Emotional Intelligence at Work - Alain de Botton, School of Life

i. Introduction

"Without giving me names, identify someone you find particularly difficult to work with. What are their specific behaviours that make them so unpleasant or difficult?"

After a warm introduction from Thomas Biller, Alain de Botton takes the stage and poses this question to the crowd. Audience members enthusiastically raise their hand and pronounce their grievances with an ill-tempered colleague, a stubborn co-worker, and someone "Good at office politics" which de Botton neatly sums up as "manipulative". 

"These very same people are often technically well trained and educated" de Botton reminds us, he tilts his head slightly, his sparse gray hairs remain smeared to his temple, while his youthful and expressive demeanour delivers a friendly and energetic introduction to the modern business environment, what emotional intelligence means and why we are often ill-equipped to meet the needs of our current employees. 


In a personal relationship it isn't long before we begin making suggestions to our partner. We advise as to which jeans fit best, why nail clippings are best discarded in the bin and not the floor, that the amount of make-up makes you look like a clown, that you acting just like your mother... Oops! While we understand in personal relationships there is room to be critical so that their is a possibility for improvement, that communication, care and compromise leads to healthy and robust relationships, it seems we don't have that same luxury in the workplace. We are expected to be completely professional at all times, handle conflict with ease and find resolutions to the most complex business challenges all while keeping a smile on our face.

So where do we start to find an alternative and begin cultivating emotional intelligence? de Botton believes teaching principles have an answer...

ii. Good Teachers

A good teacher, states de Botton, is someone able to pass on ideas from one mind to another, effectively communicate without severe anxiety or expectation, while remaining humble to the fact that we often don't learn something the first time round.

"As soon as an interaction allows us the opportunity to be critical, to pass on ideas, to inform others, we become teachers" 

He further outlines a three part strategy to identify your own weaknesses and address them to colleagues:

  1. Awareness of your behaviours that are detrimental to yourself and others,
  2. Confession of your shortcomings to fellow employers and employees,
  3. An understanding of childhood history that likely caused these actions to later manifest in adulthood. 

de Botton asked us: "Can we identify personality similarities in our colleagues to family members and have we taken on parental- or child roles in our company? Are you responding to your boss or employee much like you did when you were a child  to a parent or sibling?" 

iii. Motivations, Meaning & Money

Several decades ago, employers only needed to offer modest compensation for eliciting work from the public. Most people were poor and had little choice to their preferred job and work environment. As conditions improved, income became less of a determinant for individuals choosing their profession, a personal development movement urged people to "find their passion" and finding meaning in everyday work became of paramount importance.

In the modern business world, there are no strict boundaries between work and private life, our hopes and dreams, our desires, all are interwoven, as we live out each day. Our co-workers become friends, become lovers and partners. Our fears and hopes remain part of us regardless of whether we engaging a customer or our spouse. Although some situations are suitable for a certain type of engagement, if we are looking to maximize performance of our employees, certain strategies would need to include the emotions of the staff. How much harder and focused do we work when happy and having an understanding of the purpose of our role in the company and the reasons why the work is important?

iv. Final Thoughts

Businesses have a daunting task of creating a workplace that allows for honest communication, reconciliation of differences in personalities amongst its workers, in a way that meets the needs of all concerned, while generating profit and moving the company forward. Employers including the complex motivations of employees would need to take into account their personal needs, of which emotional intelligence plays a key element in this understanding. 

We are also accountable for our own growth and happiness. Do we stubbornly react with frustration or desperation day in and day out at work, or do we seek to understand ourselves and others, and look for ways of effectively communicating our needs and emotions without targeting, alienating or criticizing someone else?

de Botton feels businesses have done a poor job so far of meeting this challenges, but is optimistic of the possibilities for growth in relationships at work.

"If businesses treated the internal communication in their company much like a poet or novelist, instilling real heart-felt motivation and emotional resilience in their staff, we would see a paradigm shift in what work really means to us, and what true meaningful business can be like"

Quotes and paraphrased exerts from Alain de Botton at his lecture for the School of Life Berlin, 5th May 2017.

Content reproduced from summary notes. While I have done my best to give an account of key issues addressed, it is possible some of the facts and arguments here may have been inaccurately represented. I will be happy to correct any misleading information. Please use my contact form to aid me in rectifying errors. 

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One Comment

  1. Hey Darren!
    Thank you for this insightful article, really enjoyed reading it! Looking forward to reading more from you soon.

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