‘Emotional capitalists’ need to get a grip

Capitalists need to be more ‘emotionally intelligent’, according to a recent Business World report. Apparently, master of business administration (MBA) courses are now promoting emotional intelligence as a core value for business and industry leaders.

Of course, business courses have always tried to make themselves look more cuddly. A few years ago, the ‘learning company’ was the buzzphrase du jour, and now business has caught on to the selling power of the ‘e’ word. Emotions are ‘in’: they help you relate to customers, they help you relate to employees, and they enable business leaders to progress to new levels of emotional leadership. It is difficult to be cynical enough about such sentimental ploys, especially when influential texts such as Martyn Newman’s Emotional Capitalists - The New Leaders blatantly state that the primary role of the new emotional leader is to ‘create emotional wealth for competitive advantage’. Apparently, emotionally intelligent managers lead to emotionally settled employees and, in turn, emotionally focused sales that help to increase profits.

A more emotional approach to business is necessary in public-facing companies, where employees are engaged in what experts call ‘emotional labour’, meaning that they are required to be polite and sympathetic at all times. Some companies, such as those running call centres, may need managers who understand the difficulties and tensions employees have with the constant emotional demands that are put on them. However, while not all companies are like this, emotional approaches are being recommended for all.

Perhaps I’m being unfair. Far from being just a fad, or a cynical management technique, these methods do work – just not in the way MBA tutors think. They work because they give employers a feeling that they are actually doing something of value, something good, at a time when naked profit-chasing is out of fashion.  Capitalists can no longer defend what they do as capitalists, but they can feel good about getting emotional.

The problem is that workers and trade unions are beginning to fall for emotional approaches. Recently, they have start arguing for bosses to look after their employees ‘well-being’ and to treat them with ‘respect’. All this touchy-feely talk means it is harder to deal with real workplace issues like redundancy. When workers are up for dismissal, human-resource departments simply assure them that those up for the sack will be left feeling ‘valued during the process’. What can trade unions say then? When you are being sacked, it is probably time for maximum ill-being; a time for anger. Negative emotions such as anger, disgust and even hatred are not part of the vocabulary of the emotional approaches.

Marx described capitalism as ‘dripping from head to foot with blood and dirt’. Today’s apologists in business schools may see capitalism as ‘weeping and carrying boxes of Kleenex’, but it’s still capitalism, and it’s stronger for being in touch with employees’ emotions.

Dennis Hayes is a professor of education at the University of Derby and co-author of The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education.

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