On an MBA programme you are taught a lot of theory and then the practical applications of that theory, so I would have thought it could be exactly the same process with emotional intelligence -- you encourage people to apply tools and techniques and to analyse situations from an emotionally intelligent viewpoint.”

However, even as business schools wrestle with the saggy business of emotional intelligence, a whole new personal competency is looming on the horizon. In the United States and elsewhere, a number of business schools are starting to examine questions of spiritual intelligence, and how deep-seated morals and beliefs can shape business performance. Driven originally by Christian groups, it is already spreading to a wider audience.

“One or two people are looking into it here,” says Scott Taylor, senior lecturer in leadership studies at the University of Exeter Business School, who is currently researching the area, “although business schools generally are not doing anything about it. When things are bad people tend to want to reflect on life for a time, then when things pick up they go back to making money, and the MBA has always pushed students towards a particular way of rational and instrumentalist thinking. But there is increased questioning about whether we can go on turning out people, as someone put it, ‘with lop-sided brains and icy hearts’, so my hope is that we will see more debate around all these issues.”