Why schools should teach emotional intelligence

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The ability to understand and influence emotions can be a force for good or a powerful ‘weapon’ – which is why schools must equip pupils with the emotional intelligence to protect themselves from manipulation and thrive in our fast-changing world, researcher Jochen Menges tells Simon Creasey

Being an ethical leader is an intelligent move

Adolf Hitler had it. So, too, did Mahatma Gandhi. Donald Trump has it – as does his predecessor, Barack Obama. And there’s a strong chance that most headteachers have it, along with senior staff and student council reps.

The “it” in question? A high level of emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence is essentially an individual’s ability to process emotions adaptively. Everyone has some degree of emotional intelligence. But if you have a high level, it can make you a better leader.

However, there is a flip side: people who display a high level of emotional intelligence can also be arch manipulators. They can bend people to their will. This is referred to by experts in this area as the “dark side” of emotional intelligence. And it is likely a presence in your school.

Jochen Menges, assistant professor of organisational behaviour in Cambridge Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge, has studied emotional intelligence extensively. He began looking into the subject in the late 1990s while exploring how leaders exert influence.

“It turned out that leaders often succeed in influencing others through emotions,” says Menges. “The big question was: who are these leaders that manage to evoke emotions and channel those emotions towards the accomplishment of certain goals? I found parts of the answer in research on emotional intelligence that suggests great leaders are distinguished by high levels of emotional intelligence.”

Emerging field

One of the initial problems Menges encountered when he delved deeper into emotional intelligence was that this field of research was still in its relative infancy. The first research papers on emotional intelligence were published in the early 1990s and a bestselling book by Daniel Goleman titled Emotional Intelligence was released in 1995. Since then, Menges says, a sizeable body of research has been done on the topic. But when you consider that intelligence research is around 120 years old, the subject has a lot of catching up to do.

Experts don’t yet know with any degree of certainty how emotional intelligence develops over an individual’s lifetime, but a recent meta-analysis suggests that it can improve with learning, according to Menges.

“So it’s not something that you just inherit from your parents and you either have it or not,” he explains. “It’s something that you develop over the course of your life and you can get better at it even if you’ve already reached adulthood.” This is good news for both teachers seeking higher leadership positions and children who can be taught to be more emotionally literate. Indeed, emotional intelligence is already being taught in many schools in the US.

The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence has developed a programme called Ruler. This evidence-based approach for integrating social and emotional learning into education has been rolled out across more than 2,500 schools. Ruler stands for: recognising emotions; understanding their causes and consequences; labelling them with a nuanced vocabulary; expressing them in accordance with cultural norms and social context; and regulating them with helpful strategies.

“Ruler teaches children how to be more emotionally intelligent,” says Menges. “The US has recognised the vital importance of emotional intelligence in our time and the country has incorporated that knowledge into the school system, whereas in Europe we’ve been a little slower.”

A walk on the ‘dark side’

Why is it so important for children to learn how to be more emotionally intelligent? Menges says it helps them to deal with their environment adaptively so that they can survive. “Every human being experiences emotions,” he adds. “Some people use these emotions and channel them towards task-accomplishment and goal-achievement, whereas others are derailed from achieving their goals through emotions.

“The difference between these two groups of people is that the former has high, and the latter low, levels of emotional intelligence. The question is thus: how do we use emotions? If we use them wisely in order to help us get through life, get ahead and get along, then we are skilled in the domain of emotions. If we’re essentially surrendering to our emotional impulses and letting ourselves be misguided by emotions in whatever way, this is typically showing a lack of emotional abilities.”

But, as mentioned above, emotional intelligence can be used with nefarious intent. Menges says it is “kind of like a weapon”.

In 2010, Menges and colleagues wrote a paper called “Strategic use of emotional intelligence in organizational settings: exploring the dark side”. Among the “dark” tactics they identified are disguising and expressing emotions for personal gain; stirring and shaping others’ emotions through false, partial or spinned information; and controlling the flow of emotion-laden communication.

“We wrote the paper to redress the balance and remind people that actually emotional intelligence, just like cognitive intelligence, can be used for good and for bad,” Menges explains. “So just as people with high cognitive intelligence can find a solution to climate change or develop a nuclear bomb, people with high emotional intelligence can use it to bring people together or to manipulate others in nefarious ways. In that sense, emotional intelligence, just as with any other intelligence, is an ability. It provides us with a certain level of skills and it is by no means informative as to whether we use those for the good or for the bad.”

So, just as a great school leader can wield emotional intelligence for good, a bad leader can use it to make teachers’ lives a misery. Menges says that in order to distinguish between people who use emotional intelligence for positive or negative reasons, you have to explore their values.

“Values reflect what we think ought to be. Values are, therefore, something we need to define for ourselves and discuss as a society in order to determine what we believe in and what we want to hold up. In that very discourse, emotional intelligence is again vitally important as it equips people with the means to advance a certain value set and to get others to buy into it. But ultimately, if we wish to know how someone uses their emotional intelligence, we need to measure the values they endorse.”

As part of the Ruler programme, schools are encouraged to create an “emotional charter”. Children get together and discuss not how they feel at that moment but how they would like to feel, and what kind of emotions they would like to experience. Out of that discussion, schools can then develop a set of behaviours relating to those emotions.

Blueprint for resolving conflict

Menges explains that you can use a Ruler tool called the “mood meter” to describe how you feel according to four quadrants, and the programme also provides “emotional blueprints” for helping to resolve conflict.

“There is a huge toolbox that teachers, students and parents collectively could rely on in order to bring emotional intelligence to life in schools,” he says. “The important thing is, don’t just give your children the insight. You have got to make it like a school project. It has to involve everyone to some extent.”

And that’s because it impacts on everyone. Menges says one of the key messages of the 2010 paper was that if we don’t understand emotional intelligence, we will be “at the mercy of those who have it, which is why everyone should learn about it in our schools and it should be part of the curriculum”.

He adds: “I think, for some years to come, I’ll be busy trying to understand how we can channel this powerful skill set of emotional intelligence and its application to charismatic leadership in positive ways, as opposed to negative ways.

“It’s also something that will prepare us for an ever-changing future. The new world of work and the rifts in global politics require people around the world to live with uncertainty and adapt their behaviour along the way. As every change is loaded with emotion, it is emotional intelligence that will likely be the core competence to navigate our future – and the sooner we can learn about it in school, the better.”

Simon Creasey is a freelance journalist

This article originally appeared in the 26 July 2019 issue under the headline “Tes focus on... emotional intelligence”