More than 20 years after psychologists Peter Salovey and John Mayer introduced the concept of emotional intelligence, it is still a hotly debated issue in the corporate world. Now the discussion has made its way to in-house legal departments as general counsel look for ways to foster more effective relationships with their business units.
Some espouse emotional intelligence as a panacea for creating more productive teams, but others are more skeptical that an ability to skillfully read one’s own emotions and evaluate those of others has real value in the workplace.
In a recent LinkedIn post titled “Emotional Intelligence Is Overrrated” Adam Grant suggests it’s a mistake to base hiring or promotion decisions on emotional intelligence, and that doing so can even have a detrimental effect.
Emotional intelligence is “a set of skills that can be beneficial in situations where emotional information is rich or vital,” states Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of Business. If your work involves “data, things and ideas,” he argues, too much focus on emotion can be distracting from “working efficiently and effectively.”
In a comprehensive meta-study a few years ago, researchers Dana Joseph and Dan Newman studied 191 different jobs to determine how much emotional intelligence affected job performance. They found that cognitive ability accounted for more than 14 per cent of job performance while emotional intelligence accounted for less than one per cent.
If that argument was meant to persuade lawyers that emotional intelligence doesn’t apply to them, it seemed to fall on deaf ears. At the Association of Corporate Counsel’s annual meeting in New Orleans in October, more than 500 attended a panel discussion on “What Makes Smart Lawyers Fail? How to Increase Your Emotional Intelligence — and Your Impact.”
As legal advisers to the business, lawyers are always standing “slightly outside the circle,” and knowing how to effectively communicate is key to their success, especially when it comes to delivering the “tough messages” to the business, says Norma Formanek, senior vice president and general counsel of Trilliant Networks in Redwood City, Calif., and a panel participant. She argues that being an effective lawyer involves communicating complex legal concepts in a way business people can both understand and appropriately respond to.
“In-house lawyers can break down boundaries by [positioning] themselves as helpers to their colleagues, as someone who supports them and helps them through the difficult decisions they need to make,” she says. “If you can deliver a tough message constructively and without an excess of emotion, you don’t drive people underground [to the point] where they don’t want to share problems with you.”
Formanek believes that emotional intelligence is a tool lawyers can use to become more self-aware and more attuned to how others perceive their messages.
“I can’t control what they think or their emotional reactions, but I can control the way I’m behaving and communicating so I’m not triggering emotional reactions or negative reactions that might get in the way of a constructive discussion.”
A little self-awareness goes a long way toward more productive work relationships, says Formanek, and the reverse is also true. She has met her share of “top-tier, brand-name” lawyers whose career opportunities have been limited because of their inability to “deal with people in an emotionally mature, reasonable, and constructive way.” As a litigation partner in private practice, she worked with a lawyer who was an expert in his specialty, but who treated “the rank and file like dirt.”
“He knew more in his subject area than I know about everything else in the world, but he reduced people to tears. And then he was fired.”
In collaborative working environments, emotional intelligence can act as a building block that helps lawyers create more effective relationships with their business colleagues, argues Stephen Roth, vice president and general counsel at Jewelry Television, also a panelist at the EI roundtable.
“In my experience a lot of the ability to be effective depends on building relationships,” says Roth. “You can be much more persuasive and effective if you have a relationship.” As a member of a legal team that works as part of a larger organization, “your job is to come up with ways to move the business forward.”
Roth says fostering respect for emotional intelligence can be a challenge in the corporate world, especially with lawyers where, traditionally, so much attention has been paid to cognitive ability and technical prowess.
“Part of it is they really don’t believe there’s a need to develop any of these skills put under the EI umbrella. They’re focused on technical competence; knowing their field and knowing it thoroughly — and that’s important. But with in-house lawyers, these are not one-off clients; these are people you’ll be working with for years.”
In some companies, legal departments are viewed as the adversaries or gatekeepers, and that perception can hamstring both their relationships with other business units and their effectiveness in serving the corporate agenda, according to LaKeisha Marsh, associate vice president and counsel of TCS Education System in Chicago.
“If you want to minimize risk upfront, you need open dialogue with the other business units otherwise you’ll never be able to be proactive,” says Marsh, who also participated in the EI discussion at the ACC meeting. “You have to understand the business units — what their tasks are and what they’re trying to accomplish. You have to figure out how to make what they want happen — as opposed to being a hindrance.”
Kerry O’Reilly believes emotional intelligence is the foundation for all human interaction, and when she’s adding to her legal team at Vale, it weighs heavily in her hiring decisions. In a field filled with highly intelligent people, cognitive ability and “book smarts” are a given, says O’Reilly, but she wants lawyers who can convey complex ideas in non-technical jargon and effectively navigate through a maze of personalities.
“You have to establish that they’re a good substantive lawyer, but that’s not hard to do,” argues O’Reilly, head of legal, corporate, and marketing for Vale’s Base Metals business. “The difficult thing is finding a good personality fit. There’s no shortage of bright lawyers who surpass all the academic bars. What differentiates one from another is all the soft skills they bring to the table.”
In the highly competitive legal field, those who are adept at reading and responding to the legal needs of their fellow business units will have an edge, O’Reilly says.
“We all know the legal field is extremely competitive and it’s important to get a step ahead. Emotional intelligence is a super step ahead if you can master it."
Getting schooled in emotional intelligence
There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that students who graduate at the top of their law schools don’t always make the best lawyers, according to Richard Devlin. As a law professor at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Devlin has seen his share of academically gifted students whose “prickly personalities” and lack of emotional attunement to others may present stumbling blocks to their career progressions.
“To some extent that might backfire on those people,” says Devlin. “Cognitive intelligence isn’t everything. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest the best lawyers don’t always get the As.”
But Devlin isn’t sure Canada’s “resource challenged” law schools are in a position to help students become more emotionally sensitive to themselves and others.
“There’s a debate about it. There’s a need to respond to the challenges and practices of the legal professional. Some folks in the country think this isn’t the responsibility of law schools. It’s an important question around the allocation
Several law schools in the U.S. offer credited courses on emotional intelligence, and while Schulich does not, this year it launched a non-credit course: “Mindfulness and the Law” in an attempt to “reframe the culture of law school, and make it less about surviving and more about thriving,” says Sarah Kirby, assistant dean of student services at Schulich.
Mindfulness training and other wellness initiatives are valuable skills that can foster a more centred mindset, and allow people to respond in a more disciplined manner — especially important for in-house lawyers who serve both as legal advisers to their companies and as key influencers in business decision, says Kirby.
“They often have to respond in short turn-around times; they need to be able to be decisive and very responsive. When your client is a repeat client, relationships are very important.”
Traditionally, law schools have focused on rational thinking at the expense of emotional processing, writes Colin James, a professor at the University of Newcastle Law School in Australia, in an article titled “Law student wellbeing: Benefits of promoting psychological literacy and self-awareness using mindfulness, strengths theory and emotional intelligence.”
“Law schools . . . have rationalized this approach on the presumption that lawyers need to be able to ‘put their emotions aside’ in order to develop the clear thinking and high-level analytical skill needed for successful legal practice.”
In legal practice, James adds, some research indicates that knowing about and using emotional intelligence makes better interviewers and negotiators, and may well also improve advocacy skills.
Law students who receive training in emotional intelligence are at an advantage, argues, Bill Blatt, because it allows them to recognize their stressors and respond to the people around them in a less reactive way.
“Relating to people requires an immediate intervention of your own stress,” says Blatt, a professor of law at the University of Miami where he teaches a course titled “Emotional Intelligence: Life Skills for Lawyers.” “If you’re in a state of overwhelm, you won’t be able to relate well to others.”
The core concepts involved in being a successful lawyer in private practice may be the same ones that impede lawyers in corporate counsel roles where there’s more focus on collaboration, Blatt argues.
“Your CEO isn’t necessarily looking for a well-developed argument,” he says. “They’re looking for things that move the enterprise forward.”