Business Magazine

Emotional Smarts and the Liberal Arts

Posted on the 26 April 2011 by Sdelavergne

Confidence.  Empathy.  Emotional awareness.  Collaboration.  The ability to “read” others.  Political awareness.  Adaptability.  These are some of the characteristics that comprise “emotional intelligence.” 

If there’s one thing people at work struggle with perhaps more than any other, it’s navigating the emotional terrain on the job.  If you haven’t worked in business you may, from a distance, think of the workplace as a left-brained, logical sort of place, where experienced employees perform repeatable tasks and conform to efficient processes, all to produce a neatly designed outcome.  Occasional smiles over lunch, occasional minor misunderstandings with the boss, and at the end of the organized dispassionate work day, they leave the office and become human again.

It isn’t like that.  Companies are hotbeds of emotional activity.  Competition, insecurity, frustration, excitement, anger, enthusiasm, fear—all of it operating in the workplace every day, affecting decisions, progress and revenue.  Managers who don’t recognize the emotional realities on the job, who don’t take emotions into account when making decisions, often live to regret it.  The more emotionally tone-deaf among them make the same mistakes over and over, often creating miserable work environments and dysfunctional teams.

What does that have to do with being a student of the humanities and social sciences?  I think plenty.

Recently, I met with Kenton Hill, who is the author of Smart Isn’t Enough, a book about emotional intelligence at work.  In the book, Mr. Hill shares with us stories of six executives, all of whom struggle because they lack emotional awareness, empathy, the ability to inspire others, be better collaborators, etc., often with far-reaching and terrible, sometimes calamitous, consequences.  Mr. Hill is a “work performance coach.” In other words, he’s hired by companies to work with specific individuals, often in critical positions in the company, to help them become more effective leaders, usually by addressing some aspect of emotional intelligence that’s clearly lacking. 

I met with him because I wanted to know if he’d given any thought to whether studying the liberal arts better prepares us to be more “emotionally intelligent” than studying, say, something more vocationally focused (engineering, business). 

His answer?  In a word, “yes.”  He talked first about social awareness, an emotional intelligence category that includes empathy, organizational awareness and the ability to “read” relationships.  “When you’re reading fiction,” he observed, “you’re often putting yourself in that character you’re reading about, comparing yourself to the character, and it helps us see things from others’ viewpoints.”  After a moment he added, “And studying about other cultures improves your awareness of your own culture.”

Emotional intelligence is rather a hot buzzword in business circles, especially in management, because of the growing awareness that emotions have a lot to do with success, and by that I mean business success.  Yes, it has something to do with personal success, too, of course, but businesses aren’t especially interested in that.  They’re after revenue, innovation, progress, beating the competition.  How being emotionally intelligent serves all that—that’s what they’re interested in!

One thing Mr. Hill does as he engages with clients is he performs assessments of them through initial interviews and eventually through more complex reviews of their performance at work.  Looking through his files, he commented that the person who had scored the all-time highest in emotional intelligence of all his clients was a history major!

That could be a coincidence, of course.  But I bet it’s not.  What makes us able to recognize emotional realities, to anticipate reactions, to understand team dynamics, and to collaborate are the insights and information that come to us from the arts, philosophy, studying culture, history, and human behavior.  

From studying business?  Not so much.

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